What Is FAA Hiding from the Public? And Why??

FAA, like many federal agencies, has a nasty habit of expending lots of time and money working to keep the people in the dark. They are supposed to comply with FOIA laws, but instead they redact the hell out of what should be disclosed. Making matters worse, in recent decades it seems as though most in Congress are ‘too busy’ and/or ‘too inert’ to force FAA to follow the FOIA laws.

Every once in a while, we get a great chance to look past these barriers. Sometimes, FAA’s redactions become unmasked. When that happens, it is like sitting down with the devil, and sharing tea and a candid conversation. So much can be learned….

In this Post, a 27-page FAA memo is offered in two forms, redacted and unredacted. This memo documents how a safety investigation produced copious details and a strong recommendation for corrective action … which was then nixed by a higher FAA official. The heavily redacted copy was provided to an investigative report team. Seeing that so much data was hidden, they filed an appeal. An appeal response letter was eventually sent, rejecting the appeal, but somehow a copy of the unredacted 27-page was included in the appeal response letter.

Here are the two versions, presented as scrollable/downloadable/searchable PDFs. View them side-by-side. See for yourself what FAA chose to redact, when a reporter team tried to help the public understand how FAA was handling a dangerous safety failure involving commercial aircraft maintenance.

Click on the image below for a scrollable view. This is the heavily unredacted version, as initially sent by FAA (and after extensive review by numerous FAA managers). Click here to download the PDF file.

Click on the image below for a scrollable view. This is the full, unredacted version. Click here to download the PDF file.

The Background:

A few days ago, an aiREFORM Post encouraged readers to read the excellent investigative series done by the Tampa Bay Times. In the third article of the series, Nathaniel Lash showed how higher level FAA managers were over-riding the conclusions and recommendations of their field inspectors. The inspectors were investigating how a nut had detached causing an elevator jam, forcing an Allegiant MD80 to do a high-speed aborted takeoff at Las Vegas. This was an extremely serious situation that would have assuredly killed everyone on board, if the nut had failed while actually airborne. A similar failure caused the 1/31/2000 crash of Alaska 261, an MD83 that lost flight control near Santa Barbara and plunged into the Pacific, killing all 88 on board.

The similarities are in two troubling areas:

  1. the casual failure by maintenance crews to properly execute their tasks and to follow needed steps that would identify and fix failures (so as to ensure nuts do not fall off leading to catastrophic crashes); and,
  2. FAA’s gross failure at safety oversight, where key FAA officials knowingly allow maintenance crews to sidestep required procedures.

The latest Times article showed that FAA was found to be covering up dangerous maintenance failures performed by AAR on the Allegiant passenger jet. Note that AAR is a Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO) operation; over the past decade, airlines have been reducing labor costs related to employing their own mechanics by increasingly outsourcing aircraft maintenance to MRO contractors. Costs may go down, but so do safety margins.

[KORD]: Safety is Losing Out with the O’Hare Modernization Plan

One week ago, United 441 departed Orlando [KMCO] late in the day on a scheduled trip to O’Hare [KORD]. The flight history was normal up until the last moment, when the Boeing 757 slid off the edge of the runway and ended up in the mud at 12:53AM. FlightAware shows the flight made it to the gate two hours later.

It turns out, the flight was cleared to land on Runway 4L at a time when runway traction was reduced (after hours of light snow and mist) and the winds were poorly aligned with the runway (nominally a 70-degree crosswind per this official weather: METAR KORD 180651Z 33017G25KT 1SM R10L/P6000FT -SN BR BKN017 OVC043 M08/M11 A2994 RMK AO2 PK WND 33029/0618).

A group in the Chicago area, FAiR.org, issued this press release, making some very credible points. It appears that, in the mad rush to spend billions replacing the O’Hare runway system with a gazillion east-west runways, the busiest commercial airport in the world is losing its capacity to offer runways aligned with the wind, which are needed most during poor weather. The multi-parallel runways, and the NextGen reliance on automation (in the tower, and on the flight deck), are increasing runway throughput but decreasing safety margins.

Click on the image below for a scrollable view; the PDF file may be downloaded.

And what is driving all of this? The desire to be the world’s number one airport, in terms of operations per year. For a few years, Atlanta [KATL] took that title away from O’Hare. Atlanta operates using a set of five parallel east-west runways. Atlanta is Delta’s superHub, and an enormous fraction (well over half?) of arriving passengers never leave the airport… they sit and wait enjoying the comfortable seatpitch on the same plane, or they walk to another gate and depart on a different flight.

FAA is collaborating with the airlines with the same business plan at O’Hare, which is a superHub for both United and American. The safety consequences are not insignificant, but there are environmental impacts, too. Here’s two serious environmental problems with these superHubs:

  1. when a huge portion of arriving passengers are using the airport only as a connecting point, the number of flights in and out of the airport each day far surpasses what is needed to serve the actual community. So, you end up with double, triple, or more flights per hour as are needed. Under NextGen, some neighborhoods like Bensenville are inundated with nonstop noise related to the superHub airport.
  2. the carbon footprint for each passenger is greatly increased. Essentially, every time a passenger connects at a superHub not on the direct route between origin and destination, it increases miles travelled. It is quite common in the U.S. for airlines to offer discounted airfares to fill seats, so they offer itineraries that add 20% or more to the miles travelled. This translates to that passenger generating a proportional increase in fuel consuming to carry their butt/baggage to their destination. More time, more hassle, more CO2, but too many of us are conditioned to ignore that because we ‘stole a great deal’, saving $20 when we clicked the buy button.

Li-ion Battery Devices Can Ignite, If Crushed in a Seat

(click on image to read the report by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB))

(click on image to read the report by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB))

The concerns about Li-ion battery ignition hazards grounded the Boeing 787 fleet in 2013, and they continue to make the news. The picture above is from a new investigative report about an actual fire on a Qantas 747. A passenger misplaced an electronic device and it became crushed inside the seat mechanism, creating a hissing sound and igniting. When crewmembers arrived, they “…observed an orange glow emanating from the seat….”

The concerns are not new. The Australian report cites a Safety Alert for Operators (SAFO) issued by FAA in June 2009. Archived copies are linked below.


See also:
  • 9/23/2009 – archived copy of SAFO 09013 (1p)
  • 9/23/2009 – archived copy of Supplement to SAFO 09013 (2p)

An Apparent Intentional Collision by a Vehicle at Hong Kong

An interesting short video, likely shot by a passenger while waiting at the airport terminal in Hong Kong. The vehicle proceeds slowly, appearing to be doing normal airport activities, but in the final seconds the driver makes a hard right turn to collide with the #1 engine of a taxiing Airbus A330. One gets the impression this was either an attempted suicide or an attempted terrorist attack. A large number of emergency response crewmembers arrives, indicating that at least perceived this was not an act of terrorism (no fear of an explosives-laden vehicle).

A couple questions arise:

  1. why would someone do this? Will the investigative report convincingly establish… was it a digruntled aviation employee, a zealot whose terrorist attack failed, or what?
  2. and, on the larger picture, how secure are our airports when incidents such as this can happen? This was in Hong Kong; could it happen in LA or Chicago or elsewhere? With our present commercial aviation system focused on serving airline profits with enormous superHubs, have we created a system vulnerable to sabotage and disruption?

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)

ANALYSIS: American Eagle ends up ‘Stuck in the Mud’ in Columbia, MO

(source: tweet by Courtny Jodon   @CourtnyKRCG13)

(source: tweet by Courtny Jodon @CourtnyKRCG13)

20150404.. KCOU mishap, left main gear in soft grassThe images indicate a simple pilot error, not unlike what can happen to us with our cars, if we misjudge our turn and sideswipe a curb or another vehicle while parking.

METAR shows winds were from the SSW at 10mph, so ATC would have issued a taxi clearance for a Runway 20 departure.

20150404scp.. KCOU mishap, RWY20 area SATview marked-up

Orange diamond shows mishap location, blocking both runways. Green curved line shows turn; green arrow was intended takeoff roll.

To get there, the pilot evidently used a short segment of Runway 13, then started a left turn to line up for the full length of Runway 20. This is good practice, as it maximizes runway length, improving the safety margin while also minimizing takeoff noise impact on nearby communities. Unfortunately for this flight crew, they misjudged the turning radius of their passenger jet; their attempt to get an extra hundred feet of takeoff distance ended up with a left main gear stuck in muddy grass. The runway is 150-feet wide, so they had plenty of room to do the turn correctly. They just turned too soon.

(click on image to view the airport webpage)

(screencap of the webpage notice by the airport authority. Click on image to view the airport webpage)

What makes this story more interesting is how the airport authority and the media whitewashed the mistake. The airport authority phrased the incident as ‘dropping a wheel’. The local media, which of course got their information from the airport authority, ran a headline that read ‘Plane slides off tarmac at Columbia Regional’. Um, nothing was dropped and nothing slid; this was a simple matter of cutting a left turn too soon, failing to account for the fact your main gear is half a plane-length behind you. As noted earlier, we do the same thing driving a car, even more likely if we are driving something long like a bus, or pulling a trailer.

The ‘Larger Story’ about KCOU

Sometimes a news story has more value for revealing a larger issue than for the minor news event itself. The news story can inadvertently shine a light into an area not thought about by the average person. This may be the case with this story.

Columbia, MO (locally known as ‘COMO’) is a progressive college town in central Missouri, home of the University of Missouri. The town’s airport is notable not just as the regional airport, but also for its extraordinary level of federal subsidy. In 2014, [KCOU] had 20,958 airport operations, thus averaged 29 takeoffs per day. ATC services are provided by a federal contract control tower, with controllers handling just two takeoffs per hour. The airport is relatively large, at 1,538 acres, and averages $2.5 million annually in FAA grant monies for maintenance and further development. Passengers (who pay the flight taxes FAA grants each year) have no choices at this airport. American Airlines is the only commercial carrier, with four total departures each day, two each feeding passengers to their super-hubs at O’Hare and DFW.

There is certainly a need for passenger air service in Columbia, MO. The airport is an asset. But, in a more rational national airspace system, this airport would not be as large as it is, nor as heavily subsidized. KCOU would be just as safe if it was much smaller (even down to just 200 acres), had no tower (saving roughly $600K/year), and received far less or even zero grant monies. The fact is, these subsidies primarily serve the industry (…just one airline (American) and one large tower contractor), the politicians (…who ‘bring home the bacon’ to get reelected), and the regulators (…especially the FAA retirees who supplement their retirement pensions by becoming ATC contractors).

Big Week in Santa Monica

Lots is happening in the next few days. A meeting of the Santa Monica Airport Commission (SMAC) on Monday, then a public Rally and a session of the Santa Monica City Council on Tuesday.20150322.. [KSMO] busy week calendar 1-2-3

A copy of the 36-page Staff Report is viewable in the scrollable window below. Check back to this Post, as links for other resources will be added.


Links:
  • City Council HomepageThe Santa Monica City Council regularly meets at 5:30 p.m. on the 2nd and 4th Tuesday of every month in Council Chambers, located at City Hall, 1685 Main Street, Santa Monica. The City Council may hold additional special meetings, as needed.
  • July 1, 2015: Measure LC beginslatest Post by Airport2Park, a local nonprofit formed to support and promote the creation of a great park on the land that is currently Santa Monica Airport.
  • Martin Rubin’s Statement to the Santa Monica City CouncilDelivered on 3/23/2015, in preparation for the scheduled 3/24/2015 City Council meeting. Includes numerous links to supporting documents.

Harrison Ford Crashes into Santa Monica Airport Issue

A very good editorial in the Santa Monica Mirror, by columnist Steve Stajich. The kind that makes you think while also drawing at least a couple good laughs. Read the original online to also see the reader comments. The copy below can be ‘popped out’ for easy reading.

ANALYSIS: Three Serious Accidents in Texas, all Related to the Same Frontal Passage

On the evening of February 4th, three separate small aircraft crashed and were destroyed in Texas. Two accidents killed the sole pilots; the third accident had four adults aboard and nobody died.

At all three locations (Lubbock, Argyle, and Andrews) a frontal passage occurred hours before the accident. The frontal passage brought strong, gusting winds, overcast ceilings below 1,000-feet, falling temperatures, and combinations of light rain, freezing drizzle, and mist.

The cold front passed through at around the following times:

  • Hobbs, NM: 12noon
  • Lubbock, TX: 3PM
  • Andrews, TX: 5PM
  • Denton, TX: 8PM
20150204scp.. PA46 flight route to KLBB (flightaware)

(click on image to view flight at Flightaware.com)

The first accident was in Lubbock [KLBB] and involved a doctor flying a Piper Malibu (high-performance single-prop). He was flying home from near Hobbs, NM. The flight impacted an 814-foot tall TV station antenna, and crashed more than six miles from the runway. The KLBB METAR 12-minutes after the accident, at 7:47PM, included: temp/dew 28/25, wind northeast 21kts gusting to 31kts, visibility 7 miles, ceiling 700′ overcast. Conditions were prime for icing, and light freezing drizzle did begin on the surface at KLBB at around the time of the crash. It seems inconceivable that the pilot would attempt to ‘scud-run’ so low, nor that ATC would allow it. The ATC communications should be revealing.

20150204scp.. N441TG, Final approach map, Flightaware

(click on image to view flight at Flightaware.com)

The second accident was also fatal, and involved a businessman flying alone, home to the Denton airport [KDTO] in a 10-passenger Cessna Conquest (twin-prop). His flight profile included an intercept of the KDTO RNAV Runway 36 final approach at WOBOS, just west of Grapevine Lake. The KDTO METAR seven minutes prior to the accident, at 9:03PM, included: temp/dew 38/37, wind north 20kts gusting to 29kts, visibility 2 miles light rain and mist, ceiling 900-feet overcast. The crash debris distribution, with the wings and empennage separated but whole, suggests an aircraft that hit the ground hard but with a relatively normal ‘flat and straight ahead’ attitude. As with the Lubbock crash, ATC should have considerable information to explain the circumstances of this crash, so long as FAA does not conceal the information within the ATSAP safety data black hole.

20150204scp.. BE36 flight route to E11 (flightaware)

(click on image to view flight at Flightaware.com)

The third accident was miraculously nonfatal for the four adults aboard. Weather at the arrival airport near Andrews [E11] was already down to a 900-foot overcast ceiling, even before the single-prop Beechcraft Bonanza departed. Weather deteriorated further during the 80-minute flight, and the E11 METAR ten minutes prior to the accident, at 12:35AM, included: temp/dew 29/29, wind north-northeast 13kts gusting to 18kts, visibility 5 miles mist, ceiling 700-feet overcast. These flight conditions, to an uncontrolled airport in flat treeless countryside, have been known to result in scud-running. In this case, the pilot reportedly radioed ATC with an icing problem.

Here is a satellite view of the terrain near the Andrews County Airport. In a controlled arrival, given the winds, you would line up for Runway 34 or Runway 02. If iced up, you might not make it that far. Imagine dropping through the clouds at 700-feet above the surface, and having maybe one minute to try and control the aircraft and pick a spot to cause the least damage. A lot easier here than in other parts of Texas.

20150204scp.. Satellite image for approach area of E11

(click on image to view the satellite image at Google maps)

ANALYSIS: 2015-01-16.. Forced Landing of an Air Tour Flight Near Halawa Falls, Molokai

A Cessna Skyhawk flying an apparent air tour lost engine power and crashed in rough forested terrain, while touring near Halawa Falls in the northeast part of Molokai. The tour passengers were a Japanese couple and their daughter. News reports indicate that the pilot and two passengers had minor injuries, but the mother was hospitalized with serious injuries.

20070819scp.. C172 forced landing field on Lanai, pilot pic (M.Richards)

The pilot, happy for his good luck. (click on image to view article/source)

The pilot, 35-yr-old Michael Richards, had previous experience with forced landings while flying this same aircraft type. On August 16, 2007, he was doing an instructional flight with N5207D, a C172, when he lost engine power; all three survived (the instructor, his student, and an observer/student). Then, on June 24, 2014, Mr. Richards and a student lost power at 2,000-feet and made a forced landing with N66540, ending up in a plowed pineapple field, near the Waipio Costco.

The most recent forced landing was with N5660E, a C172 registered with an operator named Hawaiian Night Lights LLC.

20070819scp.. C172 forced landing field on Lanai (M.Richards)

(click on image to read article about another forced landing, involving the same pilot, in 2007)

Is the Safety Oversight Missing?

Interestingly, neither the 2007 nor the 2014 forced landings are included within the NTSB aviation accident database. They clearly should have been. On the same day as the 2007 Hawaiian incident, another student pilot had a hard landing at an airport in Keystone Height, FL; that incident, far less significant (and far more common) than an in-flight engine failure, was investigated and added to the NTSB database [LAX07CA256]. And, on the day before the 2014 Hawaiian incident, another C172, in Miami, FL, had a hard landing when the pilot’s seat slid during touch-and-go pattern practice. It was written up at NTSB [ERA14CA331].

So, it will not be a surprise if neither NTSB nor FAA produces an investigation and report for the latest incident. They should. These are commercial activities. Just like the ‘instructional flights’ sold to tourists on ultralights are ‘commercial’ and generally overlooked by FAA. In fact, two died ten months ago in Kauai, the latest in a long history where both pilots and paying passengers have died in commercial flight accidents.

An agency that takes civil action against those who use low-altitude drones to capture real estate or news photos, should be far more concerned with ensuring safety in commercial air tourism. Get the data on these incidents, share it widely, and clean up Hawaiian air tourism before the next fatality happens.


See also: