The average airline passenger en route to the Southernmost City may be surprised to learn there isn't any radar at the Key West International Airport.
The civilian airport depends on Naval Air Station (NAS) Key West air traffic controllers at Boca Chica Field for all radar information concerning incoming and outgoing aircraft, civilian and military.
"We have no radar of our own," Monroe County Airports Director Peter Horton affirmed.
"The radar information in our tower is sent to us from the Navy, so they handle all our approaches and departures."
It was therefore hard to decipher who was more excited Thursday as NAS Key West Commander Capt. Pat Lefere unveiled a new, $3.5 million Digital Airport Surveillance Radar at Boca Chica Field that will modernize air traffic control.
The old analog systems developed in the 1970s and installed at Boca Chica Field in 1984 were turned off Friday and the new multi-ton radar array began spinning on the eastern edge of the runways as F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jets roared past.
"This equipment will better serve the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) and Miami controllers in bringing civilian traffic into Key West, which, as we all know, has been increasing every year," Lefere told a group of sailors that will be using the new equipment.
Behind the group of sailors an FAA airplane flew low over the air field, testing sensors and other equipment. One of the biggest improvements to excite Lefere -- himself a fighter pilot -- is the simultaneous inclusion of all aircraft information such as location, speed, height and direction as well as weather.
It's that combination that brings a new efficiency, but also safety and situation awareness to air traffic control in the Keys, Lefere added.
Navy Electronics Technician Lestinian Hamlet was doing his best to explain the leapfrog in technology, but it was the system's simplicity in terms of diagnostics and maintenance that will alleviate most of his headaches.
"There's two of everything," Hamlet said as he opened doors housing a maze of circuit boards. "Everything has a backup."
Across the base, NAS Key West Air Traffic Control watch supervisor Petty Officer Emmily Smith stood in a darkened room and spoke in hushed tones amid the faces illuminated by radar screens.
"It makes our job 100 percent easier," Smith said. "There is no more redundancies in information. We have a direct input on weather and much clearer picture of aircraft in our airfield; that's the most important part."
"We certainly welcome any improvements made by the Navy to their systems," Horton said. "What's good for the Navy is good for us."