January 17 Radar Outage Delayed Flights More Than Five
Air traffic controllers
in Birmingham, AL continue to butt heads with the FAA over the
severity of a radar outage last month, that snarled flights for
over five hours.
Local NATCA president Scott Pressley told the Birmingham News
"safety was definitely compromised" when radar scopes at the
Birmingham TRACON went blank at 4:45 pm January 17. The outage,
which the paper states also affected the tower at BHM, delayed 15
departing flights and many arrivals.
FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen disputes Pressley's assertions.
"Controllers are trained for any contingency," she said. "They do
an outstanding job at Birmingham and throughout the system."
"When FAA says that safety wasn't compromised, it trivializes
what we do as their traffic controllers," Pressley replied. "And
safety was definitely compromised and it was the air traffic
controllers and the compliance of the pilots that ensured the
safety that day, not the FAA."
Pressley also states there is no true "backup" radar
available... because controllers have used that secondary system
since the airport's primary radar went down last month. That backup
system only covers 50 miles; once the area's two long-range
antennas are returned to operation, they will cover a 200-mile
Bergen states Birmingham's primary system will be up and running
later this month.
Making matters worse that night, Pressley says, is an apparent
discrepancy between backup operations for Birmingham, and Atlanta
Center -- which is supposed to "take over our air space and we just
run the tower."
"They wouldn't take the air space," Pressley said, speaking of
en route controllers, "so we had to continue running that air space
without the radar when they could see it perfectly well. The
controllers in Atlanta knew how unsafe the situation was and they
were trying to help us ... and their managers wouldn't allow them
to help us. We kind of had to make up the rules as we went."
Bergen replies the agreement requires Atlanta Center to handle
airspace above 7,000 feet in the event of a failure at Birmingham.
She says controllers in Alabama are well-versed with nonradar
procedures in the area, so "the decision was made that they could
implement the nonradar procedures for flights below 7,000 feet. The
controllers in Atlanta could not work nonradar at those low
A rash of radar system failures affected flights recently in
such areas as Southern California, Chicago, and south Florida.