The Air-Safety Flaw We Could Fix
By Jim Hall
Washington--Wind shear is a deadly weather phenomenon that has claimed more than 500 lives in airliner crashes in the last quarter century. Yet, incredibly, New York City's two major airports still do not have a basic technology that could help prevent wind-shear accidents.
Wind shear is a severe downdraft associated with thunderstorms that can literally push a plane into the ground during approach or departure, when there is little time for the flight crew to recover. One such accident took place in New York in 1975 when Eastern Air Lines Flight 66 crashed on approach to Kennedy International Airport, killing 112 people. The Eastern 66 and subsequent accidents in the 1980's at New Orleans and Dallas-Fort Worth and in 1994 at Charlotte, N.C., helped increase public awareness of wind shear and other deadly weather phenomena in the approach and departure corridors of major airports.
In the early 1980's, at the urging of the National Transportation Safety Board, Congress provided the Federal Aviation Administration with money for the development and installation of "terminal Doppler weather radar" systems for 47 major airports, including Kennedy and La Guardia in New York. The systems use electromagnetic energy to scan for wind shear and other weather disruptions. Today, most of these systems around the country are operating successfully and saving lives, including the one at Newark International Airport. But New York City's airports remain unprotected.
The F.A.A. has been trying for 10 years to find acceptable locations in the New York area for the radar towers that the systems require, but has been thwarted because of concerns about the electromagnetic radiation the towers emit and other environmental issues. Now, bureaucratic in-fighting may be presenting another roadblock.
Originally, the F.A.A. had planned separate towers for Kennedy and La Guardia, but it later scaled back plans and was able to find a location for one installation that would cover both airports.
The proposed site is a 1.8-acre parcel that the F.A.A. owns within Floyd Bennett Field, some 1.1 miles from the nearest residence. The agency has been unable to find any other site that can provide the necessary level of radar coverage, and thus aviation safety. The Bennett Field location also appears to be the site with the least adverse environmental impact.
Even though the site is in the Gateway National Recreation Area--which has led to some objections--it is in the area designated by the National Park Service for "nonpark" use and already is closed to the public. In fact, a heliport and emergency vehicle training center leased by the New York Police Department for the next 25 years surround the site.
Last Wednesday, American Airlines Flight 1420 crashed in Little Rock, Ark., in a violent, sudden storm. New York should take heed. All officials involved should put an end to the protracted delay and begin construction of the radar site immediately.
Terminal Doppler weather radar is the best available warning system for detecting wind-shear conditions. Should a tragedy strike, there will be no way to explain why passengers flying in and out of two of the major airports in the world are still without this protection.