Future of Loran-C is up for debate

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Capt. Laurence F. Pentel recalls the day two years ago when, after a day of fishing, he was steering his charter boat in a thick fog, looking for the sea buoy outside Destin Pass on Florida’s panhandle, and the GPS suddenly stopped working.

Capt. Laurence F. Pentel recalls the day two years ago when, after a day of fishing, he was steering his charter boat in a thick fog, looking for the sea buoy outside Destin Pass on Florida’s panhandle, and the GPS suddenly stopped working.

“The pass is only 100 yards [wide] at best,” Pentel says, and there are sandbars and rocks on both sides. Facing “an extremely dangerous ‘guess’ to navigate” the pass, Pentel turned instead to his old, reliable backup — his Loran-C unit — and brought his party safely back to the dock.

On Jan. 8, the Coast Guard opened a 30-day public comment period on a process that could lead to scrapping Loran-C by the end of the 2007 fiscal year. A week later, after several Loran-C users pleaded for an extended public comment period, a Coast Guard public information officer said the agency would consider that request. (Call (202) 372-1561 to check for an update or e-mail michael.l.herring@uscg.mil .)

“GPS is a wonderful thing,” says Pentel, who was one of the first to file a comment defending Loran-C. “Don’t misunderstand me. But in the Coast Guard-approved captain’s courses, one of the things they feed into you is never rely solely on one aid to navigation. I just don’t understand why we’re going to throw away something that is relatively inexpensive … and that works great.”

Pentel’s thoughts reflect those of the vast majority of boaters and aviators who responded early in the comment period. While a handful of comments suggested Loran-C has been sufficiently replaced by GPS as an electronic navigation system, those who favor keeping the older technology repeat the same themes:

• GPS is subject to interference that doesn’t affect Loran-C.

• Loran-C is better than GPS when it comes to returning to a spot on the water — of particular interest to anglers trying to get back to hot fishing spots.

• The cost of maintaining the existing Loran-C system is only a fraction of the cost of GPS.

• It is beneficial to have a backup in case GPS goes down.

• Enhanced Loran, or eLoran, is a new technology that uses the existing Loran infrastructure to make the system as accurate as GPS, which all admit is somewhat more accurate than existing Loran-C.

The Loran system uses radio signals sent from a network of towers along the coast to triangulate the location of a vessel or an aircraft. GPS uses signals from a half-dozen or more satellites circling the earth to accomplish the same thing.

The greatest concern among boaters and aviators is the reliability of GPS. “The problem is it’s very much subject to interference, either natural or man-made, inadvertent or man-made deliberate,” says Capt. Bill Brogdon, a frequent Soundings contributor and retired Coast Guard captain. “This business of interference is starting to be of more concern,” he adds, after referring to news reports that China is developing a way to destroy other countries’ satellites.

Brogdon notes that because GPS relies on line-of-sight signals, “in an urban area with high buildings, you won’t get anything. In a warehouse [with a thick roof] you won’t get anything.”

Loran also is subject to interference — thunderstorms, primarily, Brogdon says. “But the things that interfere with GPS don’t interfere with Loran and vice versa.” Moreover, he says, “It takes so much power to interfere with Loran, and [the source of the interference] has to be close to transmitting antenna.”

Enough boaters and aviators have experienced “glitches” with their GPS units that their comments form a chorus. “One day the GPS showed that I was doing 600 knots,” says Daniel J. Farren Jr., a captain of the Falmouth (Mass.) to Edgartown ferry. “It was nice to have the Loran receiver.” And Loran’s repeat accuracy — its ability to take you back to the same spot — convinces Farren that “if I was out in the fog and was unsure, I’d follow the Loran back into my port before I’d follow the GPS.”

Thomas M. Feminella of Fort Myers, Fla., is a pilot with 30 years of experience who flies his own single-engine plane. “I have two really high-end GPSes on my aircraft but, like any system, occasionally you can run into a glitch,” he says. He remembers one time when he was approaching OrlandoExecutiveAirport. “I’m looking at both of my GPSes going out on final [approach]. It was nice to look over to the side and see the Loran.”

Ron Biggerstaff fishes on the Gulf of Mexico near his Pensacola, Fla., home, in an 18-foot Pro-Line. “Out on the Gulf for fishing, typically you have a very small object on the bottom that you’re trying to find, like a wreck or a reef, and to go to that reliably time after time, your Loran will be superior, even today,” he says. Biggerstaff was among the first to comment to the Coast Guard noting, “I do have a GPS for backup, but I consider it a redundancy to my Loran unit.”

Joseph Budge of Annapolis, Md., is both an aviator and a boater. On the water, he is captain of an “old Chesapeake deadrise” originally built as a charter fishing boat but now his recreational vessel. Budge says he has seen several notices to aviators about planned GPS interference by the military.

“About every six months or so, we will see a notice for this area that GPS will be unreliable for a period of hours in a circle centered on Patuxent Naval Air Station or Quantico Marine Base, and the unreliable GPS area will range from a radius of about 40 or 50 miles at the surface to about 200 miles at 20,000 feet,” Budge says. He has tried to use his GPS in his airplane during those periods, and it didn’t work, he says.

“In the air, there are other radio beacons that aircraft can use” to give a pilot bearings, Budge says. “If the Loran has been turned off on the water, you’re hosed.”

You can submit comments on the Loran-C issue by docket number (USCG-2006-24685) using one of the following methods:

• Web site: www.dms.dot.gov

• Mail: Docket Management Facility, U.S. Department of Transportation, 400 Seventh St. S.W., Washington, DC 20590-0001.

• Fax: (202) 493-2251.

• Delivery: Room PL-401 on the plaza level of the Nassif Building at 400 Seventh St., S.W., in Washington between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. The telephone number is (202) 366-9329.