Don’t Snooze News

Some of you may have caught the news yesterday -- the Memphis Air Route Traffic Control Center (aka Memphis Center -- ZME) declared “ATC Zero”. In short, that means ZME was out of business.

Here’s the AP News story about it.

Planes Grounded Over Equipment Failure

The ever-helpful FAA spokespeople evidently helped the AP News explain (away) the problem.

”The problem started when a major telephone line to the Memphis center went out at 12:35 p.m. EDT. The Federal Aviation Administration said air-traffic control operations were back to normal about three hours later.”

There’s one little tiny problem you might miss in that statement -- the “telephone line” carries the radar data too.

It helps if you know where to look and what to look for. Let me help.

”"We had a catastrophic failure of communications," said Walt Cochran, director of Eastern En Route and Oceanic Operations. ATO Technical Operations Services is investigating why most of the center's radio and radar equipment failed.”

(emphasis added)

Speaking of knowing where to look. If you’re interested in finding out what really happened, keep your eye on the National Air Traffic Controllers Association’s (NATCA) and the Professional Airways System Specialist’s (PASS) web sites . The questions that need to be answered are why was there a “catastrophic failure” of three separate, safety-critical systems -- the radios, the telephones and the radars. Please don’t tell me that some contractor put all three of those systems on one telephone line. You also need to ask, “Just exactly what does a controller do when he’s suddenly finds himself (effectively) deaf, dumb and blind.” I already know he’s going to whip out his cellphone that the FAA says he can’t use in the control room. But what does he do ?

There are a whole bunch of questions. When a Center fails, the surrounding facilities (other Centers and Approach Controls) are supposed to take over their airspace. You might want to ask yourself how you’re supposed to do that if controllers can’t talk to each other on the telephone. You might also want to ask yourself how an understaffed facility (like virtually every facility in the FAA) is supposed to take on this huge workload. And seeing as the radar is out too, how does the new controller “see” anything ? Would this be a good time to mention that URET isn’t certified for non radar operations ? Hmmm, and how did that new and improved, contracted out Flight Service respond ?

I could go on (and on) but before I lose you, do you remember this ?

” The FTI program is part of the FAA’s modernization plan, but according to PASS officials, the program is maintained by untrained contractors and has been the source of countless outages, delays and safety problems for American travelers. “

(FTI stands for “Federal Telecommunications Infrastructure”.)

I’m betting you don’t remember it, so let me direct your attention to the whole press release with emphasis on this part;

"There have been conflicting reports on the cause of the outage and the number of delays– the original Significant Event Report (SER) stated that the outage was caused by FTI personnel; however, PASS then received the official National Operational Control Center (NOCC) report that said the outage was caused by a misconfiguration and not personnel.”

I hope the truth doesn’t suffer a “catastrophic failure” too. Here’s a thought: Is there any possibility that the press will investigate this incident with the same vigor that they investigated the ComAir 5191 crash ? You know, find out what went wrong and get it fixed before it happens again and somebody dies ? Just a thought. I know our government is the one that should be investigating all this but I’m pretty sure that ship has already sailed.

Don Brown
September 26, 2007


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