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By Hein Kaiser


Pilots left to fend for themselves as airspace controls were switched off at the weekend

This means that beyond onboard instrumentation, no ground radar support from air traffic control was available to aid the separation of aircraft.

Last weekend, South African airspace could have ended up like a typical day on Joburg’s roads.

Instead of traffic lights being out of order and absent pointsmen, airspace controls were switched off.

Pilots flying in the affected regions were on their own. A notice to pilots (Notam) was issued last Saturday by Air Traffic and Navigation Services (ATNS), which controls South African airspace, saying parts of the country’s skies had been downgraded to class G.

This means that beyond onboard instrumentation, no ground radar support from air traffic control was available to aid the separation of aircraft.

To avoid midair collisions, aircraft flying levels are separated by 2 000 feet.

Ground-based radar has the broadest view of air traffic within a particular area and tracks individual planes’ heights and their course.

According to a pilot, it might not be the first time that this has happened. The airspace downgrade occurred after most air traffic had calmed, late at night.

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He added that it didn’t necessarily pose a safety risk at the time. But a post on aviation discussion forum Avcom last week is cause for concern.

It read: “ATNS slipped in a downgrade of the entire upper airspace above most of southern Africa for last night to class G [uncontrolled]. They even provide guidance, in their last-minute Notam, for crews to coordinate their own separation on the IFBP [radio] frequency. For the non-pilots out there it means the pilots have to talk to each other and use their TCAS [traffic collision avoidance system] to ensure our safety.”

A pilot said that during busy times, there were about five controllers who manage each step of a flight.

He said that after-hours, sometimes a single air traffic controller managed all the flight stage functions, but nobody was ever left alone in the tower, particularly when an air traffic controller was a junior.

The Avcom post alleged that SA now has 300 air traffic controllers. It might be safe to assume the majority would have been deployed at major airports like OR Tambo International, Cape Town International and King Shaka International in Durban.

A lot of air traffic controllers must have been on days off, sick or is there a strike looming? South Africans may never know, as ATNS did not respond timeously to questions about the downgrade of airspace, possible skills or staff shortages, or any of the content of the Avcom post.

This was despite a commitment to meet Saturday Citizen’s deadline. The pilot said the danger of this occurrence was the normali sation of deviance.

He noted that airspace downgrades were not normal operations and expressed hope that it was not a foreshadow of what was to come for SA aviation.

Airspace over Africa is already regarded as challenging because there are places where it ceases to exist as there is no coverage due to lack of suitable equipment or controllers.

Another pilot said that, safe or not, to downgrade the airspace was confirmation there was no real control in place at the time. And airspace was not empty.

There might be night freight flights or charters in the air. It all depended on the volume of traffic, he added, so there was a low chance of anything going wrong.

And it went wrong, at about 1am over Switzerland in 2002 when a cargo Boeing 757 crashed into a Russian charter in midair, killing all on board.

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Wikipedia said the accident was due to air traffic control systems and a controller.

The entry reads: “The ground-based optical collision warning system, which would have alerted the controller to the pending collision before it happened, had been switched off for maintenance. The controller was unaware of this. An aural short-term conflict alert warning system released a warning to a workstation but it was not heard.”

The balance of the Avcom post is as discomforting.

“The situation is now so bad in SA that we don’t have enough qualified air traffic controllers to keep our skies safe 24/7.”