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Problems in Air Traffic Control and Proposed Solutions
In northern California this summer, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) unintentionally performed it's first operational test of 'free flight'; aviation without direct air traffic control. This was an unintentional experiment because it was a result of a total shut-down of the Oakland Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC).
Although Oakland is only the 16th busiest ARTCC, it's responsible for the largest block of airspace of any ATC facility; 18 million square miles. Oakland directs all upper-level flight from San Luis Obispo, California to the California/Oregon boarder, including most Pacific oceanic routes. The failure happened at 7:13 a.m. local time during the morning 'departure push'. Controllers estimated there were 60-80 aircraft under their control when the power died. All radar screens went dark and all radios went silent. It took 45 minutes to restore radios and bring up a backup radar system.
It was more than an hour before the main radar presentations came on line.
One controller described the sudden quiet in the control suite as 'the loudest silence I've ever heard' (UPI , 1995). He went on to say there was 'panic on everybody's face' as they realized they had been rendered deaf, dumb, and blind by this catastrophic equipment failure. It took a few minutes for controllers to realize the shut-down had affected the entire facility. There was no book procedure to cover this emergency scenario, so most controllers improvised.
Controllers in adjourning Los Angeles, Salt Lake, and Seattle ARTCCs and various Terminal Radar Approach Controls (TRACON; the level of radar coverage below upper-level ARTCC radar) were asked to take control over all airspace within their radar coverage, and divert aircraft under their control inbound to Northern California. Control towers in San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, Sacramento,