Say Again? #17:
Non-Radar Daze

It all comes together. All that ranting to convince pilots and controllers to use standard, by-the-book procedures comes together when that one tool, seemingly designed just to increase efficiency, is out of service: the radar. AVweb's Don Brown reminds everyone why we need to remain current with non-radar procedures.


This week in my Area at Atlanta Center (ZTL) the main long-range radar site was out for maintenance. Yes it was Maiden, but we don’t have enough time to discuss that problem. We’ve got bigger fish to fry. So, without any chit-chat, let’s get busy.

Some of you may be familiar with non-radar operations. The controllers and the pilots in my neck of the woods are not. We use them on occasion, but it’s infrequent enough that none of us stays proficient. For those who are visiting western North Carolina this week, or (worse) just passing through, the words “radar contact lost” bring nothing but confusion.

Random Reasons

The first thing you need to know about non-radar is this from the FAA 7110.65:


a. Radar separation shall be applied to all RNAV aircraft operating on a random (impromptu) route at or below FL 450.

“Shall” is a uncompromising word for controllers. There’s no wiggle room in it. If you’re on a random route we have to use radar separation. If we can’t use radar separation, you can’t be on a random route. That means you’re going to be assigned airways. And that’s where the problems start.

Remember last month when I was complaining about folks on direct routes with lat/longs in their flight plan? Need I say more? Well yes, I guess I do.

Center: “Cessna 12345 amendment to your routing when ready”

N12345: “Go ahead Center.”

Center: “Cessna 345 is cleared to Huntsville via right turn, heading 270 join victor 20 Sugarloaf, direct Huntsville, maintain 6,000.

N12345: Center, we’ve already been cleared direct Huntsville.

Center: Cessna 345, roger, this is a non-radar routing. We’re going to lose you on radar soon.

N12345: Uhhhhh, okay Center. What was that airway you wanted us on?

I can almost hear the “brain bag” being popped open and the rustling of charts.

And so the days go. Every other time you issue a clearance you get a question. Pilots can’t get out of the “negotiating” mode. Controllers can’t get out of the radar mode. In short, all the “bad” habits we develop come back to haunt us.

No Notice?


It’d be a whole lot easier if everyone was playing on the same page. It’d be nice if the pilots knew they were going into non-radar airspace before they filed their flight plan wouldn’t it? That’s what NOTAMs are for isn’t it? That’s what I thought anyway.

You should have seen the hornet’s nest I stirred up when I started asking those questions. Believe it or not, there’s a procedure for issuing a NOTAM when an Airport Surveillance Radar (ASR) goes out of service but there isn’t one for issuing a NOTAM on an Air Route Surveillance Radar (ARSR) that is out of service. Evidently the FAA can’t issue a NOTAM without a procedure.

Just to let you know how tangled this mess can get, the procedure for issuing the NOTAM on an ASR is found in the NAVAID section on issuing NOTAMs. I assume that’s because everyone uses radar to navigate now. Think vectors to the final approach course and it will become clearer to you.

Anyway, I finally convinced the FAA that it actually was important for pilots to know that they’d be flying under non-radar rules in airspace which they usually receive radar service. Of course I had to enlist the fine folks at the NTSB to help convince them, but the FAA finally agreed to do it. I know that because they send me a notice every three months telling me they’re still working on it. I’ve been getting them since May, 2001.

In the mean time, ZTL’s local airspace office has worked (very hard I might add) out a temporary procedure to issue a NOTAM about the Maiden ARSR going out of service. I know they’ve done it, I’ve seen the NOTAM. I’d include it here but I haven’t been able to find it anywhere on-line. Evidently not many pilots have been able to either, judging from the way they’re still filing their flight plans.

Ignorance Isn’t Bliss

Perhaps it’s all a matter of ignorance. Perhaps people (pilots, controllers and managers) don’t really understand how different everything is when the radar gets turned off. Let me see if I can give you a few pointers.

1) There won’t be any radar vectors to the final approach course.

2) There won’t be any vectors for anything: traffic, weather, terrain. Nothing.

3) You can’t provide radar advisories on VFR traffic without radar.

4) You can’t provide radar monitoring to tell a pilot he’s 5 miles off course.

5) You can’t provide a radar vector to the nearest airport for an emergency.

6) You can’t provide radar assistance to the student on his first cross country.

Are you getting the flick?

It sounds so simple. It isn’t. After watching it all for years, I’m constantly surprised how hard it is for pilots and controllers to make the mental adjustment to non-radar. The approach controllers around the sector still call for handoffs. Pilots still get excited when the VFR zips past them and we didn’t call the traffic (because we can’t see the traffic). Even the controllers in-house forget to get the inbounds down, much less get them set up on the airways. Of course, for that to happen, the controller working the high-altitude sector, four sectors before yours, would have to start the planes down early. In other words, it doesn’t happen very often.

Hung Up

Radar Dish

On the good days, your average business jet comes roaring out of the high altitudes, seemingly with the attitude that they’re the only airplane in the sky. For some reason, no one seems to ever think that they might get hung up on top of some traffic between them and the smaller airports. They normally do, and then the crazy vectors 60- to 90-degrees off course start as controllers struggle to get them down to the airport.

Turn off the radar and it’s impossible. You can’t vector them around the traffic. If they come in high, all you can do is clear them someplace to hold and wait for the traffic to clear out underneath them. Getting them into a holding pattern can be a struggle in itself. Not many people bother filing to a navigational aid anymore. They spent good money on all that advanced nav equipment so they could file direct to the airport. It’s not like it’s a busy airport or anything. It’d be dumb wasting time filing and flying over a VOR. Did I tell you about the T-shirt my friend bought me? It says, “Sarcasm: Just another service I offer.”

Holding Happens

Let’s walk through this one to see how it works. The VOR serving the airport is 10 miles northeast of the airport. That same VOR has all the airways running through it. Big “Duh” huh? Just for simplicity’s sake we’ll say we have only one airplane in the way, non-radar at 7,000, on the airway and close to the VOR. We’ll say the angle between the airway the 7,000 traffic is on and the airway we’re trying to get the bizjet on is 16 degrees. We consult our handy-dandy degrees divergence chart and we find that we need the bizjet to cross 17 DME from the VOR at or below 6,000 to clear the 7,000 traffic. In other words, the bizjet needs to cross 27 miles from the airport at 6,000. When’s the last time anyone saw that happen?

Think that’s ugly? This is how it really goes. The controller looks up and sees the handoff flashing. Bizjet23 is 40 miles from HKY, out of FL180 descending to 11,000 direct to the airport.

MOPED : Over-ride MOPED sector.

WILKES: Request control for turns Bizjet23.

MOPED: Your control for turns.

WILKES: We’re still non-radar in case you forgot.

MOPED: Oh yeah, sorry.

WILKES: Let me talk to him.

Bizjet23: Atlanta, Bizjet23 is with you out of fifteen for eleven. We’ve got the weather and we’d like vectors for the ILS 24.

WILKES: Bizjet23 Atlanta Center amendment to your routing.

Bizjet23: Go ahead Atlanta. We’re ready.

WILKES: Bizjet23 is cleared to Hickory via right turn heading 270, join victor twenty Barretts Mountain direct Hickory.

Bizjet23: Uhhh, right turn heading 270, victor twenty Baird’s Mountain Hickory … Any chance for the vector to the ILS?

WILKES: Readback is correct. We’re non-radar today. Bizjet23 cross one seven miles east of Barretts Mountain at or below 6,000 descend and maintain 5,000.

Bizjet23: Uhhh …17 east at or below 6 and down to 5. What’s the identifier for Baird’s Mountain?

As you can probably figure out, by the time you can say Bravo Zulu Mike, the guy is already past the 17 DME. He hasn’t even got BZM typed into the box yet, much less found the chart for V20. I don’t even want to think about what happens when I tell him to “Maintain 5,000 until SANFI cleared ILS RWY 24 HKY.” A whole bottle of Head and Shoulders couldn’t cure all the head-scratching going on in that cockpit. It’s safer to just go to the holding pattern at 8,000 and get it all sorted out.

Wondering About Wanderings

I wonder … are any of the things I’ve been talking about for months in this column starting to make sense? Remember this from “Say Again? #10: ATC 201“?

“Every approach should have a transition from the en route environment to the approach environment and a missed approach procedure that takes you back to the en route environment.”

Or this from just last month?

5-1-7.d.4 (c) Plan the random route portion of the flight to begin and end over published departure/arrival transition fixes or appropriate navigation aids for airports without published transition procedures.”

You probably thought I was talking about departures in “ATC 201: IFR Departures” and data processing in “Flight Data Processing” didn’t you? Okay, so I was. But I’m always talking about the system, and the separate parts of the system are linked. I’m not some literary genius that plotted out over a year’s worth of articles to include bits and pieces that you could refer back to. The system is designed that way. Everything is linked. Everything is tied together. That’s what makes this system so robust that it still works even if one portion of it (like a radar) doesn’t. That is what makes this system so safe.

Can you see in this example that if the pilot had filed his flight plan “… to begin and end over published departure/arrival transition fixes or appropriate navigation aids for airports without published transition procedures …” then he would have known the identifier for Barretts Mountain? Do you understand that if he understood “… every approach should have a transition from the en route environment to the approach environment …” he would have been mentally prepared to start the approach from an en route transition point instead of betting on vectors to the final?

So what if he got off the ground and the “friendly” controller cleared him direct to his destination? That’s just gravy. Enjoy it if it works out. But if it doesn’t work out and you have a well-thought-out plan, you won’t be lost.


Does it sound like I get a little excited about this subject? Good! Because I do. Non-radar is the basis of all air traffic control. Most folks think radar just makes things more efficient. There’s no arguing that it does, but it makes it a whole lot safer too. I can feel myself deviating off course. Hold on.

For air traffic control, the grand daddy of all accidents was the mid-air collision over the Grand Canyon in 1956. I don’t think I need to rehash that incident, but take note of that date and the following. That radar that’s out of service this week was made in the late 50’s. So was the FAA. The building I work in was dedicated by President Eisenhower in 1960. Almost every other Air Route Traffic Control Center in the U.S. was built during the same period too. Coincidence? I don’t think so either. It wasn’t lack of efficiency that led to such a massive public investment. It was a lack of safety. Just a little ATC trivia for you to chew on.

More Wonderings

I take a lot of good natured ribbing from my fellow controllers about my fixation on non-radar and strip marking (they go hand-in-hand, for you non-controller types.) The most common barb aimed at me is, “Real controllers don’t need strips.” It took me awhile to figure out a suitable comeback (I’m kind of slow) but I finally found a good one: “Real controllers don’t need radar.” That, of course, sets off a round of one-upmanship. Controllers are real competitive types. I rarely win. Except when the radar is down.

I was wondering how that translates for pilots though. Do real pilots need radar?

I bet you’re wondering how I’m going to tie all this in so that it might have a chance of making sense aren’t you? Well, it turns out I don’t have to. Events do it for me.

It Was a Dark Stormy Night …

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Every night, about 11 p.m., we combine all the low-altitude sectors in my Area onto one scope for the midnight operation. At the same time, Asheville Approach goes home and we take over their airspace. Occasionally, when the weather messes up the airline schedules, we have a few airliners straggle into Asheville (AVL) and we have to work them at the Center.

“Airliner 123 cleared direct Broad River (BRA) expect the ILS RWY 34 AVL.”

Sounds fine, right? It’s the next clearance that gets their attention.

“Airliner 123, six miles from BRA, maintain 6,000 until BRA outbound, cleared ILS RWY 34 AVL.”

Like I said, that get’s their attention.

“Center, can we get a vector for the ILS?”

We can’t, so we have to answer “Unable.” Some general aviation types may be asking, “What’s the big deal?” The next time you run into one of your airline pilot friends, ask them when was the last time they shot a procedure turn. They don’t get to practice them when they fly into ORD, ATL or JFK, you know.

But wait, it gets even better.

As they pass BRA and start their descent, they hear:

“Airliner 123, radar contact lost, change to advisory frequency approved. Report your cancellation this frequency or down time to Raleigh Radio. Good night.

Hold That Thought

Let’s step back a second and look at this from a safety rep.’s perspective for a moment. It’s late. It’s almost midnight. You can read any human performance literature and you’ll know the folks involved are not at their peak. It’s the last flight of the day and they’re running late. That’s translates into a long day with the resulting pilot fatigue.

You can tell from the conversation that they were expecting a vector to the ILS. From an airline pilot’s perspective, it’s a reasonable assumption. They always get vectors to the final. Not only are they not mentally prepared to fly the procedure, the last time they flew such a procedure was probably in the simulator.

The controller working them is in only slightly better shape. He was expecting to use the procedure, of course, but it could have been months since he used it. If you consider that most controllers work only one “mid” a week, the best you could hope for is that this controller uses this procedure once a week. Was he familiar enough with the operation to key the pilots in early that they’d be shooting the full approach? Not in this case.

Drawing the Line

Is it safe? Probably. I’d rather take care of all the problems addressed above, but, as I’m fond of saying, this is a robust system. Now add in “radar contact lost.” It’s not a matter of convenience (getting a radar vector to the final approach course) now. It’s a matter of safety: monitoring a tired pilot flying an unfamiliar procedure to an airport surrounded by mountains in the dead of night.

Is it safe? It’s not near as safe as I’d like. That’s the problem with the safety business, though. At exactly what point does it become unsafe? Where do we draw the line? Do we have to add in low ceilings? A nasty crosswind?

How about you? Do you think it’s safe? Perhaps a better question is. “Are you a safe pilot?” Can you fly without radar? Can you accurately navigate an airway? Can you give me the DME away from the VOR you passed five minutes ago or am I going to have to wait until you reprogram your GPS? Do you realize that’s a trick question? Click here if you don’t.

If I Had a Hammer

Non-radar is just like anything else in the aviation business. You need to practice it to be proficient. It’s more than just the mechanics. You must be mentally prepared for it. And above all, you must recognize the signs when your margin of safety starts to deteriorate. You never know when you’ll be flying into some lonely airport late at night and hear the words “radar contact lost.” If you’re prepared, you can continue on your flight safely. If you’re not prepared, you are in danger. Not me, not the controller working your flight, but you.

Non-radar is the basis for the entire airspace system. The widespread introduction of ATC radar some 40 years ago hasn’t changed that fact. I don’t know of any technology that is going to change it, either. Whether you’re a pilot or a controller, if you don’t understand non-radar you’ll never truly understand the system. It’s like being a carpenter who can’t use a hammer. You may be a whiz with a nail gun, and I’ll grant you it’s a lot easier and faster to use. But there’s always some nook or cranny where it won’t work. If you can’t “nail” that approach, it’s going to hurt a lot worse than hitting your thumb with a hammer.

Have a safe flight!

Don Brown
Facility Safety Representative
National Air Traffic Controllers Association
Atlanta ARTCC