Federal Aviation Administration air traffic control experts, who long have sought better radar and navigational aids so more planes could safely use North Pacific air routes, are intensively restudying the issue since Korean Air Lines Flight 007 fatally strayed from course into Soviet airspace.
FAA officials are considering increasing the number of times that pilots must report their position by radio to controllers in Anchorage and reviewing discussions they have had with Defense Department officials to see if military radar could be used to track civilian aircraft, government sources said yesterday.
Airlines have long been seeking clearances to place more flights on the Great Circle route from the United States to the Far East than the air traffic system could handle.
"What we want to do is reduce separation standards," an FAA expert said, referring to the distances permitted between airplanes for safe flight operations. Those distances are vast across the North Pacific because there is no radar and little opportunity to improve it, he said.
Furthermore, the only places where ground-based radio beacons could be spotted to help airplanes along the way are in Soviet territory, he said. Guidance for planes flying the route that Flight 007 was supposed to take comes from an on-board navigation system that has proven highly reliable over the years.
There has been considerable speculation that the pilots of Flight 007 misprogrammed their navigational computer before they left Anchorage and that the mistake sent the Boeing 747 and the 269 people on board into Soviet territory.
U.S radar on the north end of the flight track and Japanese radar on the south end cover only a small portion of the flight path. Flights along that path are expected to report progress to U.S. or Japanese controllers, but there is no way for the controllers to verify the positions.
The new air traffic control system the FAA is planning to build over the next decade includes automatically receiving and tracking those reports, but not the verification of position, experts said yesterday.
Radar beams, like television transmissions, are line of sight only and do not curve with the earth's surface. The maximum range of most radar antennas is about 200 miles.