February 7, 2011 in City

Review of NASA reports shows frequent close calls over Wash.

Robert McClure InvestigateWest
 
Reporting provides immunity

InvestigateWest’s review of the national reporting system indicates many air-safety professionals are willing to identify themselves as having just broken - or at least skirted - air-safety regulations. That could be because reporting the incident to NASA usually provides immunity from FAA disciplinary action that otherwise could result in loss or suspension of the person’s FAA certificate.

A pilot leaves Spokane’s Felts Field in a single-engine Cessna planning to touch down at Thun Field near Puyallup, Wash. – but instead lands about 10 miles away at McChord Air Force Base, breaching security. Inbound to Spokane, another pilot in a 10-passenger, single-prop Cessna mistakenly lands at Fairchild Air Force Base.

A pilot and co-pilot operating on three hours’ sleep start taking a wrong turn – right into the path of another aircraft – after lifting off from Boeing Field in Seattle. Quick work by an air traffic controller averts disaster over the state’s largest population center.

While training near Everett, a student pilot comes within 100 feet of crashing into a plane inbound for a landing. Another student pilot coming into Bremerton barely avoids a midair collision when a small, homebuilt aircraft darts in front of him, touches down and then takes off without stopping.

These are just a handful of the heart-stopping scenes portrayed in the words of the pilots, air traffic controllers and others involved in safety breaches in and around Washington airports. At least twice a week on average from January 2000 to January 2010, a pilot, air traffic controller or other air safety professional encountered a situation serious enough to contact a national safety-reporting system run by NASA, records show. InvestigateWest examined the reports filed with NASA, which seeks to uncover dangerous patterns before they turn to tragedy.

The results reveal that aircraft in Washington come perilously close to calamity on a surprisingly frequent basis. One of the most serious close calls, when planes nearly collide in midair, occurred 62 times, an average of about once every two months.

NTSB called in after crashes

The reports to NASA usually involve close calls or safety breaches where no harm was done. But other times, luck runs out. When a crash occurs, the National Transportation Safety Board is called in.

That happened to Larry Sundholm, of Spokane, in July, when the electrical system on the Lancair 320 he was flying started cutting out while he was preparing to land at Felts Field. With another plane already on the runway, the controller instructed Sundholm to circle and come back. He started to go around, but then his electrical system went completely dead.

“All of a sudden I found I could not transmit,” so he couldn’t tell the tower his situation, Sundholm said. “I was going to land … but all of a sudden I couldn’t straighten the plane out.”

Sundholm had started putting down the landing gear, but he couldn’t be sure it was fully extended and locked because of the electrical problems. With no choice, “I made a hard landing,” he recalled.

It’s this kind of incident that NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System is designed to identify and prevent before it becomes widespread. The reports offer a rare front-row view of a surprising number of near-disasters. Yet the 943 incidents recorded from January 2000 through January 2010 are far from the whole picture, as even NASA admits. Nationally, only 1 in 5 of the reports received, once screened, is investigated and put into the reports that make up a database reviewed by InvestigateWest and members of the Investigative News Network.

The incidents reported to NASA range from life-threatening close calls to seemingly more mundane matters such as inadequate runway directions signs. But even those runway signs, if they’re bad enough, could send planes smashing into each other on the taxiway.

“This is a system that is trying to learn from everyday events,” said Linda Connell of NASA, director of the program. “This is an opportunity for people to say … there were things going on that probably should be looked at.”

NASA sifts through the reports, culling the ones that appear to be worth passing on to the airport, airline or whoever needs to know about what’s going wrong. That’s often the Federal Aviation Administration, the body that regulates pilots and employs air traffic controllers. Repeated calls and e-mails over the last six weeks to Allen Kenitzer, the FAA’s supervisor for public affairs for the FAA region covering the Pacific Northwest, were unsuccessful in eliciting a response by the FAA to the findings of InvestigateWest.

About half of the nearly 1,000 NASA reports reviewed for this story relate to SeaTac International Airport, the hub of the state’s passenger system, or nearby Boeing Field. Sixty-four of the reports concern Spokane International Airport or Spokane’s Felts Field.

The problem of pilot fatigue

SeaTac’s proximity to Boeing Field sets up a sometimes problematic situation. In the March 2003 incident in which the air traffic controller prevented a collision, the sleep-deprived pilot’s report to NASA started ominously: “We were scrambled from the hotel for a flight. …”

As the air taxi carrying an unreported number of passengers made its way from the terminal to the runway, “We became hurried and our (concentration) suffered as a result.”

The pilot thought the tower assigned the aircraft to turn right to 180 degrees. The co-pilot didn’t double check. After takeoff, the pilot wondered why he was being instructed to turn toward SeaTac but started in that direction anyway. The crew radioed in that they were turning to 180 degrees, only to be quickly corrected by a controller.

“I was disgusted with our performance,” the pilot wrote. “Yes, we were tired and hurried, but that can be no excuse. … Thankfully this did not cause a (near-midair collision) or worse.”

He added: “It would have been better to simply refuse the trip since we were still fatigued.”

Pilot fatigue “is a huge problem,” said Terry von Thaden, an air-safety researcher at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign who created a special system to measure the safety culture of aviation organizations. “In our research it’s one of the No. 1 things we see.”

 Federal rules require flight crews to be off for eight hours between flights – but that doesn’t equate to eight hours of sleep. A pilot whose flight arrives at midnight still has to button down the airplane, get to the hotel, sleep, shower, get a meal and get back to the airplane – perhaps as early as 6:30 a.m.

 Pilot and Spokane International Airport Police Chief Peter L. Troyer agreed that fatigue can be deadly when flying: “Just like when you’re driving, being tired is almost as bad as being drunk.” But he said his sense from talking to friends who are commercial pilots is that the FAA “has some pretty strict rules about what you can and cannot schedule pilots to do.”

He noted that historically, airline pilots made handsome salaries. But they are no longer compensated as well, because airlines are trying to cut costs. The dynamic is particularly strong at small carriers.

“You look back at the glamour days,” Troyer said. By comparison, today’s pilots “are glorified bus drivers,” he said. “It’s a shift in our culture.”

Small airports have share of incidents

Even at smaller airports where fewer close calls are reported, chilling incidents are reported.

An aviation instructor teaching a student pilot how to set a flight computer lost track of a nearby airplane in a 2009 incident near Yakima’s McAllister Field. The instructor was jarred back to awareness when a controller called – with crash-avoidance alarms in the control tower raging in the background – and the instructor looked out of cockpit to see another single-engine plane pass just 400 feet overhead.

“Perhaps we missed an instruction from (air- traffic control) or had incorrectly interpreted a direction however there were no urgent calls from (air-traffic control) to instruct us to do anything different. During a time of high work load pilots tend to shed functions that do not seem to be a priority,” the instructor wrote in his report to NASA. “I failed to recognize the danger of the high workload we were under and should (have) reduced our training goals at the moment until the situation had passed.”

Even people who never fly in small planes need to be wary of safety problems with them, notes Bill Voss, president and CEO of the Flight Safety Foundation, an international organization. Among the most deadly such accidents occurred in 1986 over Cerritos, Calif., when an AeroMexico jetliner collided in midair with a small family-owned Piper aircraft, killing 67 people aboard both aircraft and 15 people on the ground.

Safety expert von Thaden said the public might be frightened to learn of close calls. As for her assessment of the air-transport system:

 “Is it safe? Yes. Does stuff happen every day that you wouldn’t want to know about? Yes,” von Thaden said.

Kevin Crowe of The Watchdog Institute and InvestigateWest reporter Will Graff contributed to this report. InvestigateWest is a Seattle-based nonprofit investigative journalism center (invw.org).  This story was reported in partnership with KING 5 TV of Seattle.


There are four comments on this story. Click here to view comments >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email