Cooperative Analysis Bolsters Aircraft Incident Investigations

August 2000
By Capt. Ronald J. Daskevich, USAF

Radar data interface system weaves information to find answers during time-critical operations.

In an age when information dominance is key to mission success, a unit traditionally tasked with evaluating and optimizing long-range, ground-based radar is evolving into a team with a data analysis mission.

Radar is a primary tool for defining what is occurring in U.S. airspace. A lone radar, however, provides a very limited view of an area based on location and specific environmental factors. A more accurate picture of an area of interest can be obtained when data from overlapping coverage of multiple radar sites is combined and analyzed.

This process has been applied in several scenarios, including the search and rescue effort for a C-130 crash off the California coast, the explosion of TWA Flight 800, and one occasion when Air Force One briefly disappeared from radar. These investigations used the event analysis services of the 84th Radar Evaluation Squadron (RADES) based at Hill Air Force Base, Utah. The squadron has performed both quick response and event analysis while investigating more than 100 such incidents. This number continues to grow.

Combining and analyzing data is one of the functions of the radar data interface system (RDIS) developed by the 84th RADES. This radar data recorder assesses the performance of multiple radar sites supporting the joint surveillance system (JSS), an overlapping system of radar units positioned across the perimeter of the continental United States. The JSS is co-owned by the U.S. Air Force and the Federal Aviation Administration.

The RDIS is a PC-architecture-based system that uses local area network communications to record and distribute radar messages. It can record data from more than 50 radar locations. The system’s hard drives store one day of radar data in half-hour files, which are backed up to a 300-gigabyte tape system each night. A remote access server connected to the Internet allows data files to be pulled, re-stored and sent to radar analysts in the event of a mishap or other event.

For management purposes, the Air Force has divided the JSS into three sectors. Sector air operations centers (SAOCs), run by the First Air Force of the Air Combat Command at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, ensure the air sovereignty and air defense of the continental United States. The 84th RADES has support personnel and an RDIS located in each of the sector operations centers. With these assets on site, radar event analysis using data can be performed from multiple radar sites in a specific area of interest.

Despite the capabilities this setup allows, radar data analysts still require an understandable interface to focus the data to a specific target and time period. RADES System 3, a Windows 95/NT application developed by 84th RADES personnel, fulfills this requirement. The dynamic software package utilizes multiple files, supports more than 22 sensor formats, displays multiple sites with a map background, and filters radar data down to a single radar return. As a result, analysts now have raw, time-stamped message data from various overlapping radars. They also can analyze and reduce this data to provide critical information to the appropriate analyst.

The 84th RADES has instituted procedures for a quick response team. This ensures timely data retrieval from the data recorder at each operations center and subsequent reduction by the radar operators there and at the squadron in Utah.

When the quick response team (QRT) became involved in John F. Kennedy, Jr.’s, missing airplane incident near Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, for example, the remote operating location at Rome Industrial Park, New York, was already deployed.

The Air Force Rescue Coordination Center at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, contacted the North East Air Defense Sector located in Rome Industrial Park. It passed information on the lost aircraft to the sector air operation center’s mission control commander, who then called the 84th RADES personnel located there.

The 84th RADES analysts gathered pertinent data, including the missing airplane’s transponder code, approximate departure time and intended flight path. Based on this information, they found the track and last detected radar return of the aircraft and immediately passed the probable longitude and latitude to the rescue coordination center.

The RADES personnel located in New York then notified their counterparts in Utah of the incident. The squadron assigned a team chief and formed a QRT that would quality check and verify all work products, handle any additional requests for analysis, and manage all of the data associated with the accident. The recorded radar picture for that area was downloaded to the squadron, and another radar technician verified the initial findings. The QRT then assembled preliminary products showing the flight path of the lost aircraft as well as its last known latitude and longitude. Final products included graphs that displayed altitude and rate of descent based on the radar data.

The first work day after the crash found the QRT transformed into a full-scale event analysis project. While the personnel in New York had already accomplished much of the work, the initial findings had to be validated, additional information requests had to be fielded, and all of the components had to be packaged for official release from the 84th RADES to the rescue center. Following an official request, the National Transportation and Safety Board also received work products from the RADES. The searchers located the crash site within a quarter of a mile of the initial latitude and longitude that the data analysts provided to the rescue center.

Events demonstrate the importance of radar data in an accident investigation. The 84th RADES is continuing to search for approaches to gather, collate and provide useful radar data more efficiently.


Capt. Ronald J. Daskevich, USAF, is the plans and operations support flight commander, 84th Radar Evaluation Squadron, Hill Air Force Base, Utah.

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