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Radar Concerns Force Airport to Rely on Backup System

July 17, 2008

By Howard Greninger, The Tribune-Star, Terre Haute, Ind.

Jul. 17–Concerns over false readings from the primary radar at the Terre Haute International Airport-Hulman Field have resulted in the use of a backup radar site near Indianapolis.

The backup is called CENRAP (Center Radar Presentation), and because the radar signal takes longer to reflect off of an aircraft, Terre Haute air traffic controllers this month began expanding the separation between planes to a minimum of 5 nautical miles instead of 3 nautical miles.

In addition, aircraft can only be seen by air traffic controllers to a minimum of 3,500 feet, instead of about 1,600 feet above ground level, said John “Dave” Williams, vice president of the Terre Haute local National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA).

“That makes it harder on Indiana State University student pilots as we have to take them up higher and out farther on approach, which costs more for fuel. And it is not providing a service to anybody; not providing what our customers need,” Williams said.

Problems began two years ago, Williams said, when a 10-foot-tall security fence was erected around the airport property, causing controllers to see false radar targets.

Terre Haute’s radar is responsible for an approximately 60-mile radius around the airport, which often includes flights that have departed from Bloomington.

The airport already had been using the center radar from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., but the Federal Aviation Administration’s air traffic manager earlier this month ordered its use 24 hours, seven days a week until the airport’s primary radar problem is determined, said Elizabeth Isham Cory, FAA spokesperson.

“We want to get that Terre Haute radar back up and running and find the correction to the issue, whatever the problem is, so we are working to see what the problem is, then correct that, so then Terre Haute can have its own radar back,” Cory said.

The FAA this summer will send a team from Dallas to determine a cause and solution, Cory said. The problem did start about the time the fence was erected, “but we don’t know if it is the fence,” Cory said.

“We have been experiencing this [radar] problem for a couple of years and we have been trying to work and find solutions and work around it. You always have a concern when something drops off or has a false target, so that is why you want a radar that has a true reading,” Cory said of the switch to center radar.

Williams said controllers have used pen and paper to write down where and when aircraft are dropping from the primary radar “until we are blue in the face,” he said.

“The known fix is to [remove] the fence. The ball was dropped with the site survey done by the FAA and they approved the fence going up. The minute that fence went up, we started getting false radar targets and other problems,” he said.

“Whoever dropped the ball apparently wanted to do everything but admit they dropped the ball. They have tried everything short of voodoo, except toting the fence, to alleviate this problem. Nothing has worked. Everything they do to the radar to try to get away from the problems that we are getting from the radar energy being deflected back by the fence degrades our radar presentation,” Williams said.

“It has gotten to the point where we can’t trust it. We are working with a very short staff, working six days a week. We are tired and it just adds to your stress level,” Williams said. “This place isn’t as busy anymore, but when you do get busy, you need to know that when you look at your radar you are seeing all the airplanes you are working and we’re not. They will drop off or they will not acquire when they depart at Bloomington.”

While radar coverage is an issue, Terre Haute’s airport has seen 13 percent less air traffic this month compared to last month, Cory said, presumably because of the cost of fuel. Yet air traffic has steadily declined over the past three years.

The airport in 2006 had 92,318 take-offs and landings. That dropped to 78,199 in 2007 and there have been only 36,341 take-offs and landings year to date, Cory said. “We are seeing less and less traffic. It is still a situation that has to be corrected, but the traffic has decreased,” she said. The airport is allotted to have 18 FAA air traffic controllers. The airport currently has 11 fully-trained and certified controllers now, with one additional controller out on a medical disqualification. There are five people training to get full certification, with one additional trainee out on a medical disqualification.

“Controllers have strict medical requirements. There are some medications that may not be serious, but if taking them, they can’t work as controllers, so we say they are medically disqualified,” Cory said.

Terre Haute resident Bill Foraker is a single-engine pilot who rents a hangar at the airport. He said he is concerned that the airport’s primary radar has been in and out of service.

On Sunday, he flew to an airport on the northeast side of Indianapolis but learned if he flew below 3,500 feet, he would not appear on radar.

“That is silly, because that is where a lot of the VFR [visual flight rules] traffic is and you have to be under 2,100 feet to fly underneath the outside layer of Indianapolis airspace, so there is no way they will have you on radar when that low,” he said.

Foraker said Terre Haute’s primary radar increases safety. “We have had radar for a long time. It is a great comfort and it is a great service to have it in town. We have great controllers and a great tower facility. I hate to see anything that compromises safety decisions for the wrong reason,” he said.

“Also, if we lose radar service in the tower, we will not get an air [passenger or freight] carrier in here. We are fighting an uphill battle now, but with radar at least we still got a chance,” Foraker said.

He said as ISU students return in the fall and spring, the airport becomes much busier. “Without radar and without a tower, it could be real exciting as there are five or six student pilots in the pattern at one time,” Foraker said.

“We also have a fair number of people who come here to practice instrument approaches. We will probably lose even more numbers on flights if people cannot come here to practice. It is such a good facility, you hate to see that happen,” he said.

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