Saturday, June 30, 2007

FAA History Lesson -- June 30



June 30th is an interesting day in the FAA’s history. Evidently, it used to be the last day of the fiscal year. Whereas some dates have very little activity (like yesterday, June 29th), June 30th is just loaded with significant milestones.

For instance, in 1928 “...the Commerce Department succeeded in developing a practical radio navigation beacon system.” It was the old four course radio range for all you old-timers out there. We could go the amusing route. In 1929”...the Airways Division of the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Lighthouses established an office at Fort Worth, Tex.,...” I bet you didn’t even know there was a Bureau of Lighthouses, much less that the four course radio range was replacing light beacons as a primary source of navigation. By the way, anybody noticed that airports still have rotating light beacons for navigation ? And they’re still useful. You might want to keep that in mind, just in case somebody tries to tell you that some new technology is going to replace some other “antiquated” technology.

Getting a little closer to the punch line...here’s a good one.

”Jun 30, 1938: During the fiscal year that ended this date, the Department of Commerce established teletype network Schedule B connecting airway traffic control centers with airway communication stations and with military airbases. “

I’d really love to delve into that one deeper. It’s really important. But so is this one.

”Jun 30, 1945: During the fiscal year that ended on this date, CAA began development work on adapting radar to civil aviation at the Indianapolis Experimental Station, using equipment supplied by the Armed Forces. (See Jul 23, 1935 and May 24, 1946.) “

1945. World War II is ending. All those planes and all those pilots are coming home. I wonder if anyone talked of a “peace dividend” back then ? Oh well, I can’t tarry. We have important business to attend to. Because all the politics and all the neat technical marvels got trumped. Even that bureaucratic wonder -- the end of the fiscal year -- got trumped. By safety. Or a lack thereof.

From the FAA Historical Chronology, 1926-1996...

”Jun 30, 1956: A Trans World Airlines Super Constellation and a United Air Lines DC-7 collided over the Grand Canyon, Ariz., killing all 128 occupants of the two airplanes. The collision occurred while the transports were flying under visual flight rules (VFR) in uncongested airspace. The accident dramatizing the fact that, even though U.S. air traffic had more than doubled since the end of World War II, little had been done to expand the capacity of the air traffic control system or to increase safeguards against midair collisions. Sixty-five such collisions had occurred in the United States between 1950 and 1955. This was partly because the ATC system did not have the ability to segregate VFR traffic from instrument flight rules (IFR) traffic, or slow-moving flights from faster ones. Many experts recognized a need to institute positive control -- requiring instrument flight over certain portions of the airspace irrespective of weather conditions. In the wake of the tragedy, Congress opened hearings to probe its relationship to the general problems of airspace and air traffic control management. (See Apr 11, 1957.) “

And nothing in Air Traffic Control was ever the same again.

There’s been a lot written about this accident. The best account I’ve read was buried inside a book about Airline Deregulation: “Blind Trust” by John J. Nance. Yes, that John Nance. The one that has written all the novels and shows up on the TV whenever the news needs someone to explain an aviation accident. Even stranger, while “Blind Trust” is a nonfiction book, what makes the account of the Grand Canyon mid air so compelling is that Mr. Nance fictionalized it. It is told from the perspective of actually being in the airplane during the collision. It’s probably not a book you want to read on your next flight.

As I’ve told many, many controllers in the past...you need to pay special attention to what happened to the controller that was working these two flights. It’s a sad story but it’s also true. You ought to read it. You can pick it up in any library.

Don Brown
June 30, 2007

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