Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Southwest 737 Good Samaritan or Good Grief?

UPDATE April 20, 2011:
Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood tells Gwen Ifill of PBS NewsHour, that the air traffic controller discussed below has been fired.

LaHood: Where the controller had guided a 737 Southwest flight to take a look at a small plane that was out of radio contact to see if something was going on. Completely violates procedures. You can't guide a big plane over to look at a small plane. That's not the way that's done."

The air traffic control profession just can't get a break and this was supposed to be such a happy time for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. Every Spring, the union holds its annual awards ceremony a splashy event - this year in Las Vegas - in which controllers and pilots are honored for  spectacular, sometimes lifesaving acts over the past twelve months that may or may not have made news but certainly have made them heroes among their peers.

But this calamitous spring, as the ceremony was about to get underway, it was marred by the headline-making news that a supervisor at the Reagan National Airport tower had fallen asleep on the overnight shift, leaving two airliners to land using see and be seen techniques. You can read more about that here.

Well the NATCA convention-goers probably haven't unpacked their suitcases but already they're hearing about a new investigation, again not involving a union controller, but in the minds of the general public, really, what's the difference?
This evening, the Federal Aviation Administration announced it is looking into the decision of a supervising controller at the TRACON center in Jacksonville, Florida to send a Southwest Airlines plane to fly up close to a private plane to see if the Southwest pilots could determine why a private plane had been out of radio communication for more than an hour.

Calling the decision to send the passenger carrying Boeing 737 on a discovery mission, FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt said, "the air traffic controller compromised the safety of everyone involved." 

Southwest Flight 821 was flying at twelve thousand feet en route from Phoenix to Orlando on Sunday night and was 10 miles behind and one thousand feet above a single engine Cirrus SR22. The Southwest pilots agreed to the controller's request to eyeball the cockpit of the smaller plane. Approaching it the Southwest pilots radioed back that they could see two pilots in the small plane.

Florida controllers may be understandably nervous about small airplanes that go nordo. This is eerily similar to the situation on the LearJet carrying golfer Payne Stewart in 1999. In that case, the pilots and passengers were incapacitated by hypoxia shortly after the flight departed Orlando and the plane flew on auto pilot until it ran out of fuel in South Dakota and crashed into a field.

Nevertheless, sending a passenger plane to play fighter jet is wrong in all sorts of ways. The post-9-11 world has lengthy lists of procedures for how to respond to airplanes that go mysteriously silent, none of which include having passenger planes fly in close for a quick peek.

The commercial flight and the Cirrus apparently landed without incident. Meanwhile the FAA says the controller has been suspended. At the risk of sounding redundant, you can be sure that everyone in the TRACON center, the folks in the Cirrus and the pilots of Flight 821 will all have a lot of 'splaining to do. 


Frank Raymond said...

This is an interesting story. I would need more information about the event before saying that the controller did anything wrong.

If he asked the WN flight to fly formation on the SR-22, that is one thing. But if he asked him to descend 1000 feet as they passed the -22, that is something else entirely.

Maybe this wasn't the best decision, but I don't feel that the safety of 100+ passengers was put in risk.

Additionally, the WN crew shares the responsibility for accepting the controller's request. They could have said "unable" and that would/should have been the end of their involvement.

I think this is an example of the aviation community looking after each other, and the media (and FAA leadership) succumbing to the splashy story without all the facts.

Just my $.02.

JG said...

I think Randy Babbit needs to take a chill pill. There have been plenty of incidentw where a pilot has been incapacitated for long periods of time and I can assure you there is a very big difference between flying IFR formation on strip lights at night (done that) and passing by and airplane to see if someone's OK. I meanreally people, we're pilots not children. Get a grip.

Aviatrix said...

I agree with Frank. Controllers and pilots ask each other to help all the time. A NORDO Cirrus isn't going to hurt a B737, and the B737 can't get too close lest they upset the Cirrus with wake turbulence.

An airplane is a very mobile vehicle with a much better view of the world than a control tower, or TRACON room, and the emergency has the right of way, not the bigger one, not the one with more passengers, or nicer paint. If someone you can help may be in trouble, you divert, and implying that it should be otherwise in a post-anything world is irresponsible fearmongering.