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FAA Blames Aging Circuits for Computer Breakdowns

Times Urban Affairs Writer

Operations at the regional air traffic control center in El Toro were back to normal Wednesday, Federal Aviation Administration officials said, after a series of computer outages was traced to vital components more than a dozen years old.

The FAA’s explanation came after air traffic controllers told The Times on Tuesday that a new multimillion-dollar computer system installed 2 1/2 months ago had failed 104 times on Sunday, endangering air safety.

But “no new computer system was involved,” Jim Panter, manager of the Coast Terminal Radar Approach Control facility, said Wednesday. “It was strictly old equipment that needed to be replaced.”

The computer system at Coast TRACON has been in use at least since 1972, Panter said. New system software was installed 2 1/2 months ago on the existing computer’s hardware, leaving it vulnerable to the type of breakdown that occurred Sunday, which officials blamed on brittle wires inside aging memory units.

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From about 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday, flight data repeatedly disappeared from video display screens used by air traffic controllers at Coast TRACON, sometimes for as long as five minutes, officials said. During the outages, radar still showed each plane’s position, but the only way to know a plane’s altitude, speed or identity was through voice communication with pilots.

“It wasn’t really that dangerous, because we still had the radar,” Panter said.

A special crew from the FAA’s technical center in Atlantic City, N.J., worked on successive nights this week to solve the problem, but due to a parts shortage, some outages still occured Monday and Tuesday, Panter said. There were no outages Wednesday, he said.

A heat buildup aggravated the situation on Sunday, Panter said, with the computer system shutting itself down and restarting several times as it tried on its own to locate the memory problem.

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Four of the Univac computer’s 11 “memory modules” went out on Sunday because of cracked, broken wires, Panter added.

“They’ve all been replaced now, so there shouldn’t be any repeat,” he said.

The recently installed software was not implicated in Sunday’s failures, Panter said, but FAA officials said it has been involved in problems at other TRACON facilities.

“Just like any program, the new software has had its glitches,” said FAA spokesman John Leyden in Washington.

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Officials at the National Air Traffic Controllers Assn. in Washington said Wednesday that at least one NATCO chapter, at Dallas-Ft. Worth, has filed an “unsatisfactory condition” report with the FAA concerning computer problems at their control center.

However, NATCO officials said they believe the Dallas-Ft. Worth problems are software-related and not similar to the hardware failures that plagued Coast TRACON on Sunday.

Dallas-Ft. Worth air traffic control officials could not be reached for comment.


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