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Space-age 'eyes' for harbor pilots?

Tampa harbor pilot John Lerro peered into the sheets of rain that had obliterated the image on the radar scope aboard the huge freighter he was trying to guide into port. Somewhere in that rain should be a buoy that would tell him where to turn to safely maneuver the ship under the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.

Mr. Lerro never saw that buoy.

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His ship slammed into a main support for the bridge, and 35 people traveling across it plunged to their deaths when 1,200 feet of the roadway fell 145 feet into the water.

One year after that incident, avionics engineers in the Tampa Bay area wonder why a harbor pilot still has to peer out into the rain to see where he's going. Aircraft pilots don't have to depend on sight for landing, and certainly the space shuttle Columbia did not land by a pilot searching out a runway, the engineers say.

With all the advances in electronic guidance systems, they contend, lives should not be risked by allowing huge freighters and tankers to grope past high-risk areas in bad weather.

"The technology of space could be brought into use in the navigation of ships ," said Fred Cutting, president of the Tampa Bay chapter of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. "The space shuttle had one shot at landing, and that ship had one shot at getting under the bridge."

Mr. Cutting said the Tampa Bay accident could have been prevented if the pilot had been able to carry a microcomputer aboard the freighter that could constantly plot the ship's position in the channel by receiving signals from electronic devices on markers on either side of the channel.

Instead of straining his eyes in the rain to find the buoy that marked the channel's turn toward the bridge, Cutting said, the pilot could look at his computer and know his position relative to the center line of the channel. If the ship were off course, the pilot would know immediately.

While this type of navigational system for ships has not been developed, Cutting says the technology for it has been available for the past five years. The device on the channel marker is called a transponder and consists of battery-powered transmitter. It would instantaneously transmit a short, coded message after being activated by a coded signal from the pilot's portable transmitter-receiver unit.

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The microcomputer could also tell the pilot his course, how fast he is approaching the bridge, how fast winds and currents are pushing his ship across the channel, and his estimated time of arrival at the bridge.

A system large enough to help ships navigate under the Sunshine Skyway Bridge would cost about $500,000, Cutting told a US Coast Guard investigation into the safety of Tampa Bay, and it would bring the technology of navigating ships to a par with that for aircraft navigation.

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