Fix on Fail: A Bad Sequestration-Caused Policy for Safety
Friday, May 03, 2013


Reading (RDG) Facility Representative Nick Hagstrom, outside his facility where bearings that allow the ASR-11 antenna to spin are failing. No fix is planned due to sequestration budget cuts.

By Bill Geoghagan
Terminal Technology Coordinator

"If it ain't broke, don't fix it." A long time ago, this was a mantra that meant, "Don't fix something that is working properly."

Unfortunately, for the FAA during sequestration, it has come to mean, "Don't fix it until it actually breaks."

Unless you are one of the top 55 air traffic facilities, you could soon be facing this predicament: a piece of equipment that is known to be broken or that is failing but which will not be replaced. At some facilities today, controllers sit at a radarscope and know that, at any minute, they could lose their presentation. That's because controllers at these facilities are working without a backup radar channel or with a radar antenna that has failing parts.  

Just a few weeks ago, this situation would have been handled by ordering parts and repairing what was not working or what was failing. With the onset of sequestration, the FAA has decided to wait until the only available radar channel fails or the antenna grinds to halt, leaving controllers scrambling to fall back to CENRAP (Center Radar Presentation) or other available backups that provide limited service, at best.

In both of these cases, controllers will find themselves facing either areas of non-radar with gaps in coverage with CENRAP or working total non-radar. This would not be so bad if the controllers were sufficiently trained in working in a non-radar environment.  With today's approach controls actually having radar backups, true non-radar training is no longer taught. Most facilities only teach a method to separate aircraft until the transition to CENRAP can be achieved.

But many facilities have no CENRAP coverage below certain altitudes. In some facilities these altitudes can be as high as 7,000 feet. This leaves controllers with no option except to handle aircraft below these altitudes with non-radar separation. Unless you have been in the FAA for some time, you did not go through the non-radar screen that the FAA Academy used to teach. What do you do?

Some controllers will scramble for the 7110.65 and find Chapter 6, Non-radar. Heads will be scratched and discussions will ensue as those who have never been taught these methods try to understand them. It will be a bit like getting the service manual for your car, being given a set of wrenches, and told to repair the engine. Airways with 15 degrees divergence require 16 miles from the VOR to separate from other aircraft on the adjacent airway. You must separate this much when 35 miles from the navaid and a different amount when greater than 35 miles from the navaid. DME (Distance Measuring Equipment) arcs and holding pattern separation; timed approaches … one could go crazy even if they DID know all of this. Now imagine that you are seeing this for the first time and have to apply it to active traffic.

Air traffic control is already one of the most stressful occupations there is. Now, suddenly take away the most basic tool we use – radar – and add procedures that are seldom used and no longer taught. Sure, the Center may restrict the flow, but at some point they expect us to take that next aircraft. Pilots and tower controllers not used to non-radar procedures may forget to report down times. Phone calls have to be made to be sure that planes have landed safely. Other planes are delayed or have to divert. It all adds up to unnecessary risk in the system; something that our safety culture is supposed to avert.

But it can all go away with one little repair. With one repair the system can be put back in the shape with which we are familiar, the shape with which we can work comfortably as we have for years. "Fix on Fail" is a policy that places pilots, planes, passengers, and controllers at risk. If your facility is facing a "Fix on Fail" situation, please notify the Safety and Tech Department at the National Office and file an ATSAP report.

The department’s email is safetytech@natcadc.org.