[KLMO]: Shifting the Model

Citizens for Quiet Skies, in Longmont, CO, has fought heroically to bring balance and moderation to the skydiving noise impact by Mile Hi, at Vance Brand Airport [KLMO]. The group took their concerns to the state courts, and then took it further to an appeal. In the process, CFQS has helped to illuminate yet one more reason that aviation impacts are out of control: the court systems (just like the faux-regulators) are biased towards accommodating commerce, and too quick to defer to FAA and federal authority.

I ran into this quote by R. Buckminster Fuller:

“You never change the existing reality by fighting it. Instead, create a new model that makes the old one obsolete.”

He makes a good point. When you study aviation impacts, you see ample evidence that, no matter where it is (a skydiving issue in exurbia, an air tour issue at Grand Canyon, a NextGen impact near a major hub airport, and so forth), the present imbalance is carefully sustained – and even expanded – via the carefully coordinated use of propaganda tools. The Av-Gov Complex uses propaganda tools to frame the issues favorably for air commerce while also keeping the average person from seeing the relevant truths.

Led by lobbyists and with ample faux-regulatory cover provided by FAA, the Av-Gov Complex created the present model, and they are being damned careful to control any efforts to change that model. But, facts and truths are problematic to those who are corrupt and self-serving; if we persist, as Kim and others have in Longmont, eventually we can shift the model and restore the balance. The noise impacts are real and problematic, just as the aviation operator profits are real and narrowly focused; but we can change the model to include other important factors, such as safety.

Shifting the Model to include SAFETY

One relevant truth about skydiving is this: skydive operators consciously choose to offset their climbs, so that the noise impact is not happening over the actual airport but instead is happening many miles from the airport. This decision shifts the noise impact onto people who may have no idea why, starting on a certain sunny day a few years ago, they now always hear lots of droning airplanes diminishing the best weather-days of the year.

There are safety consequences of this decision that are often overlooked. In particular, a skydiving plane doing repetitive climbs far from the airport drop zone poses a higher midair-collision hazard to other small planes passing through the airspace.


VFR sectional centered on KLMO. The red circle has a 5 nautical mile radius. Many of the skydiving climbs happen outside this circle, to the south and west. (click on image to view sectional and other images at VFRmap.com)

In the Longmont example, FAA’s aeronautical charts include a symbol at KLMO to alert pilots that this is a skydiving airport … but, if the climbs are far from the airport, even the most safety-conscious pilot, passing through may not see the skydive plane until it is too late. And the edge of the Front Range is a heavily-flown airspace for small planes.

A proactive FAA would judiciously constrain the skydive operator on where they must conduct their climbs, flying within a clearly charted climb zone positioned over and adjacent to the charted drop zone. For example, they might require climbs within a 2-mile radius of the airport center, or the drop zone coordinates. If the weather was marginal within that defined climb zone, the operator would simply have to stay on the ground, which eliminates both safety risks and noise impacts. If the repetitive noise generated within the defined climb zone increases noise complaints to those near the airport and under that airspace, then FAA would have the hard data they need to further constrain the operator’s annual permit letter, imposing hour-limits per day, alternate days off, and other noise mitigation strategies.

See also:
  • 1/28/2017 – the next CFQS meeting, at 10AM at the Longmont Public Library (click here for further info)
  • 1/6/2017 – a recent OpEd in the Longmont TimesCall

A Blast from the Past: Ike, ‘The First Air Force One’, and FAA’s Slow Action about Mid-Air Collisions

If you research FAA’s history, you will find all sorts of interesting stories that most people have never heard of. Here’s an example.

A link was shared to a 5-minute video about ‘Columbine II’. This was President Eisenhower’s Super Constellation, and the only presidential aircraft ever sold to a private citizen post-service. Here is an embed copy:
Watching this video, you will notice a striking fact posted at the start: in 1953, we came close to losing President Eisenhower in a midair collision over New York City. ATC had brought two aircraft with near-identical call signs into a near-collision: Eastern Airlines Flight #8610, and Air Force Flight #8610. Shortly after this incident, a new ATC rule was put in place to always refer to the presidential aircraft as Air Force One. The rule seems to be helping (i.e., we have still not involved Air Force One in a midair collision!).

20160313scp.. view of CRT radar display w sweep, wx (from 'the first air force one')Of course, in 1953 we were actually using the real ‘World War II technology’ radar, plus controllers and pilots had to strain to hear crackling radio transmissions … the sort of ‘antiquated system’ Shuster/Mica/LoBiondo/Rinaldi/Calio falsely claim still exists.

We have seen dozens of cycles of upgrade/change since: new rules, new technologies, and more.

Back in 1953, the REAL antiquated technology was considered cutting edge, and it generally served well, to help handle a boom in air traffic, all being worked by low-paid, chain-smoking air traffic controllers. We introduced higher speeds with commercial jets in the 1960s, and well into the 70’s aviation was continuing to boom. Thus, it is not surprising we had so many ACTUAL midair collisions in the years that followed. Five that stand out on a short list are:

  1. 6/30/1956 – over the Grand Canyon, 128 killed when United Flight #718 collided with TWA flight #2 [the outcome: Congress passed legislation to create FAA in 1958]
  2. 12/16/1960 – over New York City, 134 killed when United Flight #826 collided with TWA flight #266 [the outcome: an equipment upgrade (to include DME), and a speed limit of 250kts when within 30 nautical miles of the airport and below 10,000 feet altitude (see 12/26/1961)]
  3. 7/19/1967 – near Asheville, NC, 82 killed when Piedmont Flight #22 collided with a small plane (Beech Baron) [the outcome: a newly-formed NTSB pressed FAA to develop and mandate on-board collision avoidance technologies; that same NTSB selectively excluded critical information from the investigation/report]
  4. KSAN.19780925.. PSA182 trailing smoke just after midair collision9/25/1978 – over San Diego, 144 killed when PSA Flight #482 collided with a small plane (Cessna Skyhawk) [the outcome: FAA created ‘Class B Airspace’ with enhanced radar control required for all commercial airliners (but only the airliners were required to equip!)]
  5. 8/31/1986 – over Cerritos, CA, 82 killed when Aeroméxico Flight #486 collided with a small plane (Piper Archer) [the outcome: FAA upgraded the Class B Airspace rules to require small planes to also equip with operating Mode C transponders (this corrected the failure after the 1978 midair, when only the airliners were required to equip)]

The midairs have declined, but they still happen. More often than not, the midairs and near-midairs of the past couple decades have nothing to do with equipment and everything to do with controllers/pilots who are distracted, bored or excessively fatigued. And, particularly with ATC, sometimes they are just too cocky, having seen that they will not be held accountable should they screw up.

See also:
  • (5/9/1999) – An Actual Midair Between a Helicopter and a Cessna at San Jose’s Reid-Hillview Airport. This one was swept under the rug, and a key event in this website creator’s process of learning, while an FAA ATC, just how corrupt his employer was/is.
  • (7/25/2010) – Safety Failure: A Concealed Error at Camarillo Tower. A clear controller error by a newly-certified controller, witnessed by a supervisor. This one was also swept under the rug. Since then, all three Camarillo personnel who cooperated in the coveruup (One’ Nielsen, Kevin Pruitt, Robin Dybvik) have been promoted into higher management positions. The website creator learned about this incident from a former coworker who was concerned about the cover-up; frankly, stories such as this exist at many – if not most – control towers.  (see also documents within this 60-page FOIA lawsuit ‘Discovery’ package)
  • (4/24/2014) – ANALYSIS: Controller Error & NMAC at Newark, poor awareness caused a near collision at the main runway intersection, between a commercial arrival and a commercial departure; the arrival saw the conflict late, then abandoned their approach and climbed to pass over the departure.
  • (5/8/2014) – ANALYSIS: Controller Error & NMAC at Houston, a momentary oversight by ATC causes a conflict between two departures, resolved by on-board TCAS automation directing evasive maneuvers.
  • (8/9/2014) – ANALYSIS: How AOV Covered Up the KCMA 7-25-2010 OE, a team is flown to Camarillo to conduct an investigation – 10-months after the incident! That night, the investigator sends a detailed email to Tony Ferrante, FAA’s top person for safety. Two months later, this all gets watered down in a 5-page memo that selectively deletes key data points. This post reveals the Cover-Up strategies and sequence.
  • (8/24/2015) – Quote by Scott Bloch, in a 5/29/2011 blog post about endemic FAA corruption; includes a link to the source article)

NTSB’s Preliminary Report on the Monck’s Corner Midair Fails to Present Critical Airspeed Data

It took NTSB ten days to release a report on a midair collision that killed two men, when their Cessna was broadsided by a USAF F16 ‘training flight’ north of Charleston, SC [KCHS]. A PDF copy of the report text has been created, and includes footnotes pointing at areas needing further detail and investigation.

As noted earlier on this website, both FAA and NTSB need to become more immediately transparent on serious incidents, especially low-altitude fatal midair collisions. At a minimum, we should be able to see radar presentations (showing positions at key times, as well as datablocks that reveal altitudes and groundspeeds at those times), just as we should be able to listen to a copy of the audio between the F16 pilot and the KCHS approach controller.

What new information was produced? Here are a few key points:

  1. Very significantly, the impact occurred at just 1,500 feet altitude, an incredibly low altitude for an F16 to be passing at high speed near a small general aviation airport (Berkeley County, SW of Moncks Corner, [KMKS]).

    20150720scp.. VFRmap re Moncks Corner midair (showing Shaw AFB E to KMYR S to KCHS)

    VFR sectional showing: F16 departure from KSSC (orange triangle), F16 practice approaches at KMYR (orange square), final destination for F16 at KCHS (orange circle), and approx. route of Cessna from KMKS toward KCRE (red line).

  2. The report notes a 10:20 departure by the F16, a flight to KMYR to conduct two instrument approaches, then a flight to KCHS for another practice approach. Thus, it took just 40-minutes for this F16 to fly 79 direct nautical miles to KMKS, fly two approaches, then fly 63 direct nautical miles to the collision near KMKS. The time used up to fly two practice approaches at KMYR is substantial, thus suggests: this F16 was likely screaming through the sky, and at only 1,500 feet altitude (though interestingly, at the initial press conference on July 7th, the USAF commander said they believe the collision was at 2,500 to 3,000 feet altitude).
  3. Although NTSB provided many valuable details, they made absolutely no mention of a hugely important factor: the F16’s airspeed leading up to the collision. Historically (and this goes WAY back to the almost weekly fatal midairs that happened in the 1960’s, when jets were first introduced commercially), airspeed differentials are a major contributing factor to midair collisions. Certainly a Cessna at just 1,500 feet altitude would have very little opportunity to avoid a fast-moving jet pointed straight at the Cessna. This pattern, with NTSB failing to mention a very pertinent detail in their Preliminary Report, is a repeat of what happened a year ago when a student from Germany was killed in a crash near St. Cloud, MN, for which there was strong evidence an arriving Allegiant flight was too low and too close, creating a wake turbulence upset.
  4. The controller’s handling suggests a systemic ATC aversion against ‘controlling’ military training flights. ATC should never have allowed the F16 pilot to scream along at just 1,500-feet, particularly since the collision was at roughly 18-miles northeast of the runway in Charleston. Typically, a normal stabilized approach descends roughly 300-feet per mile, so a ‘controlled’ civilian flight would expect to be descending through 5,000+ at 18-miles out. Had the F16 flight been properly controlled, ATC would have held the flight higher, to at least 3,000 or 4,000 feet, and with a moderate (even minimal?) airspeed consistent with safe operation of the F16 while mixing safely with low-altitude civilian flights. In the image below, note the TACAN approach is normally flown via a 24-mile arc (much further out) and has a crossing at LADRE at or above 3,000 feet. It appears ATC dove the F16 early to enable the pilot to get under the scattered layer, to conduct a quicker ‘visual approach’ to land KCHS Runway 15.

    Red circle marks the approximate midair location.

    Red circle marks the approximate midair location.

  5. The simple fact is, if this controller had asserted earlier and aggressive control of the F16 flight, or if the controller had NOT told the F16 pilot to turn south (which turn was delayed by the F16 pilot), there would have been no midair collision. I.e., timing and timidity conspired to translate ATC instructions into two fatalities and two destroyed aircraft.

As a former air traffic controller (forced into early retirement due to whistleblowing), I find this incident and the post-incident handling very troubling. Two men lost their lives unnecessarily, but the F16 pilot and the FAA controller were also victim. They have to live with what they saw unfold, and they will forever wonder, what could they have done differently to have prevented this accident?

An FAA that routinely looks the other way while F16 pilots scream at low altitudes is only enabling risky flying that will eventually produce tragic consequences. Frankly, it would not be at all surprising to see this controller retire on a stress-related disability, primarily because FAA is so eager to accommodate aviators, they too often fail to assert real and needed safety controls.

UPDATED 7/20/2015

FAA, NTSB Need to Accelerate Transparency about Midair Collisions

Two men were killed three days ago, when their Cessna was broadsided by a low-flying Air Force F16. This was a tragic accident that should never have happened, and would not have happened if any of the following practices had been followed by FAA:

  1. ensure the instrument approach procedures designed and approved by FAA do not create high-risk conflicts with nearby airport operations (in this case, the GA field at Moncks Corner);
  2. regulate military jet instrument practice in civilian airspace to include much slower maximum airspeeds (i.e., if  ATC cannot ensure that the route is clear of all other aircraft, then ATC must restrict the military jet to much slower speeds, as they would a civilian jet).

The Cessna occupants died, so it is easy to try and pin the blame on them for having just taken off and being in the wrong spot when the collision occurred. But, based on statements made to reporters in the immediate aftermath, it is clear that FAA’s controllers were working the jet, and that it was at a very low altitude either setting up for or actually on a published instrument procedure. It is also clear that high-speed low-flying military jets were a huge concern in South Carolina, even a week prior to the midair. For example, a news article on June 29 generated the following selected reader comments:20150707scp.. Comments re low-flying SC military jets, from recent WYFF article, 'Fighter jets heard, spotted over Upstate'

There appears to be a developing trend toward more aggressive military training flying, with more impact upon residents below. This incident reveals the worst-case consequences of this trend. The ATC clearance issued by the radar approach controller to the F16 pilot is a matter of documented fact. It is recorded digitally, and the audio data is saved, by FAA. Likewise, the radar data used by the controller working the F16 just prior to the midair collision is also digitally saved. This data will show conclusively, where the actual collision occurred (the lat/long as well as the altitude), the flight directions of the two aircraft at time of impact, and what opportunities ATC had to ‘save’ the accident from happening.

These digital files are immediately retrievable by FAA, thus have already been shared with NTSB. When Boeing 787’s had battery fires a few years ago, NTSB did a fantastic job showing the problem (with pictures of a burnt battery, no less) in a timely news interview. Likewise, when the Asiana flight crashed while landing at San Francisco, NTSB again was wonderfully transparent. We need this transparency, not only to help answer the reasonable questions and concerns of many citizens, but also to accelerate the ‘lessons learned’ from aviation tragedies, to help active pilots avoid tragic repeats. It has been three days, and FAA needs to post these files online, for the world to see the scenario that led to this tragic midair collision.

The Need for Safely Designed Approaches

Many people do not realize that the flight of the arriving F16, reportedly doing instrument practice into Charleston AFB [KCHS], is not at all random. That is to say, the flight was communicating with FAA ATC, was flying in accordance with an ATC clearance, and was either on or joining a published approach procedure. These published procedures are supposed to be designed so as to minimize safety hazards. Dozens of different offices have to sign off before a new procedure is finally published, so it should never happen that a procedure is published that routinely puts aircraft at risk of collision. That said, take a look at this published approach, the RNAV (RNP) Z Runway 15 to KCHS:


(click on image to view larger PDF copy)

Note the fix KREIS (upper red box), with a hard altitude of 3,000 feet. Note also the first speed restriction is at JCEEE fix, 4.4 miles after KREIS fix (lower red box). 20150707scp.. Midair VFRmap, showing potential routes & KREIS fixThe lat/long for KREIS places it as indicated in red on the VFRmap portion. A left-turnout departure by a Cessna from KMCS to Myrtle Beach would approximately follow the green curve. The red line leading south to KREIS fix would approximately depict an arrival from Shaw setting up to fly this published procedure (i.e., a radar vector or a ‘Direct KREIS’ clearance). It is common practice for pilots to level off at the next crossing altitude (in this case 3,000 feet) at least a few miles before arriving at the fix. So, IF the arriving F16 was in fact being set up for this published approach, the pilot would have likely been screaming along, even in excess of 300-knots, and at a very low altitude of just 3,000 feet. Also, look closely at this published approach and it quickly becomes clear: with the annotations about ‘Radius to Fix required’ and very advanced (low) RNP requirements, this is clearly an approach NOT for regular GA flights, but most likely for military use.

We do not know if the F16 was flying this approach or another. FAA can easily answer this question, as they need to do with no further delay. As a matter of practice, to best serve the entire public (not just the narrow interests of aviation), FAA needs to routinely and immediately disclose audio recordings, transcripts, and radar presentations that depict the facts, following significant aviation incidents such as midair collisions. Clearly, a timely internet posting at the FAA website would be both effective and efficient.

FAA Opacity on Safety Data: the ATSAP Black-Hole

It is also highly likely that the FAA controller immediately filed an ATSAP report. This program grants immunity to controllers if/when they have an incident, so long as they voluntarily report what happened. The controllers are not required to report all details, and being human, they tend to report a story that places them in a positive light. But, even with that, they do report important details, that need to be disclosed if the public is to understand the incident. Regrettably, FAA has gone to considerable effort to permanently conceal all ATSAP report content; i.e., the details reported are held in such strict confidence that FAA even tries to hide them from Judges. Despite the fact FAA could easily (and routinely) sanitize the report contents with minimal redactions (similar to the way NASA ASRS reports are slightly altered) and then immediately disclose the amended report, FAA refuses to do so. Thus, when people want to learn from tragic accidents that ATC failed to save, there are no facts to be studied. Instead, we have to wait until months and years later, when a fully sanitized and carefully coordinated story is released by FAA and NTSB.

Midair Collision at Moncks Corner, SC, on July 7, 2015

CBS46 News

News reports indicate that an Air Force F16 flying a short flight from Shaw AFB in Sumter, SC [KSSC] to the Air Force Base in Charleston, SC [KCHS] broadsided a Cessna C150 over Moncks Corner, SC. The Cessna is believed to have just departed the Berkeley County Airport [KMKS], southwest of Moncks Corner, and was reportedly heading east for Myrtle Beach [KMYR]. Note that the straight-line distance from Shaw AFB to KMKS is 52nm, and from Charleston AFB to KMKS is 17nm. In a TV news interview, the Shaw AFB commander indicated the collision occurred when the F16 was at 2,000- to 3,000-ft altitude.

Orange line shows approx. route for Cessna, to Myrtle Beach. Green line shows extended centerline to KCHS Runway 15 (the F16 final course). Collision at center of red rectangle (approx.).

Shaw AFB is in upper left corner, Charleston AFB is near bottom left corner. Orange line shows approx. route for Cessna, to Myrtle Beach. Green line shows extended centerline to KCHS Runway 15 (the F16 final course). Collision at center of red rectangle (approx.). (click on image to view sectional at VFRmap.com)

Focal areas of the investigation will include:

  1. What was the precise lat/long, altitude, and time for the actual midair collision? This should be easily produced from FAA radar records.
  2. What is recorded by FAA/ATC on the radio communications? (this should show precisely what the F16 pilot requested, what ATC issued, whether any transmissions were made to help the F16 pilot not collide with the Cessna, etc.)
  3. For the F16, what time did they depart Shaw AFB, and was this just a quick hop to Charleston AFB, or was it more involved, including setting up with ATC for an instrument approach?
  4. What was the route of flight, altitude at top of climb, and flight condition (level, descending, on a radar vector or DME arc, etc. at the moment of impact) for the F16?
  5. Exactly what was the so-called ‘instrument training’ reportedly being done by the F16 pilot, during the minutes leading up to the collision? (in particular, experienced pilots will note it appears hazardous and not consistent with published instrument approaches, for a military jet to be so low, so far from KCHS, and in the vicinity of Lewisfield Plantation)
  6. For the Cessna, the airport and runway of departure, route of flight to the point of impact (left downwind departure off Runway 3 at KMKS?), flight condition (particularly, had the flight levelled or was it still climbing, at the point of impact?), and first and last times the radar target was displayed for ATC.
  7. What guidelines are local GA pilots advised to follow, as set up by FAA/ATC, to minimize the risk of conflict with Air Force training to KCHS Runway 15?

See also:

2015-01-25.. Near Collision, JetBlue Arrival to White Plains, NY

An Airbus A320, flown as JetBlue Flight 94 from Orlando, FL [KMCO] to White Plains, NY [KHPN], reportedly took evasive actions during the arrival, to avoid a collision with a small plane. The news story was widely reported four days later.

(click on image to view source/original article at cnbc.com)

(click on image to view source/original article at cnbc.com)

Below is arrival portion of the route of flight, from FlightAware. Note the flight-planned crossing of the midsection of Long Island and the box-shaped route over the Sound, apparently to transition through the flows in/out of KLGA and/or KJFK.
20150125scp.. JBU94 Arrival to KHPN, FlightAware route plotIf reports are accurate and the JetBlue crew did in fact take last-second evasive actions, this was most likely a controller error. And this does happen; controllers get bored or distracted. Or, they may be coming to work with deprived sleep, due to bad workshift planning, with compressed work schedules (though, many controllers ‘benefit’ from this type of schedule, by having what feels like a 3-day weekend every week).

In any event, if there is any possible ATC involvement, NATCA and FAA will both encourage the controller to file an ATSAP report. Doing so grants that controller immunity for his/her error, meaning less re-training  and less discipline. More importantly (to FAA and NATCA), filing the ATSAP report means the Public will likely learn nothing more about what happened here.

Why not? Because in May 2014, FAA Administrator Huerta signed off on a new administrative rule that declared all ATSAP report data ‘fully exempt’ from release under FOIA laws. Now, not even the courts will compel release of ATSAP data. This change makes ATSAP effectively a ‘black hole’ for U.S. aviation safety data. Thus, no matter how diligently the media investigates this incident, FAA will refuse to release the real details, as reported by the controller.

If it helps to sweeten your bitter, just give it a fuzzy new name and catch-phrase:

ATSAP – FAA’s new ‘Flying Blind’ program

‘We keep you safely in the dark!’

2015-01-17: Transcript for the Near-Collision at KJFK

The following transcript is based on the archived ATC recording at LiveATC.net: KJFK 1-18-2015 0300-0330Z. The airline codes are: BWA (Caribbean Airlines); JBU (JetBlue); AZA (Alitalia); UAE (Emirates); AAL (American); VRD (‘Redwoods’, aka Virgin America); AMX (Aeromexico); UAL (United). Flights below are color- coded: red (arrival) and green (departure).

The arrival sequence was: AMX404 — VRD56 — BWA526 — AAL32 — JBU302. ATC applied positive control on both VRD56 and AAL32, issuing: “…right Juliet, hold short of two-two-right, remain this frequency….” Importantly, this clearance was NOT issued to BWA526. Also, a full five minutes passed between the time ATC issued the ‘hold short 22R’ to VRD56 and then AAL32; thus, the arrival spacing was averaging one per 2.5 minutes, which is a relatively calm arrival rate.

The departure sequence was: JBU1337 — AZA611 — UAE206 — JBU1295. For each departure, ATC had the aircraft ‘line up and wait’ on the runway, then issued a takeoff clearance after the previous arrival had finished taxiing across the runway downfield. Again, at the time the controller cleared JBU1295 for takeoff, he had done nothing to ensure BWA526 would hold short of the same runway.

Additionally, there is no evidence that the controller needed to be in any hurry. AMX404 was crossed prior to takeoff clearance for UAE206 (at time 27:35). Then, it was a full two minutes later, when VRD56 was crossed prior to takeoff clearance for JBU1295 (at time 29:41). And notice on the transcript that, immediately after clearing JBU1295 for takeoff, the controller does NOT focus on BWA526; instead, he diverts his attention to a nonessential flight, a VFR Cessna overflight whom he tells to maintain at or below just 500-feet altitude under departing jets (an approval that in itself is arguably unsafe).

So, what happened?

This appears to be a classic same-runway controller error, where the controller simply ‘temporarily forgot’ about one of his aircraft. Happens all the time. This is why controllers are trained to scan all the time, and this is also why it is valuable to have more than one controller watching the runway areas. Had this controller been in training, his instructor would have written him up for a ‘POSNI’ (Positive Separation not Insured). Then, again, the instructor’s job is to make sure situations like this never happen, so it might also have been swept under the rug….

Of course, the BWA56 flight crew was a major part of this error, too. Most pilots would have stopped short of the runway and radioed ATC advising they were holding short, and asking for further instructions. But, it is up to the controller to ‘control’ the traffic, by issuing crisp and timely clearances that keep the aircraft flowing and out of trouble. This controller, on this particular Saturday night, was surprisingly sloppy with his phraseology, and it came back to bite him.

It is worth saying again: this sort of incident happens all the time, where a controller temporarily spaces on one aircraft. This latest incident is just the ‘big league’ version of a very similar scenario, the 7/25/2010 Controller Error at KCMA. That, too, was swept under the rug. In fact, the Camarillo controller error was concealed by the tower supervisor, then the tower manager, then the hub management, then the regional QA people, and eventually even by Clay Foushee and Tony Ferrante at FAA Headquarters.

The Truth is the First Casualty of any Air Crash

Geoffrey Thomas, at AirlineRatings.com in Western Australia, seems to have one of the best factual views of the QZ8501 tragedy. And he is doing a great job posting coverage since the Indonesia AirAsia flight disappeared nearly six days ago. One of his Posts on New Years Day re-declares the maxim that, when anything bad happens in aviation, facts are the first things to disappear.

He’s correct, but it should not be this way. Every nation has an aviation authority, such as FAA in the United States. These agencies are stuffed full of employees, theoretically there to serve the Public. In their early years, these agencies did very important safety and infrastructure development work. But, as these agencies have matured, they seem to have become less and less productive, more about quietly helping the airlines than about aggressively speaking up for safety. So, when an accident or incident occurs, they tend to say nothing. It is as if their speaking up might get in the way of how the accident airline needs/wants to manage the PR spin.

Given this, when an incident like QZ8501 happens, we end up with a deep informational vacuum. Neither airlines nor regulatory authorities take charge to clearly and timely articulate the known facts. And as we all know, where there is an informational vacuum, rumors and other garbage will quickly fill the void. This is happening (AGAIN!) with QZ8501, while victim’s families suffer, and while millions of others ponder just how safe aviation is.

It’s a new year.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if FAA’s leadership chose to set a new, higher standard for the world to follow, by aggressively working for maximized aviation safety? Wouldn’t it be great if, when a serious accident or incident happens, the relevant national authority would step forward and firmly assert the known facts, and then stay up front to keep us all urgently posted? This is kind of the way NTSB’s Deborah Hersman handled the investigation, in early 2013, when the B787 battery fires were happening.

Can we make that our new standard for aviation safety transparency?

Midair Collision Between a Cirrus and a Helicopter, at the controlled airport in Frederick, MD

(click on the image to view the WJLA news video)

Helicopter crash debris at a storage facility. (click on the image to view the WJLA news video)

Three died when a midair collision happened between a fixed-wing arrival and a helicopter, in the traffic pattern at the controlled airport in Frederick, Maryland [KFDK]. The fixed-wing aircraft was a Cirrus; it had departed in the morning and was just finishing a three-hour flight, returning from Cleveland, TN.

At the time, three helicopters were training in a lower flight pattern, underneath the fixed-wing arrival traffic pattern. The helicopters apparently are part of a training program at Advanced Helicopter Concepts, and are based near the south end of the airport. One of them, a Robinson R44 helicopter, collided with the Cirrus. Just seconds before, the controller had reported the Cirrus in sight and told him to maintain his altitude, with the apparent intent being to keep the Cirrus a few hundred feet above the helicopters. It appears that the Cirrus was just establishing midfield on the left downwind leg to Runway 30, while the helicopter was midfield downwind for a grass practice area, when the collision occurred.

Here is a copy of the satellite image for KFDK. The collision happened near the added orange circle, as the two aircraft crashed at the left red square (helicopter) and right red square (Cirrus). The Cirrus was on a left downwind, setting up to land on Runway 30 (the shorter runway, from the right edge to the top-middle of this aerial). 20141023.. KFDK airport sat view, marking 2 crash locationsA closer look shows the helicopter crash location at the storage lot (small red circle) and the Cirrus crash location in trees just southeast of the large building (larger yellow circle).20141023.. KFDK sat view, marking two debris locations
Weather was likely not a factor. As indicated by the METAR data copied below, clouds were high (above 4,000-feet all day), visibility was always at least ten miles, and the temperature and dew point was always comfortable. The most notable weather detail were relatively strong — but also fairly steady — winds out of the north-northwest.

Time temp dew wind speed vis. clouds alti.
23 Oct 11:48 am EDT 63 43 NNW 20G25 10.00 BKN040 29.94
23 Oct 12:45 pm EDT 64 45 NNW 13G29 10.00 BKN040 29.92
23 Oct 1:45 pm EDT 66 45 10.00 BKN042 29.91
23 Oct 2:45 pm EDT 66 45 N 17G23 10.00 BKN044 29.90
23 Oct 3:37 pm EDT Accident
23 Oct 3:53 pm EDT 66 45 NNW 18G24 10.00 SCT048 29.91
23 Oct 5:45 pm EDT 70 43 NNW 8 10.00 BKN060 29.89
23 Oct 7:45 pm EDT 68 39 NNW 10 10.00 OVC060 29.92

As is clear from the ATC archive at LiveATC.net, this accident happened while the tower controller was using Runway 30. [CAUTION: this archived ATC recording includes screams just after the impact.] [Transcript copy (by aiREFORM)] Based on ATC transmissions, the flights were likely 700- to 1,000-feet above the ground when they collided. The Cirrus’ parachute system deployed, and almost certainly saved the lives of the two on that aircraft.

One thing not yet clear is how ATC at Frederick manages their flight patterns for helicopter training. The flight patterns for helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft can conflict dangerously. So, the management at each air traffic control tower has to sit down with airport operators and devise workable plans, to help ‘de-conflict’ the traffic flows. These traffic flow plans are then made official (and signed by the parties, such as the helicopter training company) as letters of agreement or memoranda of understanding. At airports with helicopter training programs, the best strategy is to keep the helicopters flying in one area, and keep all the fixed-wing airplanes away. But, more commonly, there is a need to stuff the helicopter training pattern in underneath the fixed-wing pattern. In any case, the controllers need to be especially vigilant to protect those higher risk areas where the different patterns cross.

Here are some links:


July Was a Bad Month for U.S. Aviation Accidents

In July 2014, there were 34 fatal aviation accidents in the U.S, killing 50 people. This compares to 21 aviation accidents killing 39 people in July 2013.

This pattern is particularly disturbing because, just a few months ago, we were on course for a marked reduction in aviation accidents for the year. In the first quarter, fatal accidents declined from 52 to 33, and fatalities declined from 97 to 58 year-to-year. But since then, the history suggests 2014Q1 was an anomaly, made safe by pilots simply doing a lot less flying.

Fatal Accidents:

The increase in July may be random and not statistically significant, but if the increase indicates a growing problem, what is driving this change?

  • Is it worsening weather? Are we seeing more intense weather phenomena, perhaps related to climate change? Maybe. The North Captiva Island crash on 7/16/2014 appears to have been weather-related. But, on the other hand, this accident would not have happened had the pilot decided to NOT fly so close to (and possible even within) a thunderstorm.
  • Is it related to aviation events? Partially. There were three fatal accidents flying to the EAA AirVenture at Oshkosh (see 7/26/2014, 7/28/2014, & 7/31/2014). There was a midair collision in Idaho, apparently related to a back-country fly-in (see 7/7/2014).
  • Which particular sectors stand out for more accidents? There were three fatal accidents involving agricultural planes (see 7/1/2014, 7/18/2014, and 7/23/2014). Another HEMS multi-fatality happened during dark middle-of-night conditions (see 7/17/2014). But, the one sector that really increased was regular GA recreational flying, including both factory-built and experimental aircraft, typically killing one or two, most of whom were retirement-aged males.
  • Is it related to the economy and the cost of fuel? Possibly. Just like drivers/homeowners with automobiles, when money is tight, repairs are delayed and minor risks ignored until they become larger risks. It is also interesting to note that during the first two quarters of 2014, fatal accidents and total fatalities were substantially below 2013. A simple explanation might be costs are taking a big bite out of flying interest. It costs money to keep a plane ready to fly, so perhaps the pilots are delaying the start of their flying season until the weather warms up, and THEN getting out and flying more intensively. This may put them a bit out of practice.

It seems reasonable to expect that lack of pilot practice might increase accident rates. Not just physical practices like thorough pre-flight inspections, but also the critical mental practice of making the key decision: do I fly or do I wait?