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Brief Power Outage Hits Air Traffic Control

April 20, 2006|J. Michael Kennedy | Times Staff Writer

A 10-second power failure at a San Diego air traffic control center Wednesday morning had controllers around the Southland wondering why the "hiccup" lasted so long -- even as the Federal Aviation Administration said the outage was handled with textbook precision.

Power to the Terminal Radar Approach Center, which tracks planes at most Southern California airports from five to 30 miles out, was cut at 9:47 a.m. because of a problem with an underground cable operated by San Diego Gas & Electric Co.

What happened next is in dispute.

Bob Marks, regional vice president for the National Air Traffic Controllers Assn., said the center was plunged into darkness and that all contact with planes in the air was lost.

"The thing that bothered us about this is that we had a full blown power system failure," he said. "It was like pulling the plug on the entire air traffic control system in Southern California."

But FAA spokesman Mike Fergus said that emergency battery power immediately kicked in, followed by electricity from standby generators. And he said there was no time that the planes were not visible on radar screens.

"The scopes were still on and the targets were still moving," he said. "The batteries came on instantly."

Marks said he based his information on interviews with the air traffic controllers. He said even such a short period without power causes the "pucker factor" while controllers wait to see how long the outage is going to last.

"No controller on earth wants to be in a situation where the electricity is cut off and he can't talk to airplanes," Marks said. "Why did we have such a long hiccup here?"

Fergus replied that the computers never went down and that it took only a few seconds for operations to return to normal. He said the center, near Miramar Marine Corps Air Station, stayed on auxiliary power until about 11 a.m.

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