Hidden dangers of flying: Unreported near misses



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Posted on February 7, 2011 at 11:30 PM

Updated Tuesday, Feb 8 at 11:13 PM

WA airport air safety incidents, 2000-2009

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SEATTLE -- Near misses in the air, near misses on the ground, planes running out of fuel, pilots confused – these things happen more often than you think at Washington’s airports.

Pilot: “I am a student pilot. Can you help me?”
Air traffic controller: “Okay, you have the freeway off to your left side? That’s I-5. I want you to just like you were going to drive it. Make a left turn and follow the freeway.”

There is nothing funny about that radio transmission when you consider research found that on average more than 150 close calls are happening every day. Incidents so serious they are reported to a national aviation safety program run by NASA.

NASA sifts through the reports, and is supposed to pass on safety alerts to airports, airlines, pilots and the Federal Aviation Administration through safety alerts.

But with staffing constraints, and budget concerns, the program hasn’t seen a budget increase since 1997. Only one in five reports once initially screened are investigated further. 

But KING 5 News along with Investigate West looked into all the reports for the last 10 years. There were 942 cases in Washington. About half of them occurred at Sea-Tac International Airport or Boeing Field.

For example, one report detailed an Airbus 319 setting up for a landing at Sea-Tac. Suddenly a collision avoidance alarm went off. A Cessna was dangerously close. It passed ever so slightly below and to the right, eventually clearing the tail of the jet. A mid-air collision was avoided by 200 feet.

“That’s too close for comfort,” says Dr. Todd Curtis, an aviation safety expert in Seattle. “In the past this incident could have happened and we may not have known about it. This way at least we have a very clear piece of evidence that we have a problem.”

The incidents include communication breakdowns between pilots and airport employees, equipment failures, lack of adequate space on airfields, sudden weather scares and flight crew fatigue. Far too many are caused by human error.

Another report detailed a light plane take off from the Renton airport with a heavy concrete-filled tire used as a tie-down still attached to the plane. The pilot never noticed something was wrong and flew over crowded neighborhoods with the 150-pound weight dangling from below the plane.

Fortunately, the tire stayed with the aircraft until landing. If it had fallen, someone on the ground could have been killed.

Likely that pilot did not suffer any consequences. 

If you cause a car crash, drivers can’t get off the hook simply for admitting fault. But in the case of pilots or other air safety professionals, if they are willing to admit they were in the wrong, the FAA won’t hold the report against them. It also waives fines and penalties including the most serious -- revoking a pilot’s license.

“It’s almost like a get out of jail free card,” private pilot Tom Torcia described.

Some in the aviation community question if enough attention is paid to NASA’s safety reports.
Another report came from a frustrated airline pilot who reported to NASA that flight crews at his airline were overworked, flying tired and sick, warning “chronic fatigue” was having a “significant impact” on “operations and safety.”

NASA sent out a safety alert across the aviation system that “An air carrier pilot alleges serious fatigue issues…reporter fears serious consequences may occur.”

It was a haunting foreshadowing of what was to come. Just one year later, Colgan Air flight 3407 crashed outside Buffalo, New York. All 49 people on board and one man on the ground were killed, including co-pilot Rebecca Lynne Shaw of Maple Valley, who made a grueling cross country commute before sitting for hours waiting to take off. Investigators said fatigue played a role in the crash.

It apparently took a disaster to prompt the FAA to issue a call to action.

“We know the risk is there,” says Curtis, “but it’s not until that risk is manifested and there are people dead on the ground before people will take notice.”

Review of the reports shows near misses isn’t limited to the air.

At Sea-Tac, a jetliner with passengers aboard was taxiing when a baggage cart cut right in front of the plane. The pilot had to brake hard to avoid what they called “a collision which would have certainly ended in injury and or death.”

At the Skagit Regional Airport in Burlington, a pilot rolled the plane out for take-off when they noticed a snow plow working on the edge of the runway. The pilot reports they were on the wrong radio frequency and the plow never heard the take off call.

Without a thorough review of every report coming into NASA, there may never be a clear sense of how often disaster is narrowly avoided overhead and near homes in Washington.

“For a lot of pilots, it is very scary when you think about it,” says Curtis.

A spokesman for the FAA says the agency is now expanding its own database, which it calls more robust than the NASA system. It still relies on voluntary, confidential reporting, but the anonymity creates an incentive for aviation professionals to report safety issues. As for punishing pilots and others, the FAA says it does pursue cases when safety breaches are considered negligent or illegal.