Friday, December 26, 2008

The Stewardess Is Flying The Plane!

If those words, and "Columbia 409", ring a bell to you, then you are obviously a connoisseur of high quality cinema.

I met up with my pilot friend a couple days ago and he told me a harrowing story. (If you have Google Earth or some such software, pull up Gunnison, Colorado). As he explains it, Gunnison is a very tricky airport to fly into. It's like you're flying down a dead-end valley to land, and if you have to abort the landing, you climb up and right and go around this big mountain. Additionally, there are few of the navigation aids that larger airports have.

And get this--there's no tower to control the aircraft!!! I was shocked to learn that commercial airliners are landing at airports that are not directly controlled by humans. Ground wind conditions are reported by an automated radio signal updated every minute--and that's a long time for wind conditions to change! Not only that, but because of the terrain he had to land flying with the wind, not into it, and he can only land (or take off) if his tailwind is 10 knots or less.

So he was on approach and the his GPS data was telling him that winds were about 45 knots, but the automated message was telling him that it was calm on the ground. He got lower and lower and his instrumentation continued to give him significantly different information than the automated message. At the last moment he decided to abort the landing, meaning he'd have to do some fancy flying around some mountains to come around and make another try.

He could tell the story much better than I, but combine low clouds, lack of modern navigational aids, very high peaks, and a GPS that freezes up--and all of this at an airport where there's no tower or radar to help him out--and I'm on the edge of my seat listening to this story. The next go around didn't look any better, so he flew back to Denver.

I was just shocked to learn that commercial airliners land at uncontrolled airports. He told me that many smaller airports are like that. I think that if I have to fly, I'll stick to larger airports from now on, thank you very much.

15 comments:

Ellen K said...

A good friend of ours works at FAA that controls flights once they are out of DFW airspace. It's kind of scary to see what happens when the radar goes down in that facility. They resort to old flat radar and tiny chips with the flight numbers written on them. And then they estimate, based on the last previous speed and altitude, where they are. This is one system where the government seriously needs to overhaul the equipment. Forget NASA, get us some more controllers and a higher level of flight safety.

Charley said...

You are overly concerned about nothing. As a commercial airline pilot, I can assure you that any pilot conducting an approach to an uncontrolled field will adhere to the proper procedures. "Uncontrolled" only means there is not a tower facility available or possibly that the tower is closed. There are procedures to ensure planes don't land on top of each other. There are also approach procedures for transitioning from the enroute ATC structure to the airport in question. The ATC Center controller will give the clearance to commence the approach. This ensures not more than one plane is on the approach at once. The pilot will fly the entire approach as published (we usually are vectored to a final and skip a large portion of an approach). If for any reason the pilot decides not to land, he will follow the published missed approach procedures, reestablish communications with the FAA Center, and determine his next course of action, which could be a diversion. No big deal. The approaches are flight tested by the FAA to ensure they provide for proper terrain clearance at all times. We are trained in these procedures and have planes more than capable of dealing with the performance necessary, even with an engine failed!

Of course, if you are flying a small plane, all bets are off...witness the fatal crash of a Piper Malabu on approach to Hayden, CO on the 23rd. He was flying an approach to a tower-controlled field! Obviously that wasn't much help....

Charley

Darren said...

I understand there are procedures. I'd just prefer another set of eyes on the situation, is all.

Scott McCall said...

i would always fly out of sac executive....and i practiced very often with landings at franklin airport. executive is a fully controlled airport, franklin isn't.

its not that difficult at an uncontrolled airport...unless pilots dont communicate

but ya i agree....commercial airplanes would usually land at controlled airports

Darren said...

Scott, I don't recall knowing that you fly....

Erica said...

I've done quite a bit of landing at uncontrolled airports in a Cessna 152 (probably the smallest small aircraft you can get without building it in your own garage).

My usual one was exceptionally entertaining because it was also the home of our fire suppression tankers, several flocks of nosy condors, and involved a bluff at the end of the runway with a wicked constant updraft and a giant hill smack in the middle of the final approach. Fun stuff!

David said...

Nothing inherently dangerous is an "uncontrolled" field unless there is either a very high traffic level or a complicated arrangement of intersecting runways, with more than one in use at a time.

Regarding "another pair of eyes," large aircraft are equipped with a traffic alerting system that will raise an alarm if another plane is on a potentially-dangerous course. It may be sensitive to altitude and terrain, though, since it works on responses to ground-based radar transmissions. Any TCAS experieces to share, Charlie? In any event, there is always at least one other pair of eyes...in the airplane that represents a potential collision hazard.

Scott McCall said...

Ya i've been flying for about a year up untill the FAA gave me problems with my medical certificate so i had to stop untill it's sorted out.

Darren said...

I'm not worried so much about another airplane as I am those large mountains and minimal navigation aids.

Charley said...

TCAS (Traffic Collision and Avoidance System) has probably saved more lives than we will ever know. It has been one of the best advances in safety in decades. It monitors all planes within about a 40 mile radius that are equipped with transponders. It places two "bubbles" of time around your own plane. If any other plane enters the first (largest) bubble, it announces and displays it to the pilots. If it continues and enters the second (closer) bubble, it commands a climb or descent (and can change from a climb to a descent or vice versa if needed). If the other plane is also TCAS equipped, it will coordinate with it so both don't maneuver in the same direction! It doesn't have anything to do with GPS, RNAV, or ground facilities, so it can't take into account terrain. On the other hand, the GPWS (Ground Proximity Warning System) is still active and would warn against a potential ground collision.

Yes, I've had a couple of TCAS encounters...nothing wild at all and I don't know that the end result would have been a collision; just a near miss. The most common TCAS warnings occur when two planes are assigned altitudes 1000' apart (normal) and one is descending quickly toward the higher altitudes while the other is climbing quickly toward the lower one. Since TCAS is predicated on time, it will sound an alarm...which must be followed just in case one of the planes doesn't level at his assigned altitude. Most of the time, we see this coming and reduce our vertical rate so as to avoid a TCAS warning.

Charley

allen (in Michigan) said...

For those dangers, there's nothing a tower controller can do for you that you can't do for yourself as the pilot. In a high-traffic area a traffic cop makes sense but even that's more of a bureaucratic response then a practical one.

After all, air traffic controllers make mistakes so you're just adding a layer of mistake-generating decision-makers more for political reasons then for practical reasons.

The best way to handle the situation would be to make sure that the pilots have all the information they need to avoid collisions and let them sort themselves out.

For pilots who can't obey the rules the FAA ought to act as traffic cop and hand out citations and press charges based on the severity of transgressions.

Darren said...

Low clouds, heavy winds, no nav aids, no GPS, and very tall mountains. I'd want more than just procedures in such a situation.

Charley said...

No nav aids and no GPS?

In that case, "procedures" would have dictated that he didn't have any IFR approaches he could fly and shouldn't have been attempting to arrive at that airport anyway!

I'm thinking we don't have the whole picture here. It seems he did have his GPS because he was able to read the wind in the cockpit. That would insinuate he was flying an RNAV or a GPS approach, both of which would keep him clear of the terrain both during the approach and during the missed approach.

And in either case, a tower controller couldn't have helped him other than ensure separation between traffic and issue current weather observations.

I know my airline is extraordinarily cautious and safety-oriented. If things aren't right, we don't go. Period. If an approach isn't right, we go around and either do it again or divert. Period. There isn't a pilot I fly with who doesn't realize that the pilot is the first to arrive at the scene of a crash. Each and every one of us wants to be around to see his children grow up.... If the pilot has a healthy sense of self-preservation, his passengers will be safe as well!!!

Charley

Darren said...

The GPS froze after he aborted the landing and was flying "through the valley around the mountain" in the clouds. He could see the runway and there was no other traffic in the area; the clouds were over 1000 above--but he had to climb through them to make another attempt. What a horrible time for a GPS to freeze!

I'd have wanted a controller to vector me, not some commentary on an FAA map.

David said...

Those interested in air traffic control technology might enjoy (if that's the word) my post on the sad story of the Advanced Automation System.