One of the shoreline's largest airports is lacking a time-tested safety tool. There are no radar screens inside the control tower at Sikorsky Memorial Airport, near Bridgeport, even though pilots and airport administrators said they've been waiting for the Federal Aviation Administration to install a radar system for nearly two decades.
Pilots partly blame the facility's lack of radar on a number of close calls in the sky.
"We've seen incidents where you have to believe that if everybody was doing their job and the controllers had the advantage of radar, things would have been different," pilot Dennis Doyle said.
The Troubleshooters researched the Aviation Safety Reporting System, managed by NASA, and found twenty-three examples of anonymously reported near mid-air collisions (NMACs) at Sikorsky Memorial Airport since 1992.
"It's almost always a surprise to the pilot and I've had two or three myself," pilot David Faile said.
But aviation safety consultants said there could be more close calls that go unreported.
"There's nothing being done to mitigate the safety risk that's being caused by not having a ground-based radar," said Gabe Bruno, a retired FAA manager-turned safety consultant.
Perhaps more troubling, pilots said the FAA has known about the issue for years. Airport administrators said they have been waiting on a federally-funded radar display since 1994.
"The FAA talks about priorities in funding and that's what we were probably a victim of," superintendent of operations Steve Ford said.
However, the FAA said the Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) facility in Westbury, New York, can monitor Bridgeport's airspace and relay any air traffic concerns to Sikorsky Memorial Airport.
But that's different than a tower having its own radar display.
"They would be able to filter everything out and just concentrate on the traffic that they're interested that is local," Ford said.
Ford said conditions along the nearby shoreline often get hazy. He said air controllers in the tower can talk to planes but not necessarily see them. That's when radar screens could possibly assist the controllers.
Sikorsky Memorial is a mid-sized airport. However, control towers at similar-sized airports, including Groton-New London, Hartford-Brainard and Danbury, have radar displays .
"The minimum qualification to get on the list is 30,000 itinerant aircraft, which means that's the plane that comes here and leaves. He's not necessarily based here and we have met that requirement for several years," Ford said.
The FAA is upgrading existing radar systems across the country. It's also transitioning to a new satellite-based system called NextGen, but the Government Accountability Office reports NextGen is already more than four billion dollars over budget and behind schedule.
"When the FAA's philosophy is that we're moving away from ground-based radar and we're going to go the satellite system that we haven't been able to implement yet, you can see why the Bridgeport airport requesting ground-based radar is a very low priority," Bruno said. "My guess is it'll probably never happen."
Ford said Sikorsky Memorial is spending $30 million to upgrade its runway, lighting and navigation systems.
But some say the airport's safety overhaul won't be complete without one major addition.
"It seems only natural that if we upgrade to a modern system for landing at the airport with a brand-new runway, we should have radar here," Ford said.
Pilots said they wouldn't fly at Sikorsky Memorial if they didn't feel safe, but they admit it could be safer.
"The control tower, certainly, could benefit by having radar here," said Faile.
According to Ford, the FAA is planning to install a radar repeater screen at the airport within three years.