August 2, 2012

"Two planes taking off from National put on collision course with plane trying to land."

There was "an approaching storm... and the air traffic control center in Warrenton wanted to reverse the flow of planes into the airport... The Warrenton controllers communicated the plan to the controller tower at National.
“The tower agreed, but they didn’t pass it on to all the people they needed to pass it on to,” said a federal official familiar with the incident who was not authorized to speak publicly.


Scott said...

I get the feeling that if I actually KNEW what was going on with air traffic control, I wouldn't fly at all. But airplanes make so much possible. Ignorance is bliss I guess.

Dose of Sanity said...

For my money's worth, I'm going to bet the next terrorist attack occurs via ATC.

We trust them so much.

Jay said...

Good thing we have those smart & brave government workers!!!

Where would we be without unionized Air Traffic Controllers!!!??!

Michael K said...

Good enough for government work.

Tibore said...

This is bad, don't get me wrong. But at the same time, the standard is so strict that all the planes in question missed each other by a fair distance. Granted, according to the article, two of the planes would've covered that distance in 12 seconds, but still... the point is that the FAA and ATC standards are so high that there was still time for the crisis to be averted well within human reaction timeframes.

Again, though, not trying to softpedal it. It was still a bad problem that could've had terrible, perhaps even fatal consequencs. And the controllers involved do need to be more dilligent in communicating with each other. That said, it was still what, a mile-plus miss, according to the article? That gets covered fast in an airplane, but it's not the same category of having to swerve your car when a dog runs in front of you. It's definitely a failure of Air Traffic Control, but it's one where the high standards kept it from becoming a case where everything came down to panicked, emergency human actions at the speed of basic reflex. It was a good 12 seconds from that, fortunately, and that is enough time to take considered, thoughtful action.

It's good the standards are so high. As long as the mistake is recognized and addressed, it doesn't shake my confidence in the ATC system.

rhhardin said...

There's a lot of space up there.

Near misses are a lot more common than collisions.

If ATC puts planes on a collision course, they don't usually hit.

A lot of what gets called a near miss is just normal see and be seen air traffic flow.

One thing I've never understood is flight rule conventions for altitude versus bearing.

Visual traffic for example cruises at odd or even thousands plus 500 feet, by rule.

What a horrible idea. Put all the traffic at the same height and they collide more.

I always added a random number when I cruised anywhere.

With modern navigation equipment, commercial planes are not only at precise heights but at precisely on the nominal airway, so the odds of a ATC cruise (as opposed to climbing/descending) mistake producing a collision are pretty high. They should add random numbers just like I did.

Curious fact: there's a trick for spotting air traffic from the air, which is not as easy as you'd think.

The trick is fix your stare at some point and notice any movement in side vision. You'll see pretty much all the air traffic.

The exception is any air traffic that will collide with you. Constant bearing means collision.

So it's not a great trick after all.

edutcher said...

Don't know if it's still true, but ATCs used to have one of the highest mental crack-up rates of any profession.

This may be why.

Or it may be symptomatic.

Smilin' Jack said...

According to the FAA this was not a near-collision, it was a "loss of separation." Gotta love those bureaucrats....

Rusty said...

Dose of Sanity said...
For my money's worth, I'm going to bet the next terrorist attack occurs via ATC.

We trust them so much.

The sites are hardened, besides most of them aren't anywhere near the airports they serve.

John Lynch said...

Walt let his daughter overdose.

Joe said...

According to the FAA this was not a near-collision, it was a "loss of separation." Gotta love those bureaucrats....

In the Air Traffic Control system, this distinction if VERY important and not just bureaucratic speak. One thing you learn in air traffic controller training is that the language used is very specific and unambiguous.

The report says that landing aircraft was cleared to land. For all intents and purposes, in ATC parlance, cleared means the aircraft "owns" that space. This is how you can have one aircraft on approach, but 5 miles out, while another is taking off. The former isn't CLEARED to land yet.

However, the controller likely never cleared that aircraft to land and only violated the separation rule. One question I'd raise in an inquiry is whether the position of the inbound aircraft was misrepresented to the controller.

When all is said and done, my suspicion is that the controller in the tower did nothing wrong and that it was approach control that messed up--that they were not granted authorization by the tower controller to do what they did and didn't inform him when they did it.