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US Pentagon improves air defence operations

The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is providing the Pentagon's North American Aerospace Defense (NORAD) Command with FAA control systems, specifically radar and voice systems, to bolster military air defence operations in the event of another terrorist hijacking.

The existing FAA system for co-ordinating a government-wide response to a potential hijacking is surprisingly low-tech.

The new systems will enable military planners to see the same picture as FAA air traffic controllers and should help improve civilian-military co-operation during any future emergency.

A basic voice teleconferencing link established on the morning of 11 September has evolved into what the FAA calls "an events network" and remains in place as the primary emergency communications network for senior government officials and FAA tactical decision-makers, said Dave Canoles, director of emergency operations and communications at the FAA.

Canoles, who served as manager of air traffic evaluations and investigations during last year's terrorist attacks, said the teleconferencing line is similar to a 24-hour, always-open party line, with co-ordination and data exchanges continuously taking place.

"It's a means of enhancing communications between the FAA, Defence Department, Office of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration," he said.

The Defence Department has also asked that the FAA send permanent air traffic control liaisons to various military air bases as an additional means of enhancing co-ordination, said Bill Peacock, director of air traffic at the FAA.

"They want several air traffic controllers in their facilities, in some cases 24 hours a day and in other cases 16 hours a day," said Peacock.

Despite the seemingly low-tech nature of the network in place, the FAA on 11 September managed in just three and a half hours to clear US skies of more than 4,500 commercial flights. During that time there were at least seven suspect planes that officials feared could have been hijacked, as well as the four that were.

However, there were still problems getting the word out to the civilian aviation community, Peacock said. Several civilian flights took off from airports that day despite the grounding of all flights.

FAA officials are now studying ways to make it harder for hijackers to turn off the aircraft transponders that tell air traffic controllers the location of the aircraft on radar - a situation that significantly complicated co-ordination and response efforts on 11 September, said Peacock.

"There were a couple of little clues [on 11 September] that said the airplane[s] were forcibly taken offline," said Canoles, referring to the difficulty of deciphering how and why the transponders on the four hijacked aircraft shut down.

The standard operating procedure now is to "treat everything with suspicion", said Linda Schuessler, FAA manager of air traffic evaluations and investigations and someone who was in the FAA tactical operations centre on 11 September.

The bottom line, said Peacock, is that the FAA is still counting on air traffic controllers to spot the loss of a transponder and determine whether or not it is the result of a hijacking, said Peacock.

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