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Radar glitches causing problems at two airports

(ran NS, S editions of TAMPA BAY AND STATE)

Four Florida airports _ including Tampa's _ are awaiting weather radar installations this year to take the bite out of violent storms, but aircraft radar glitches are still causing trouble at the Miami and Fort Lauderdale airports.

Miami, Palm Beach, Orlando and Tampa international airports are slated to receive by this fall the latest in weather forecasting technology _ Doppler radar. Fort Lauderdale will receive the system in two years. Doppler radar will be operational at only nine other airports across the country by the end of this summer.

Doppler radar is highly sensitive to wind shear and strong conflicting wind often generated by storms. The winds can cause a sudden, deadly drop in an airplane's airspeed at the most inopportune times _ such as during takeoff or landing.

Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach see 80 to 100 thunderstorm days per year, according to the National Weather Service. Cities like Chicago and New York see about 25 to 30 days per year.

Wind shear forced an Eastern Airlines DC-9 to smash down on a Fort Lauderdale airport runway in 1972. No one was injured. The weather hasn't been the only concern for air traffic controllers.

Federal Aviation Administration technicians arrived Monday to work on Miami International Airport's glitch-plagued radar system.

Officials scheduled a 10 p.m. outage so technicians can install a new switch in the radar system. A defective switch has been blamed for the latest failure, which lasted for 2{ hours Saturday night.

While Miami's radar is down, a back-up system at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, which has had problems as well, will take over. There have been at least 11 radar failures at the Miami airport since May 24; Fort Lauderdale has had at least three.

Andy Cantwell, the Miami air traffic controllers union representative, said the glitches are making controllers nervous.

"An air traffic controller's job is very stressful at the best of times," Cantwell said, adding that the bad weather South Florida has been having has made the controllers' job "extremely stressful."

FAA spokeswoman Christy Williams said officials are equally anxious to fix the problems at Miami airport.

"Any employee concern would be a concern for us," she said. "We're trying to repair the problems and get everything functioning normal."

The Miami radar is a new system the FAA has installed at 101 airports nationwide since 1989. Officials said the glitches have occurred at times of light traffic, and passengers have been not been endangered.