BWI scheduled to receive runway radar equipment


Baltimore-Washington International Airport is among 30 U.S. airports slated to get a sophisticated radar system which will help track planes on the ground when visibility is difficult.

Bill Buck, assistant air traffic manager for BWI, said the system, called Airport Surface Detection Equipment, "scans at a very fast update rate and it provides a radar map of the entire airport."

Buck said he did not know when BWI will have the equipment because installation has been postponed several times.

The system is especially useful "during a period of low visibility when you can't see all the airport," he said.

Such conditions existed Dec. 3 when two Northwest Airlines jetliners collided on a Detroit runway, killing eight people and injuring 24 others.

The accident has sparked questions about runway safety at U.S. airports.

Earlier this year, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board had warned a congressional committee that a runway accident was waiting to happen if more ground safety measures were not adopted at congested airports.

Runway safety has been a concern of the NTSB since 1977 when 583 people died at the Tenerife Airport in the Canary Islands. Two Boeing 747s collided on the ground, resulting in more fatalities than any other aviation accident in world history, according to the NTSB.

There have been 18 ground collisions at U.S. airports since 1983, said Michael Benson, NTSB spokesman.

BWI never has had a major mishap on the ground.

The accident in Detroit came after the pilot of one plane told an air traffic controller he was lost in the fog, according to a transcript of the conversation obtained by NBC.

Although Baltimore hasn't had any serious ground accidents, Buck said, there was one so-called "incursion" in January that did not result in an accident.

"An aircraft landed and turned on another runway that was active," he said, explaining that the runway was about to be used for a landing by another plane.

"We did two things. We told the pilot [on the ground] of the mistake and got him off the runway and issued instructions to the plane [in the air] . . . instead of landing, he climbed back up and set up for a landing again."

While BWI awaits the ground radar system, Buck said, the control tower is slowing down traffic along the runways and taxiways when visibility is low.

"You limit the number of aircraft that an individual controller is working so the controller has more time to get reports of where they are," said Buck.

Buck said he is not aware of any incidents at BWI in which a pilot hasn't known where he was once on the ground.

"The pilots have available to them a map of the airport which is in their normal set of charts," he said. "It identifies runways and taxiways."

Buck also noted that the runways, which are used for landings and takeoffs, have white lights and the taxiways, which planes use to get to the runways, have blue lights. There are other markings along the pavement, he added.

At normal times at BWI, there are 12 to 15 planes moving along the runways and taxiways, but, in dense fog, "you parcel them out, you slow down the number moving to and from the runways," said Buck.

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