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Smoother, faster air traffic anticipated

PAPEÉTE, Tahiti (Tahitipresse, Sept. 1, 2009) - By the end of the year, Tahiti will have a state-of-the-art radar system that will cover all of French Polynesia’s airspace, an overall, two-stage investment of nearly US$31 million (21 million euros).

That will allow air traffic controllers at the Tahiti-Faa΄a Airport to combine data from satellites or ground stations in order to spread radar coverage of airspace throughout the sprawling French Polynesia. Up until now, radar coverage from the Tahiti-Faa΄a Airport has extended only as far as the Leeward Islands.

The new system will mean smoother and faster airplane traffic for approaches and takeoffs by the more than international and domestic airlines that combine to operate more than 15,000 planes yearly.

Air traffic controllers at the airport will be able to follow airplane flight patterns within a 450-kilometer (280-mile) radius of the new radar station that was inaugurated last Friday atop the 4,500-ft (1,372-meter) high Mount Marau in Tahiti’s Commune of Faa΄a overlooking the airport.

The radar station is the first part of the overall new radar system due to be completed by the end of the year. Once finished, it will allow air traffic controllers to "see" much further than the radar itself.

Instead of "seeing" the some 500 kms (310 miles) covered by traditional radar, the new system will allow air traffic controllers to monitor a straight line distance of 4,000 km (2,485 miles), said Thierry Reviron, the head of the French Civil Aviation Office in French Polynesia.

The first stage of the new system is an autonomous air traffic control radar housed in a dome-shaped structure known as a radome (radar plus dome that now stands out on Mount Marau’s skyline.

Inside the dome is an eight-meter (26-ft) antenna that turns 15 times a minute. The radome, with a 12-meter (39-ft) diameter, is a weatherproof enclosure that protects the radar antenna from the sun, wind and rain.

The station took 1.5 years to build at a cost of eight million euros, or nearly US$12 million. It will become operational on Sept. 24.

The overall project dates back to a French Civil Aviation Office decision made in 2002. That was seven years after a communications satellite-based system known in French as "Visualisation des Vols Océaniques (VIVO)," or "situation display and data link system for the Tahiti Flight Information Region," was installed.

VIVO, a precursory system in the South Pacific, made the Tahiti-Faa΄a Airport control tower the first in the region to have a visual means of locating planes in its 13 million square kilometers (5 million sq. miles) of airspace, according to the French High Commission office. "Nonetheless, this equipment’s technology limited it to monitoring trans-oceanic flights."

French Polynesia’s growth in airline traffic was coupled with increased needs for regularity and safety, the French Civil Aviation Office decided in 2002 to provide a high-performance radar system. The aim, the high commission said in a statement, was to ensure a harmonious development of French Polynesia’s domestic air transport in general and in the Leeward Islands in particular.

The officials attending last Friday’s radar station inauguration included French High Commissioner Adolphe Colrat, French Polynesia President Oscar Temaru, French Polynesia Vice President Antony Géros and Papeéte Mayor Michel Buillard.

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