It happened again: a large, commercial flight under control of the U.S. ATC system landed at the wrong runway. No, wait, even worse then that: at the WRONG AIRPORT! This time it was the sleepy airport at Branson, Missouri [KBBG].
This should not be happening, and frankly is an indication that some of our FAA air traffic controllers are not paying attention to their traffic.
For the record, there are two different sets of controllers implicated in the Branson incident: the radar approach controllers, and the local tower controllers. FAA works the Approach Control for a radius of roughly forty miles out, based at the FAA facility in Springfield, Missouri. For this particular flight, en route center ATC would have handed off the Southwest flight to Springfield Approach,* and that radar approach controller would turn and descend the flight to position it for a safe final approach at KBBG. That FAA controller would then tell the pilot to radio the tower controller, typically at ten miles or so from the runway. KBBG is staffed with contract air traffic controllers, who work 14-hrs per day. This is an extremely slow airport in western Missouri, averaging one takeoff per 90-minutes. Yes, ONE takeoff per NINETY minutes; quite possibly the slowest / least active U.S. airport to have a staffed air traffic control tower.
So, how did this happen and what might have prevented it? It wasn’t the weather, as the skies were generally clear with a few clouds. [the sequence from NOAA.gov: KBBG 122347Z 15012G23KT 10SM FEW250 17/M02 A2970] The tower controllers would be (should be?) watching out the window of the tower cab, but if the flight was lining up to land five or more miles from their towered airport, they would not see the aircraft and could not offer much help. Reliably, a good tower controller will not issue a landing clearance until they see the flight, and quickly ask the right questions to ‘save’ the flight crew from making a mistake. At the other extreme, a non-diligent controller may fail to add the required words and issue the right clearance: “Not in sight, cleared to land Runway One-Four.” In other words, a quick, lazy “Cleared to Land”, coupled with ATC’s failure to monitor the traffic and, five minutes later, the pilot is hemming and hawing on the frequency and starting to worry about how to interview for his next job. And if the controller who failed to jump on that quick opportunity to make a ‘save’ is an employee at a moderate tower in today’s FAA, chances are he or she will still be earning upwards of $130K next year. No consequences for poor performance. Good job, ATC…
And how about the radar approach controllers? Well, FAA has an extensive digital radar system, loaded with subsystems that create alarms to alert the controller when a flight is not where it should be. So, if an arriving passenger jet is supposed to line up for and land at KBBG, that system is supposed to create an alert if it senses the flight is trying to land too soon. More often than not, the problem is one where the controller is just not paying attention and fails to respond to the alert. Or, the alerting system may have been disabled, as happened at Guam in 1997. Or, the controller may have prematurely removed the flight from the system, so the computer no longer knows the flight is there; all of the safety benefits of this system (and we have spent billions over decades evolving this system!) can no longer be delivered during the phase of flight when they are most needed.
A competent air traffic controller, applying full diligence to their work, will take care of their flights to a point where nothing else can go wrong. On the other hand, a lazy or indifferent controller may incline toward minimal effort — issuing a couple new headings and a descent clearance, then quickly shipping the flight off to the next controller. When laziness sets in too deeply, the disservice can lead to an abject failure where the controller fails to visually monitor the flight and then, well, we end up with wrong-airport landings. Or worse.
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The two concepts are intertwined, and at the heart of what pilots and controllers do. The best pilots and controllers do not let down their guard. When we don’t maintain our vigilance and professionalism, the simple fact is, people end up dying. Pilots and passengers, plus sometimes innocent people on the ground. It happened a few times, just last year….
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This week it happened at Branson, and nobody was hurt. In past weeks it has happened elsewhere, with far graver consequences when an FAA air traffic controller has failed to maintain his/her vigilance and professionalism. Here are four examples…
- 11/20/13 at Wichita, KS: the largest cargo aircraft in the world, one of a specialized fleet of three in service to ferry massive Boeing aircraft components for the 787 Dreamliner construction program, took off from JFK airport at 7:26PM, then landed at the wrong Kansas airport, nearly nine-miles north of their intended destination. Thankfully, the crew was able to fully stop before the end of the runway. Some runway lights were broken, and an engineering firm was called in to inspect for possible pavement (load-related) damage, in early December. The runway is rated to support roughly one-tenth the weight of the modified 747 Dreamlifter.
- 8/14/13 at Birmingham, AL: at 4:49AM, an Airbus 300 flying the regular daily cargo circuit on a flight from the UPS home base at Louisville, KY clipped trees then crashed into rolling hills a mile short of the intended runway. On board safety systems alerted the pilots just seven seconds prior to impact. Both pilots were killed. Five months later and still no word from NTSB as to whether an ATC safety system was generating low altitude or descent rate alerts.
- 8/27/06 at Lexington, KY: shortly after 6AM on a Sunday morning, the controller did not specify the runway when he cleared a Comair regional jet for takeoff. Weather was fine, but the airport was in the middle of a construction project, adding some confusion for the tired pilots waking up to their first flight of the day. The jet did take the runway and, fifty seconds after the takeoff clearance was issued, began to accelerate … but they were trying to take off down the wrong runway, which was a few hundred feet too short. The pilots had no choice but to rotate when they reached the end of the runway without sufficient speed. It was a full minute after the crash that the controller picked up the crash phone to call out the fire equipment. Only the co-pilot survived; 49 perished.
- 8/6/97 at Agana, Guam: A Boeing 747 crashed three miles short of the intended runway, killing 228 people during what should have been a routine stop on an overnight flight from Seoul, Korea. Investigators found that FAA’s Minimum Safe Altitude Warning system (MSAW) had been disabled, so as to eliminate ‘nuisance alarms’. The post-accident analysis showed that, if the system had not been intentionally disabled, alarms would have started a full 64-seconds prior to impact, with ample time for ATC to issue a radio warning to save the flight.