ZIMBABWE’S outdated air traffic control system is putting lives of passengers in danger as it exposes planes to possible collisions, aviation experts have said.
BY CHIPA GONDITII
The archaic system also exposes the country to a serious security threat, including an invasion by a hostile foreign army because it cannot detect fast-moving fighter jets until it is too late, according to the experts.
Zimbabwe is currently using an old procedural control system, which is a method of providing air traffic control services without the use of radar.
It is used in regions with sparsely populated areas and oceans, where radar coverage is not feasible, or as a back-up system in the case of radar failure.
Civil Aviation Authority of Zimbabwe (Caaz) director for Air Navigation Services Blessing Ngwarai said this archaic technology has been a mainstay in Zimbabwe since the old radar broke down in 2010.
The radar system works by sweeping the area it covers with a radio wave and recognising flying objects.
Modern commercial aircraft and many general aviation aircraft carry transponders, which send a signal to the radar with the flight number, speed, altitude and other information.
Ngwarai, however, said the antiquated system they are using is not compatible with the latest air traffic technologies.
“What we have is not the best set-up. We cannot remain in the past when others have moved into the future. In Zimbabwe, we have an airspace where we use procedural control and in this method you have to keep aircraft as far away as possible because you do not have a visual display of where they are in your airspace,” Ngwarai said.”
“This makes our airspace inefficient as aircraft flying into our airspace incur more bills for their fuel and also they cannot manoeuvre quickly because the controller does not see them.
“We have had incidents of near misses where aircraft come very close to each other because either one pilot has misread the instruction, they have entered into the path of another, and they only happened to avoid accidents because of TCAS, which is an accident avoidance system, built in the aircraft. But for the controller, who is sitting on the desk they will not have overview to say those aircraft are on the path of collision because they do not have radar.”
He added that: “So our airspace is not safe we have had several incidents of aircraft that fly in our airspace at wrong flight levels. There is a typical case of a flight going to South Africa where the controller here said there is KQ (flight name) coming to you at 36 000 feet and the South Africans said he is not at 36 000 feet, he is at 38 000 feet.”
“The South African air traffic controller could see the aircraft on radar and if there is a mishap of information given to the controller by the pilot, the controller here cannot verify that because he cannot see the aircraft,” Ngwarai said.
Another senior Caaz official, who asked not to be named, said the authority was downplaying the severity of the dangers caused by the unavailability of a radar system.
“Under a normal system the Ministry of Defence is supposed to have their own radar but at the moment we are currently monitoring their traffic. At the moment our airspace can be easily breached because we do not have radar so this means that we are prone to airborne attacks,” the official said.
“The current system that we have is relying on flight plans, which are filed prior to takeoff but if one flies without filing, they can easily carry out a clandestine operation in this country. At some point in time we used to have better air traffic management system than South Africa but now all the other countries in the region have this (radar) technology except for us.
“Caaz only mentioned one incident where there was a discrepancy in flight altitude caused by procedural control but there are several incidents which occurred in different parameters due to this problem. There was also another incident were someone was flying from Zambia to South Africa and the pilot was trying to avoid bad weather and he ended up being in conflict with another plane from South Africa in Masvingo when he should have been in the Gweru area. All these factors point to the fact that we do not have overview of the air traffic,” the official said.
Caaz is currently negotiating a loan of US$33,3 million from the Afreximbank for the procurement of a new radar system.
Suspended Caaz general manager David Chawota is currently being tried at the Harare Magistrates Court. He is accused of corruptly seeking to award a contract for the supply and installation of a modern sophisticated radar system to a company outside formal tender procedures.
Chawota late last year influenced Transport minister Joel Biggie Matiza to authorise a €28 million (US$33,3 million) deal for Spanish company Indra Sistemas (Indra) without going to tender.
Indra was initially awarded the tender in 2016, but the deal was set aside after a competing Italian firm, Selex ES, won a Supreme Court case challenging the decision on the basis that the tender did not go through procedures specified by law.
In addition to that, Indra did not pass a critical security vetting process by the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) and the Air Force of Zimbabwe, as well as other security agencies.