Pilots, ATC fume as radio at city airport cracks up
Arun Ram TNN Chennai: The sole area control VHF radio at Chennai airport, which monitors aircraft movements up to 200 miles, is cracking up in the face of increasing traffic, putting pilots and controllers under severe stress. Though the air traffic control (ATC) is using a second area control frequency on a trial basis, it is unable to make it fully functional because of a shortage of personnel. The situation could prove risky during monsoon, when pilots ask for urgent deviations to avoid turbulence. Unlike in Delhi and Mumbai (which have 2 frequencies) and Kolkata (which has 3), Chennai has only one frequency (118.9 Mhz) for area control.
Chennai handles about 350 take-offs and landings daily, and a controller has to monitor and interact with up to 30 aircraft during peak hours. This results in overlapping of conversation between several cockpits and the ATC. Pilots call it ‘stepping down’. “When I am stepped down, all I get to hear is a buzz,” a pilot told TOI. “Normally, it may not be dangerous as I come under the approach radar once I am 50 nautical miles from the tower. But during monsoon, when I may have to request for urgent deviations, it could prove shaky.” ATC officers said such overlaps often happen. “In two years, traffic has doubled but upgradation of gadgets and manpower has not happened,” said an ATC official.
Air traffic management executive director V Somasundaram told TOI that the Airports Authority of India was planning upgradation of facilities across the country, but denied having problems with the Chennai area control VHF. Radar blacks out for 4 hours Hundreds of passengers at Chennai airport were put to hardship as flight movements were disrupted for about four hours on Tuesday because of radar failure.
The approach radar at the ATC went blank after an earthmover snapped an underground cable. P 4 AIR POCKET Trouble in air as gadgets fail INADEQUATE MANPOWER DESPITE TRAFFIC DOUBLING IN 3 YEARS Chennai: Too few men grappling with too old machines — that’s what Chennai air traffic control is. While the approach radar conks off often, as it happened on Tuesday morning, the single area control VHF used to communicate with pilots up to 200 nautical miles is proving too inadequate for the exploding traffic. “It was okay to have just one VHF till three years ago, when the airport was handling only about 150 movements a day. The traffic has doubled since then. Though we are trying out a second frequency, 124.45 MHz, to monitor aircraft between 80 nautical miles and 40 nautical miles, we don’t have enough people to operate both the frequencies simultaneously. We need at least 200 controllers, but we have hardly 140 people working in four shifts,” said an air traffic official.
Unlike Chennai air traffic control, which has only one area control frequency, Delhi and Mumbai have two, and Kolkata has three. All hell breaks lose at the control tower when the ageing approach radar that monitors flight movements within a radius of 50 nautical miles also fails, sending the controllers scurrying for pen and paper to make manual calculations of aircraft positions. Adding to the controllers’ nightmare are the confusing call signs (code names) of aircraft. There is no uniformity in terms of number of digits; some have two digits, others three or four. Three different airlines have call signs such as 442, 2442 and 3442. “During peak hours, with the VHF acting up, we may not hear one digit and may end up giving instructions to the wrong pilot,” said an air traffic controller.
When contacted, air traffic management executive director V Somasundaram said he had not got any complaint on the area control VHF malfunctioning. “Anyway, we are planning to upgrade the system across the country. Chennai will have a new system called performancebased navigation, which would make air traffic control more effective from October. As for manpower, we keep enhancing the strength as per the requirements,” he said. Chennai ATC has a wide range, extending to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the east, Thiruvananthapuram in the south, Hyderabad in the north and almost till Goa in the west. Besides handling landings and takeoffs, Chennai also has to monitor movements along busy overhead flight paths like the Singapore-Dubai route. The control tower at the airport monitors aircraft movements within a radius of 10 nautical miles using 118.1 MHz frequency. Then there is the monopulse secondary surveillance radar (MSSR), called the approach radar, which has a range of 50 nautical miles. Beyond this and up to 200 nautical miles, the communication is handled by the area control VHF on 118.9 MHz frequency.