Part I: the accident
It was a very hot day in 1997. I was an air traffic controller stationed at Jeffco Airport, named for ‘Jefferson County’, in the area just west of Denver. We were a small group at a growing airport; just a manager and eight or so controllers. And this weekend was our big airshow.
Estimates were that more than a hundred thousand spectators were standing, sitting, and sizzling on the airport grounds. Cars everywhere; a sea of people. The temperature exceeded 100. The sky was clear, with a searing sun. We were lucky; as air traffic controllers, we sat/stood in the air conditioned tower cab, and did not have to do anything but enjoy the show. Managing the different acts was not our job: that chore went to the air boss, out on the field.
At that time, the Jeffco Tower was on the north side of the airport, and we looked south across the parallel east-west runways. The runways were built on a generally treeless, high piece of ground, stretching to the east below a nuclear processing superfund site called Rocky Flats. Off to the west, standing in tall grandeur behind Rocky Flats, was the Front Range and the Flatirons rock formation near Boulder. That view was always a pleasure. To the south of the parallel runways was a small canyon, also running east-west. We could not see the canyon, but we knew where it was by the few trees along its edge and a visible building just beyond.
We watched the Airshow acts. We had a small crowd in the tower, because it was a rare opportunity to invite family and a few friends. During the show, some performers had been offsetting into the canyon. They were screaming in from the east, would slip left and downward to disappear, then suddenly pop up out of nowhere. I am sure it scared a few spectators (ah, hell, it scared me the first time), then gave them a quick thrill. If part of the intent of an airshow is to pump adrenaline, this maneuver was working well.
One of the acts was a retired United Airlines pilot flying his F86 Sabre. He, too, came screaming in and did a low pass over the runway. He then began a large loop, turning ever more vertical, inverting at the top, turning downward toward the earth, and continuing a huge circle that, in theory, and without other factors, would bring him right back to another highspeed low pass. Three-quarters of the way into this loop, he was a mile or two east of the airport, pointing straight toward the earth, and needing the turn radius to allow him to level off before he ran out of air.
Now, to us in the tower, and to the hundred thousand below, it just looked like an airshow act. So, when the F86 sidestepped out of sight into the canyon, it was just like what others had done earlier, though they were all smaller and slower aircraft. So, for maybe two seconds (which seemed like two minutes), we all just knew he would suddenly ‘pop’ up out of the canyon. Not this time.
Our next image was an enormous cloud of orange, black and white.
Part II: the aftermath
That was Sunday. The Airshow came to an abrupt close. The crowds picked up their coolers and folding chairs and proceeded toward the various exit gates. Many of the gates were near the control tower, so we had a new view from our air conditioned perch: heads tipping up and down, some staying up, with long, shocked looks. These people really trust that we, as FAA air traffic controllers, do our damnedest to ensure flying is safe, and to erase unnecessary flight risks. Some of these people did not really know if we had controlled that F86 into his fiery crash; some probably thought we did. Very few of these people knew, as I had learned a few years earlier at Troutdale (more about that below), that there is an ugly habit within FAA, that sweeps safety failures under the rug.
So, we watched from the tower as all the people walked away. Once the airfield was cleared of spectators, we then spent a couple hours launching small planes. There were many pilots, who had flown in for the show, and they all needed to get home, many to hug their families after seeing such a horrible tragedy. We were a cold, sober, and suddenly very professional bunch, keeping those departures away from the crash-site and getting done with our own work, so we could go home, too. I went home to a room I was renting from a wonderful retired couple, on the west edge of Boulder. I spoke with them briefly, clinically, like a controller. My wife, and my two young children, were a thousand miles away, at our home in Oregon.
It was a few days later that I got a phone call from some controller on the East Coast. It was her job to assist in a stress debriefing. Via phone. She was supposed to help mend the psychological damages, help make sure we can talk and process and move on. I talked. I sort of processed. And I think, yeah, I moved on. But what I moved on to was a realization that there is something wrong with my employer, the FAA. At that time, in my heart, I could feel that something about FAA was broken. We were failing. We not only could do better, we had to do better.
So there I was, talking on the phone to a stranger, in a stress de-brief about this accident. And I shared something with her. How was I feeling? Well, all I wanted to do, the day I saw that happen, was go home and hug my young children. But I couldn’t. In March 1989, when I was working at Troutdale, I had been a whistleblower – I spoke up about a practice that caused a near-midair collision. I then endured immediate retaliation, which I survived. But then, in early 1996, the FAA management at Portland achieved retaliation by reassigning me to work in Colorado. My young family remained near Portland, to stay close to extended family. On the day that F86 crashed, I went home to a room in Boulder; I was a thousand miles from the healing and growth that comes from a loving family hug.
That was the part of my talking that brought out some tears. Big guy like me, crying on the phone to a stranger. Must have had her wondering what to do next.
Then, there was the other part. The angry, critical part. I asked her: do we know, were there routines in this Airshow, acts we all dumbly watched, that were known to be too risky, and thus prohibited, at least on paper? Were these risky routines denied on paper but allowed anyway? (remember, this was Day Two, so all of these maneuvers had passed muster the day before) Were those sidesteps into the canyon by ANYONE an approved and safe procedure, per the FAA personnel who signed off on the airshow plan? Was it approved for an F86 to do that loop, starting essentially at ground level (vs. the obviously safer higher base of say 500’ or 1,000’)?
I told her, I had seen before how FAA would sweep safety failures under the rug. I shared with her some of the details about that Troutdale near-midair that I spoke up about, and how it had brought on such hurtful retaliation. I told her, it is just wrong, it feels like we are so hollow – we always speak of safety, but we hide our failures; and those who do speak up, we get rid of them.
And, I told her about that last burning image from the F86 crash. No — not the towering fireball, but the REAL last image: the hundreds of shocked people, walking by in a crowd, looking upward at the tower as they walked by. It was on their faces. They depend on us.
On this day, at this airshow, in my heart: we failed.
Call it a flashback. I dunno. I saw this picture, from today’s Dayton crash, bit my lip thinking about a wing-walker and a pilot lost in that tragedy, and I just had to share this story from 1997.