Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Update on Williamtown "Abnormal Radar Returns" Case

I have recently been submitting very targeted, precise Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to various Australian government agencies, and those requests have been based on previously obtained information from those agencies. This is one of the easier aspects of obtaining really useful government documentation: When you have already got some worthy material, and that material mentions other material (by code name, document class, etc) then the flood gates can sometimes open. One such batch of initial interesting material was furnished to me by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) on the 19th of March, 2015. The material was simply years and years worth of UFO-type occurrences held in their databases, which I have already discussed in previous blog posts. One possible case of interest in that massive dollop of records related to abnormal primary radar returns at Williamtown, NSW on the 21st of March, 2014. The ATSB data on this event, some five pages of it, told us that at 0610hrs local time (EST) the Williamtown Department of Defence primary radar experienced what they referred to as “abnormal radar returns”. The ATSB documentation stated:

“Please note that this occurrence is a notification only and has not yet been investigated. After being issued departure instructions and a take-off clearance [redacted] take-off clearance was cancelled due to multiple unidentified system tracks that appeared on the Australian Defence Air Traffic System (ADATS) Situational Data Displays (SDD). The tracks presented as primary radar returns only, with no associated secondary surveillance radar (SSR) data. These tracks appeared at approximately 30NM south of WLM and disappeared from all SDD screens at approximately 8NM south of WLM. No further returns were observed and [redacted] was subsequently departed without further incident.”

Furthermore, the ATSB material indicated that a Defence Air Safety Occurrence Report (ASOR) was raised because of the event. ASOR’s are a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) report. So, assuming that there was an ASOR still on record, plus, hopefully, a whole pile of other records, the evening of the 22nd Mar 2015 saw me submit an FOI request to the Defence Department asking for:

“….any material held by the Department of Defence, regarding the above matter. The material may well be held at the Directorate of Defence Aviation and Air Force Safety (DDAAFS) and/or at Williamtown RAAF. Specifically, I wish to obtain ASOR material; any internal Defence emails, or emails to and/or from external agencies (the ATSB for example); any investigative reports; any material held on the Defence Aviation Hazard Reporting and Tracking System (DAHRTS); any material held on the Closed Loop Hazard/ASOR Review and Tracking System; imagery from the actual Situational Data Displays (SSD); primary radar system test results; general opinions and conclusions of RAAF officers; logs of phone calls made regarding the incident; etc.”

On 12 May 2015 I received a reply from Defence, including a 5 page PDF of material relevant to my request. The ASOR, plus a Defence “Technical and Preventative Service Request”, are presented below:

           Importantly, the material indicates that the events of the 21st of March, 2014 were radar glitches, and not any sort of unusual or unknown bodies being picked up by the radar system. The above records state that since 2007 RAAF Williamtown has experienced a “DEFECT”, which was specified as “SDD Erratic Target Tracks”. SDD is an acronym for Situational Data Display. It goes on to say, in part:

“DP&D SDDs display erratic target tracks within approximately 8Nm of the WLM and multiple coating tracks.” 


“The problem only appears to happen following circumstances:
               a.      Display is in SYS mode, and
         b.      When an aircraft transponder is transmitting in the lines. It is not labelled with an alpha              numeric label designator.”

Furthermore, under the “Action Taken” section, it is stated, in part, that:

“21 Mar 14 – Another incident of Duplicate Code observed at 0655 h loc. TMD screen captures, data tapes and rip of SDD images provide to cAEO for further investigation.”

So, on this occasion, I think we can safely say, that the event described in all this material there is no hint of anything but an unusual system malfunction, probably software related judging by the jargon on these and other pages furnished to me. If nothing else, the material shows us what an Defence Department Air Safety Occurrence Report looks like. Two years ago, I submitted an FOI to the Defence Department for all ASORs which contained events that related to unknown and unusual flying objects, air prox events with such, unsolved low flying events, etc. I got no where. Which is not surprising, because months later I found out that the relevant area of Defence had probably not even searched their ASOR databases for the keywords and topics I had asked for. I will be revisiting that matter quite soon. As for Williamtown and the above event, if anyone wants a copy of the whole file, I am more than happy to send it out.

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