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Controllers at John Wayne Rely on Sight, Radio After Radar Fails

August 22, 1995|DAVID HALDANE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

COSTA MESA — A state-of-the-art airport radar system in Gardena broke down for an hour Monday, forcing air traffic controllers at John Wayne Airport to switch to visual procedures to guide arriving and departing aircraft.

It was the second equipment failure in four months to affect the Orange County airport and another in a rash of radar-tracking system problems nationwide.

"It's become an epidemic," said Howard Rifas, a spokesman for the Orange County chapter of the air traffic controllers union.

Airport and Federal Aviation Administration officials said that no major delays resulted from Monday's system failure, although Rifas said there were minimal delays of eight to 10 minutes for some departing flights.

The FAA does not consider delays of less than 15 minutes to be significant at John Wayne Airport, which handled 523,000 flights in 1994.

"There was basically no impact," FAA spokesman Hank Verbais said of the breakdown.

During Monday's radar outage from 2:40 to 3:40 p.m., Verbais said, air traffic controllers in John Wayne's control tower were able to maintain safety by increasing the distance between arriving and departing airplanes and guiding them visually and by radio.

He said an investigation is being conducted to determine why the radar went down and how to prevent a reoccurrence. While there have been previous failures involving this particular radar design, Verbais said, it is an advanced system that generally performs reliably.

In April, 32 flights at John Wayne Airport were delayed for 2 1/2 hours after a power-switch overload caused the failure of a video-mapping aircraft-guidance system, a related but separate system that plots moving aircraft and their position relative to the airport and other navigational references.

The incident Monday added to the concerns over the state of the nation's air traffic control system following a series of recent breakdowns across the country.

At least 11 times in the past year, the New York Times reported recently, air traffic control centers have experienced equipment failures or complete breakdowns that could have seriously impaired air safety.

This month two backup power-generating systems failed in Northern California, leaving pilots groping for guidance. Chicago's air traffic control center, the nation's busiest, has announced the planned installation of new equipment following a string of breakdowns, including one that lasted for more than 24 hours.

While many of the problems elsewhere have been linked to old or outdated equipment, the radar that broke down Monday--called an ASR9--is an advanced transmitter that plots an aircraft's position, then broadcasts it to an air traffic control station in San Diego for rebroadcast to various airports including John Wayne.

"It's not a big deal unless you put it into context," said Rifas, president of the local National Air Traffic Controllers Assn. "This is typical of the equipment brought on line by the FAA over the last 10 years. System breakdowns are becoming epidemic, and the controllers are the only thread holding the system together."

Verbais disagreed. While there have indeed been other failures of the ASR9, he said, they are well within the 99.4% reliability rate of FAA equipment and "within the parameters of what we would expect."

"One thing that people fail to understand is that equipment is designed by people and, therefore, we have to expect that it's going to break," he said. "People are not perfect and the machines they make are not perfect--it's still just a piece of equipment."

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