Things Fall Apart

The title of this Chinua Achebe novel came to mind this afternoon as I considered the status of the local airspace system.

I’m listening to SoCal Approach while I pack, and things are a little hectic up there due to a ground stop on all flight into Los Angeles: 

NOTAM:  Due to ZLA ATC ZERO. ALL FLIGHTS TO AND THRU ZLA STOPPED., departure traffic destined to ZLA airports will not be allowed to depart until at or after 03:00 UTC.

Apparently a widespread radar outage has occured at L.A. Center’s facility in Palmdale.

LOS ANGELES, JULY 18 (Reuters) – A power outage late on Tuesday at a regional radar center halted most air traffic in the Los Angelesa area, an airport spokeswoman said.

“All departing flights at LAX of at least 13,000 feet — essentially all our flights — have been grounded,” said Nancy Castles, spokeswoman for the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX).

A regional radar facility in Palmdale, about 50 miles (80 km) northwest of downtown Los Angeles, lost power, cutting radar for Los Angeles area airports at around 5:30 p.m. local time (8:30 p.m. EDT, 0030 GMT Wednesday).

There was no estimate of when the radar facility would resume operations.  

I guess it’s a good thing I’m driving down to Mexico this year.

When radar outages occur, airplanes flying under Instrument Flight Rules (read:  airliners) must be spaced much further apart to ensure safe seperation.  When radar is operating, controllers can “see” the plane on the scope and safely vector them closer together.

With the radar out, aircraft are stacking up and it sounds like some are bumping up against fuel reserves.

I’m curious about why the power outage would disrupt ATC services.  Surely L.A. Center has generators, backups, and contingencies for loss of power.

The last time I can recall an outage of this size was during the October, 2003 fires.  Socal Approach went offline when forest fires mandated a full evacuation of the facility.  As I recall, L.A. Center did their best to fill in the gaps.

This isn’t quite that bad.  Center is still “on the air”, they just don’t have any radar.  There are procedures for dealing with radar failures.  They don’t typically happen on this large a scale, but the procedures are there for dealing with it.  In the 2003 evacuation, there weren’t any procedures for dealing with the complete loss of a major metropolitan approach facility.

Of course, today we also have the Seal Beach VOR outage, which affects several L.A. approach procedures.  Not to mention the impending long term runway closure which will shut down a quarter of LAX’s runway capacity until 2008.

Fires aside, it seems things will continue to be hot under the collar around here for quite some time.

Things fall apart, indeed.

  2 comments for “Things Fall Apart

  1. July 19, 2006 at 8:41 am

    The original (Yeats, of course) is ” Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…”, which is even better :-). Anyway, they apparently lost all power, radios as well, due to the backup’s backup failing to detect that the backup generator had also failed after a while. Total loss of power happened a decade ago at Oakland Center, with similar sorts of results, and with no plan in place…

  2. July 20, 2006 at 11:07 am

    Here’s a press release about it:


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