FL: Airport power failure lasts 2 hours

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Published Sunday, July 30, 2000, in the Miami Herald

Airport power failure lasts for over 2 hours Controllers route planes by eye BY SUSAN FERRECHIO sferrechio@herald.com

DARK TOWER: An airplane comes in for a landing at Fort Lauderdale International Airport, where the control tower was without power for two hours Saturday.

The air traffic control tower at Fort Lauderdale International Airport lost power for more than two hours Saturday, forcing controllers to communicate with pilots using hand-held radios and to rely on their own eyesight to direct the landing and takeoff of airplanes.

A faulty transfer switch cut electricity to the tower about 4:45 p.m., said Kathleen Bergen, spokeswoman for the Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees the tower in Fort Lauderdale and at every other major airport.

A backup generator failed because it was powered through the same broken switch, Bergen said, adding that it is ``extremely rare'' for electricity to fail at an FAA tower.

Storms do knock out power at South Florida airports. As recently as May 1999, MIA's radar was knocked out in a lightning storm. And in the summer of 1995, MIA's radar screens repeatedly failed, losing power or freezing particularly when lightning-laced storms swept through the area. The problem was a computer program that was vulnerable to power surges. It was unplugged in 1995 and debugged and restored in 1997, and has been working well since.

Power at the Fort Lauderdale tower was restored at 7 p.m. at the airport, which on a typical Saturday has 600 to 700 takeoffs and landings and handles about 40,000 passengers. The Fort Lauderdale tower controls all air traffic within 15 miles of the airport.

Despite the loss of power, air traffic continued at a relatively normal pace with no unusual delays, said airport spokesman Jim Reynolds.

The airport took one precaution: Controllers spaced landings six miles apart, rather than allowing aircraft to approach at the usual three-mile intervals.

Fort Lauderdale controllers had to use cellular phones to communicate with Miami International Airport, which normally provides radar coverage for MIA as well as the airport in Fort Lauderdale.

But Fort Lauderdale controllers were forced to direct traffic without an image of MIA's radar, which they use to guide takeoffs and landings.

The radar image is displayed on a large monitor in the control tower and controllers use it as a visual aid in addition to their eyesight.

``It's a very valuable tool and it's needed but they can continue to do their jobs without it,'' Bergen said. ``It's not essential. They can see the aircraft and they can see each other.''

The tower's seven controllers had daylight on their side but had to battle intense heat. The air conditioning failed and there was little ventilation in the tower.

``It was very, very hot,'' said a controller, who asked not to be identified. ``But everything worked out fine. Things slowed up a little bit. When something like this happens, we take it nice and easy and slow it down to make sure everything is done safely.''


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), July 30, 2000


Published Tuesday, August 1, 2000, in the Miami Herald

Bad switch blamed for Lauderdale outage Both systems failed at airport BY DANIEL de VISE ddevise@herald.com

The control tower at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport lost power for two crucial hours Saturday because of a freak mishap that foiled a backup system designed to prevent such interruptions, a Federal Aviation Administration official said Monday.

FAA investigators blame the outage on a switch that is supposed to transfer the control tower's power needs to the backup generator, according to FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen. When the switch itself failed, neither power source was available.

``We don't know why it failed,'' Bergen said. ``We also don't know what caused the system to want to switch to the engine generator. We understand that the weather was relatively good that day.''

Bergen said the total loss of power in an airport control tower is ``very, very rare'' in the federal agency's eight-state Southeast region -- so uncommon, in fact, that the FAA doesn't keep statistical records of such mishaps. Airport spokesmen in Fort Lauderdale and Miami said they couldn't recall a similar event in the recent past.

``I can't remember anything in the last six or seven years that was like this,'' said Jim Reynolds, Fort Lauderdale airport spokesman.

Saturday's outage caused one-hour delays for departing aircraft, Reynolds said. Air traffic controllers lost their regular radio contact with incoming planes and had to rely on hand-held radios. They operated without a visual radar image of air traffic and used cellular phones to get verbal radar reports from Miami International Airport.

Incoming pilots could rely on the airport's runway lights, which continued to function, and on their own collision avoidance systems, a localized radar device that reports any nearby aircraft.

Airport control towers seldom lose power because they are fitted with backup generators that switch on when commercial power goes off, Bergen said. Air traffic controllers can flip the switch manually; it operates automatically in an outage.

FAA investigators are trying to learn what prompted the switch to activate Saturday and why it seized up. They found burned wiring around the failed switch.

Commercial power was restored by 7 p.m. Saturday.

Airport officials have brought in a temporary generator to replace the regular generator until the switch is fixed.

``Our focus now is on repairing the switch and getting the engine generator back on line,'' Bergen said.

The control towers at major U.S. airports are staffed with FAA employees. The most frequent mishaps, airport spokesmen said, involve loss of radar service.

Controllers at the Fort Lauderdale airport Saturday were helped by good visibility.

``If you were up in the tower that night, I think it would have been very calm,'' Reynolds said.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), August 02, 2000.

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