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By ANTHONY COLAROSSI; Times Leader Staff Writer

Saturday, October 28, 1995     Page: 1A

PITTSTON TWP. -- Air traffic controllers at the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport helped land planes without using radar during at least one half-hour period in recent weeks, Federal Aviation Administration officials said Friday.
    "They were using non-radar procedures to control the traffic," said Arlene Salac, a spokeswoman for the FAA eastern region headquarters in New York City.
    But Salac and airport officials maintained Friday there are no safety concerns about persistent problems with the airport's radar system.
    The use of non-radar flight controls was necessitated by the airport's chronic radar problems. Those problems reached a head this week. On Thursday the airport stopped using its main radar antenna -- located about three miles southeast of the terminal off Suscon Road in Pittston Township.
    Darius Reynolds, president of the local chapter of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, confirmed that his radar screen was having so many problems picking up planes, he stopped using it Oct. 19.
    "I refused to work that radar," Reynolds said. Instead, he used radio communications with pilots to guide them toward the airport for half an hour.
    "During that half-hour period, I had aircraft taking off and aircraft landing," Reynolds said. "Basically, what you're doing is letting one aircraft in and one aircraft out."
    Reynolds said that the secondary system that normally works in concert with the main radar was operational and he could have used it but did not trust it. He said that he and one other controller chose to use non-radar instead while FAA technicians worked on the main radar. After a half hour, the main radar was repaired and he returned to it.
    Salac said she was aware of only one half-hour period sometime during the week of Oct. 15-21, when no radar was used to land planes.
    But Reynolds said air traffic controllers have landed planes without the use of radar several times during the last few months.
    The airport handles about 1,300 passengers and 40 commercial and private flights a day.
    On Thursday, the airport near Avoca went to a backup radar system, receiving radar signals from an antenna in Benton, Columbia County, about 40 miles from the airport. As of late Friday, the backup system was still in use.
    The Benton antenna is a long-range radar used primarily to guide planes in and out of regional airspace, FAA officials said. It cannot "see" planes after they drop below about 3,500 feet. That can be as far as 20 miles from the airport, Reynolds said.
    "It will not see aircraft as low as what a terminal radar would see," said Selim Haber, the FAA Northeast Region operations branch manager.
    Reynolds said the Benton radar does not pick up bad weather like the main radar. Also, its "sweep," showing the location of aircraft, is slower than the terminal's system, he said.
    "It's better than nothing, but it's not as good as it should be as far as we're concerned," Reynolds said. "I do not want to alarm anybody. It's a safe atmosphere ... But is it the safest? No. And I don't think the FAA can argue that."
    "We're on the backup radar. That's the standard procedure," Salac said. "Safety does not become an issue when you're on a backup system."
    "What I've been told is there is no safety problem," said Barry Centini, the airport director. "The airport, we feel, is operating safely."
    But Reynolds said safety is a concern when planes start disappearing from controllers' screens.
    "Initially, it's mayhem," Reynolds said. "You see them with your eyes on the radar screen, and then it's gone."
    When the radar system starts failing, controllers use pilot reports to separate planes by altitude and then turn them away from each other, he said.
    Controllers have not experienced radar problems since going on the backup system, Reynolds said.
    Reynolds said he heard FAA technicians attribute the problems to a video compression unit manufactured by Arcata Associates in Las Vegas. The system transmits information from the radar tower off Suscon Road to the air controller's tower.
    Because the Suscon Road radar tower is so remote, an electronic transmission system -- such as Arcata's -- had to be used instead of a cable, Haber said.
    Arcata's president did not return a message Friday.
    Haber said Wilkes-Barre/Scranton is the first airport in the FAA's northeastern region to use the Arcata unit.
    "It's not prevalent throughout the United States, but we have installed it at several (airports)," Haber said.
    Technicians have not concluded that the Arcata unit is the source of the radar problems here, Salac said. But they are reviewing that device, she said.
    An air traffic controller on Friday works in the tower using a backup radar system at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport.
    The troubled aircraft radar off Suscon Road in Pittston Township stopped servicing the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport on Thursday, forcing the airport to rely on a backup system in Benton, Columbia County.
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