FAA dedicates new radar facility

MERRIMACK – The new Federal Aviation Administration radar facility located here is to New England airports what Tom Brady is to the New England Patriots.

It completes touchdowns.

In the FAA case, those touchdowns are actually touch downs, successful landings at Boston’s Logan and Manchester international airports and a host of smaller airports, including Nashua. The facility also guides takeoffs and flyovers, that is, planes that cross the airspace of those airports.

Called the Boston Consolidated Terminal Radar Approach Control, or TRACON, the facility began operating March 7 at 25 Technology Park Drive. It was officially dedicated in a ceremony Friday morning.

The 63,000-square-foot, two-story facility handles an area ranging from the New Hampshire Lakes Region southwest to Rhode Island and southeast to Cape Cod.

FAA officials noted this is a $50 million facility, including the land, design and engineering, complex computer hardware and software and eight radars.

“This is the state of the art. This is the latest and greatest the FAA can provide,” facilities manager Wayne Hamilton said Friday in a telephone conference interview, which also included Joe Davies, air traffic control manager, and John Zalenchak, manager of air traffic facilities in New England.

There are 168 TRACON facilities in the nation, but only a handful with this state-of-the-art technology; the others are in northern California and near Chicago, St. Louis, Atlanta and Washington, D.C.

But of those, the facility in Merrimack – termed the Boston TRACON facility – is the largest in terms of “STARS” displays, Davies said.

STARS – or Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System – includes computers that display 20-by-20-inch, full-color images of aircraft positions and other flight information.

In April, the Merrimack facility also handled 57,000 “operations,” which include takeoffs, landings and flyovers, officials said.

“It’s a very complex facility,” Zalenchak said.

The quarterback analogy is useful to understand how the facility relates to the other branches of what’s called the National Airspace System. One branch, after planes reach a certain altitude, “hands off” the tracking responsibilities to the next branch, as the FAA officials describe it.

For example, planes taking off or landing are handled by air traffic control towers at the individual airports from the ground to an altitude of about 2,000 to 3,000 feet. After that, tracking the aircraft is “handed off” to TRACON facilities, which track the aircraft up to cruising altitudes of about 12,000 feet.

From there, the planes are tracked by FAA centers, such as the Boston center located in Nashua.

The TRACON facility in Merrimack will employ about 160 people and will operate 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, Hamilton noted. Merrimack was chosen by a team that whittled down about 70 possible locations based on a list of criteria, he said.

The site was approved in August 2000, and construction began the following year.

The project came in under cost estimates and ahead of schedule, the FAA officials noted. The system ensures “efficiency and safety for the flying public,” Zalenchak said. “That’s the bottom line. That’s why we come to work every day.”

Patrick Meighan can be reached at 594-6518 or meighanp@telegraph-nh.com.