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Better radar on way for airport

October 25, 1998|By SCOTT BUTKI

Poor visibility will no longer hamper flights at the Hagerstown Regional Airport and two other airports when a radar upgrade is completed.

The upgrade affects the Hagerstown airport, the Winchester Regional Airport in Virginia and the Eastern West Virginia Regional Airport near Martinsburg, W.Va.

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Planes taking off from the Winchester and Martinsburg airports appear on the radar screens at Dulles International Airport near Leesburg, Va., while Hagerstown air traffic is monitored by Washington Center, an air traffic control facility in Leesburg, said Ed Rakowski, airport operations manager for the Hagerstown airport.

Currently, when a plane takes off from Winchester, Martinsburg or Hagerstown when visibility is poor, the airport tower can't let any other planes land or depart until the aircraft appears on the radar screen of Dulles or Washington Center, he said.

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The planes do not usually appear on those radar screens until they are above the top of the region's mountains, or about 3,000 feet, he said. It is not a problem at night when the weather and visibility are good, airport officials said.

The new equipment eliminates the need for that delay because the planes will show up on the radar almost as soon as they leave the ground, Rakowski said.

"It will be great for air traffic," Rakowski said. If the equipment works properly, all three airports would be tracked by radar at the same place, which would be Dulles, he added.

The $2 million equipment upgrade was paid for by the Federal Aviation Administration. FAA employees began installing the equipment near Martinsburg in September 1997 and expect it to be working by the end of the year, said Jim Peters, FAA public affairs officer for the eastern region.

It has only been a problem when there is poor visibility or bad weather, said Carolyn Motz, Hagerstown airport manager. "On a day like today it is a nonissue," she said Thursday.

When delays occur, airline flight schedules are disrupted, frustrating passengers and costing airlines money, she said.

Jason Wilson, a flight instructor with Eagle Air at Hagerstown airport, said he is excited that the flight delays will be eliminated. The delays are rare but they do cause some inconveniences, he said.

He said the best part is that the upgrade will improve safety at the airport. Currently the airport tower sometimes has to rely on "visual scanning" to make sure there are no accidents when the planes are at altitudes below 3,000 feet, he said.

"Anything that enhances the safety is great," he said.

While the new equipment is near Martinsburg, it will be strong enough to help all three airports, Rakowski said.

Legislation directing the FAA to ensure that the equipment has sufficient capacity to help the Hagerstown airport was passed this week. The legislation was co-sponsored by Sen. Barbara Mikulski and Sen. Paul Sarbanes, both D-Md.

Hagerstown initially was intended to benefit from the radar upgrade but some of the plans omitted the Hagerstown airport, Motz said. Airport officials asked the legislators for help and this legislation is the result of that request, she said.

Peters said there were never any plans to exclude Hagerstown from the upgrade, which has been in the works for more than five years.

"Comprehensive radar coverage at the airport will ensure safe landings and takeoffs in a region with high mountain ranges. It will also equip the airport to compete effectively with other airports in the Tri-State area," Mikulski said in a news release.

It will also go a long way toward improving the safety and economic health of the airport, she said.

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