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Drug Traffickers, Terrorists, Illegal Immigrants: Start Your Engines - (6/10/1998)

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Small aircraft that now show up only as a blip on a controller's radar scope will not appear at all, if the government's aviation agency has its way, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association said. Primary radar, associated with long range radar sites, is utilized by controllers in the nation's 21 air route traffic control centers to determine the location of aircraft without transponders, including over an estimated 7,000 domestic general aviation aircraft used by individuals and companies, as well as low flying foreign planes such as those flown by drug traffickers and illegal immigration operators.

The Federal Aviation Administration proposes deactivating 84 long range radars based on cost savings. "If this happens, controllers will not be able to tell other aircraft in our airspace where the smaller planes are located. It will put a heavy burden on pilots to 'see and avoid' because controllers cannot issue traffic alerts," NATCA Executive Vice President Randy Schwitz said. "And, of course, it will give a green light to opportunistic bandits in other countries waiting for their chance to skirt the law without a threat of detection."

Primary radar provides information essential to controllers when advising pilots flying without transponders, as a backup when other radar goes out, to determine weather information, when aircraft stray into restricted military airspace, in detection of migratory birds, and to support military operations, national defense and drug interdiction for the Department of Defense and other agencies.

On June 5 and June 8, Air Force One and Two, respectively, were lost on controllers' screens in New York. Had the radar outage endured for a longer period, the president and vice president's planes would have been tracked with primary radar.

"In other words, without primary radar, controllers will have no backup when secondary radar systems malfunction - and you don't want to know just exactly how often that occurs!" Schwitz said. "In trying to save dollars, the FAA is eliminating an important tool used by controllers to ensure safety for all pilots and passengers - small and large aircraft - and to help fight in the wars against drug and gun runners, and illegal immigrants who come into the country by air," Schwitz said.

Estimated savings range from $1.4 billion to $100,000 to dismantle long range radars. The FAA claims a controller orients a lost, non-transponder-equipped aircraft in a declared emergency situation once every 6.3 years. Controllers, however dispute this number, and further argue this narrow indication does not accurately convey the importance of primary radar.

Primary - or raw - radar tells controllers something is moving in their airspace. It does not indicate whether it is a plane, blimp or geese. Once captured on scopes, controllers make radio contact with pilots who provide altitude, speed and other information critical to safe separation of aircraft.

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