Radar Love

Radio Detection And Ranging, known more affectionately as "Radar," appears to be going the way of dinosaurs and Dodos; replaced by a system of satellites that would deign to look down on the ever changing, challenging and, to me, charming world of aviation. Me and my radar always looked up to that world though. I guess we always will. 

Call it progress, like the days when low frequency radio ranges (LFR) were being replaced by a network of VHF omnidirectional ranges. Sure; the VORs were far more precise but still a long leap of faith for airmen. Or how about the first pilots to descend their planes into thick clouds and/or rain squalls while watching a couple little instruments on the console; ending up relieved and amazed, just 200 feet above the surface, with the runway in sight. They all must have experienced the trepidation of change; as I would over the advent of "NextGen." Fickle though it was, I did love my radar. We worked a lot of planes together, moved millions of people and even saved some lives. We kept each other company during those long, tail-end hours of every mid-shift; when my frequencies were silent and radar's eye saw nothing but empty sky. There were a few brief separations but, as we know, the lack of something we love and rely on serves to intensify our desire for it. I know this to be true and have the gray hairs to prove it. 

I remember the first radar PVD (plan view display) I ever laid my nineteen year old eyes on.  It was inside a Ground Controlled Approach (GCA) radar trailer at the Air Force's Air Traffic Control School. Up till then, I'd never even heard of radar. Learning how to work airplanes from inside a GCA , using a relatively tiny PVD was tough enough when I had no idea what I was looking at. Even so; I felt a stirring of love at first sight. There was an allure to the ceaseless sweep of energy around the scope, the itty-bitty blips it revealed and the glow of the compass rose. Even the little back-lighted knobs used to adjust the display were pure magic to me. They were warm to the touch; like a woman's nipple. Maybe it was just the heat from all those circuits and such behind the radar display but they made me hot.

Unlike the fixed radar antenna you might see spinning at your local airport; GCA units were designed to be moved - sometimes frequently. They have wheels; which means they can be rolled onto an airplane or across the landscape, to end up along the runway of some far away airport. Whether it's a war zone or just another time zone; GCA units make it possible for military controllers to take their old friend Radar along whenever they have to travel.

GCA trailers can also be installed semi-permanently on a large turntable and rotated whenever the wind dictates a change in landing direction. Whether rolled or spun, the unit must be re-aligned whenever it is moved. At my Base, radar reflectors, which looked similar to satellite dishes, were mounted at each end of the runway. Whenever the unit was turned around, the display had to be re-calibrated to align perfectly with the reflector. Chances are the GCA might have shifted a little during the turn but that reflector was always in the same place. They were permanent echos, at a known range and azimuth. Alignment could be tricky but if you didn't do it correctly; the next precision radar approach you conducted could end up heading for the base housing area or worse. The Airman's Club, with all its cold beer, was out there somewhere.

Arriving at Big Time Tower in the early Seventies, I had never seen an ASR-7 display. My first impression? It was huge; like looking at today's flat screen TVs compared to that little portable you once kept on the kitchen counter. And to deepen my love affair with radar; it had been adorned with some dazzling accessories like digital data-blocks that displayed, among other things, each aircraft's callsign, altitude and ground speed. Everything was all wired into a large antenna that spun continuously atop its tower between the runways. Altogether, it did a fine job of helping us guide our traffic into, out of and through Big Time's airspace. Well . . . most of the time anyway. As I said; radar could be fickle.

Those radar scopes needed a relatively dark room. Light, even a modest amount, would bleach out the display; making it nearly impossible to see what was happening. If you came into the TRACON and saw all the lights on; it was either very late at night, when the janitor did his cleaning, or the radar had failed. If the room was quiet, you could assume the former. Assume the latter if there was a lot of noise and commotion. No, the controllers wouldn't be the ones causing all the stir. It would be the shift management. One Supervisor might be talking to a departure sector at the center. "Do you see Lear five eight alfa, ten east of Big Time, leaving seven thousand?" The answer; "Yeah, he's radar. Climb him to twelve and switch him." Another Supe would be pumping one of the radar technicians for answers about what went wrong and how long it would take to fix. Above it all, the Area Manager would be terminating one discussion with the Regional Office and starting another with the Command Center. But how about the controllers? What happened during those first few minutes after the radar quit?

Along each side of the radar room; controllers would sit at their now opaque radar scopes, intensely focused on finding a way out of the Hell that comes with sudden blindness. Just moments before; departure controllers would have been sorting out airplanes that burst off the airport like a fountain display, vectoring them toward their route of flight and handing them off to the enroute facility.

Now the departures, stalled on ramps and taxiways, were stopped indefinitely. This was not the time to be in the tower working Ground Control. At times like this; you were liable to hear the dark side of a few otherwise affable and professional pilots who suddenly found themselves stranded; up a creek without a prognosis.

Approach controllers would have been tweaking their long lines of airplanes; merging, slowing and spacing whatever they had between the outer fixes and the outer marker. Most of their traffic would be in-trail and at the same altitude. Now, the flow of additional traffic from arrival fixes was stopped. Holding patterns were filling up. With a blind eye, approach controllers scrambled to gain some kind of "non-radar" separation between the planes already on vectors to the final approach course. That meant diverging courses, altitude changes for some or, if fortune smiled, visual separation. Anything to keep the planes apart.

Everyone was concentrating - trying to recall what the radar picture looked like in their sector just before it blinked out. At times like this; good flight strip management paid big dividends for controllers. It meant they could still tell who was following who, what altitudes the planes were cleared to, the last assigned speed restriction and maybe even the last assigned headings. Next to radio communications, our flight progress strips were the only other clue as to what was going on just before the radar died.

Some controllers were meticulous about their strip marking and could recover from radar loss fairly quickly. Some tried their best but would get so busy they'd forget to keep their strips updated. Like me; they relied heavily on their habits and past practices to fill in the blanks. For others; strips were merely a distraction that diverted their attention away from the traffic. They were the ones voted most likely to shake, sweat and swear when the radar stopped spinning. Even if the radar was running, problems could arise when it came time to relieve one of those guys. But if the radar was out? Inherit the sector and, for better or worse, you also inherit the outgoing controller's flight progress strips.

My first unexpected radar failure occurred while I was working an arrival sector, in the middle of a moderately flurry of inbounds. My display flickered a few times then, just as radar's eye swept past the 'seven o'clock' position, it went dark. Everyone in the room gasped and studied their strips; hoping it was simply a 'blink' rather than an extended outage. I had seven or eight planes on vectors at the time but there were more coming. Fear, hope and despair kicked in immediately but there was no time to deal with it. I gave my traffic the bad news, advised them that radar contact had been lost then called my adjacent center sector to break the news. They'd have to hold whatever was headed my way. I climbed or descended some of my planes to get a little altitude separation then reached above the console to grab a copy of Big Time's non-radar "cheat sheet." This included a set of maps showing non-radar (pilot navigation) routes from our outer fixes to the approach in use, timed approach procedures, some unpublished holding patterns where we could hide a few airplanes till the dust settled and other information we couldn't remember due to its infrequent need. Everyone on the frequency got a new clearance limit, along with some detailed holding instructions, while we sorted this thing out. I may also have pooped myself but, through the miracle of selective memory, I prefer to forget certain things.

I felt as blind as the radar. With those 'first time' jitters rattling my self-confidence; I began to recall some radar failure horror stories the old timers used to tell around the camp fire - just to frighten us new campers. There was the one about the DC-9 in a holding pattern somewhere, who's pilot took a descent clearance intended for another flight. The plane ended up spiraling down through three or four holding altitudes occupied by other aircraft - in instrument conditions the whole way. Nobody else in the pattern saw or said a thing. The controller only realized there was a problem when the DC-9 reported reaching the altitude intended for another aircraft. Unfortunately, that aircraft was not supposed to be a DC-9. The descent clearance was supposed to be for a DC-8; which was still holding 1000 feet above the altitude now occupied by a death-defying DC-9 driver. Apparently there's some truth to the "Big Sky Theory."

The other popular "scary story" involved a controller running timed approaches from a holding pattern at the outer marker. A light twin engine aircraft had been cleared for the approach and was now on the tower frequency. The next flight to be cleared was an air carrier. Somehow, as if by magic, the air carrier landed ahead of the light twin and without a scratch. I didn't know whether these stories were factual or simply ATC folklore but they haunted me just the same. Left groping for my traffic picture; I kept hoping the radar would come back for me. I loved my radar and was truly sorry for the times I'd cursed its infrequent foibles.

Radar returned in about 45 minutes but we controllers learned long ago to not jump right back into a 'business as usual' operation. Traffic was resumed tentatively; as though we expected radar's recrudescence to be temporary - a sucker play. Our confidence in the system had to be regained before we could get back into the furious radar operation we used to move so much traffic with.

Most controllers have been through an unexpected radar failure at least once in their career. Like sex; they probably remember that first time. But unlike sex; they hope it never happens again. It's just one of those things you do not want to repeat simply for a chance to improve your score.

"We've got a thing that's called radar love.
We've got a line in the sky, radar love."
Golden Earring - 1973
© NLA Factor, 2014