Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Headline Double Take

While I’m certain USA Today’s average reader didn’t notice...I’m not their average reader. You probably aren’t either.

Non-radar air-traffic system debuts

It reminds me of my old safety-geek joke:

Question: What did they call non-radar before radar ?

Answer: Air Traffic Control.

But wait ! There’s more ! And it gets worse.

”Airline flights are being closely tracked and directed without radar for the first time in the nation's history as part of a new system monitoring the skies above the Colorado Rockies.“

If they weren’t tracked with radar but they weren’t tracked without radar...what ? Maybe “closely” was the operative word. Or maybe, the whole article just doesn’t make any sense.

I’m going to go out on a limb and assume the “airline flights” (really, is it just me ?) were being tracked using WAM -- Wide Area Multilateration. Unbelievably, the article never even uses the term.

”The new system uses 20 sensors clustered around four airports within the Rockies. The sensors monitor radio broadcasts from planes. By measuring minute differences in the time it takes for the broadcasts to reach the various sensors — as slim as 10 billionths of a second — computers can determine a plane's location, said Ken Tollstam, vice president of Sensis, which built the devices.“

Again, not being your average reader, I have to wonder if the reporter understands radar, much less what radar means -- RAdio Detection And Ranging. There isn’t any "detection" going on with WAM but, as we all know, ATC relies on “secondary” radar for the most part now, which operates under the same principle. It sends out a coded signal and the airplane sends back a coded signal. Moving on -- before we waste billions more “billionths of a second”.

”Experts said the success of the Colorado program, which was certified for use by controllers last month, is a sign that the technology underpinning the satellite system can work. “

So many errors. So little time. Controllers certify programs ? I assume the guys at PASS are laughing now. A “sign” that NextGen “can” work ? You mean there’s a doubt about it ? A $40 billion dollar question mark about NextGen ? Oh, all right. Maybe I’m just being mean now.

”Controllers at an FAA facility in Longmont, Colo., can now monitor planes all the way to the ground at airports that previously had no radar coverage. The new system follows flights to Yampa Valley Airport in Hayden, Colo., which has large jet service from several airlines. It also covers three airports serving private planes in the towns Steamboat Springs, Craig and Rifle.“

First, it would be nice to hear about the system from some controllers at Longmont. That would be Denver ARTCC (or Denver Center) to you and me. I left a note on NATCA’s BBS about a week ago. I haven’t heard from anyone yet. As I explained earlier, that might be because controllers were cut out of the process. After 28 years (35 if you count my time as a ramp rat) of studying “air-traffic issues”, it is my “expert” opinion that cutting controllers out of the loop is a bad sign.

Secondly, you might want to check out the “Yampa Valley Airport”. It sounds like an interesting place.

As my long-time readers know, non-radar is one of my favorite subjects. I got to practice it at Atlanta Center on a regular basis. The folks at Denver Center that work the “ski country” get to do it all day, everyday. I’m sure they would be thrilled to have a radar-like system. I’m still waiting to hear how thrilled they are by WAM. Somebody email me.

Don Brown
October 13, 2009

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