Monday, August 06, 2007

Pick An Airport -- Any Airport

I missed this story which means you probably did too.

Jetliner pilots may have picked wrong airport

This is one of stories we can laugh about because everything worked out. This time. The problem is we keep pressing our luck. You see, I used to work this airspace. As a matter of fact, I grew up in this area (which is one of the reasons I wound up working the airspace.) Let me explain.

My first real job was pumping gas into airplanes at the Spartanburg Downtown Airport in Spartanburg, SC. That was where I first learned about the tendency of airplanes to land at the wrong airport. There is a Spartanburg airport, a Greenville-Spartanburg airport and a Greenville airport. They are identified (in aviation) as SPA, GSP and GMU, respectively. They’re confused on a regular basis. Back in the day it wasn’t too bad because we had a robust safety net. All three airports had a Air Traffic Control Tower.

After the PATCO strike in 1981, the SPA Tower was closed. Permanently. Later on, the GMU Tower was contracted out. There’s a radar facility at GSP (called Greer Approach) but it closes on the midnight shift. That means when GSP Tower and Approach closes all the services are transferred to Atlanta Center. That is the radar facility in which I used to work, located in Hampton, GA (south of Atlanta.)

”Nicholas said the regional jet could have landed safely at the Downtown Airport.”

Really ? Not to question her competence but Ms. Nicholas is a “spokeswoman for Continental Express.” According to my research on the web (which took about 5 minutes) the ERJ-145 needs approximately 4,500 feet of runway to land if it’s dry and about 5,400 feet of runway if it’s wet. I also know enough to know I don’t know all the factors needed to determine if it’s safe to land a ERJ-145 full of passengers at GMU (Greenville Downtown Airport.)

I do know this. The pilots were expecting an 11,000 foot runway at GSP. The one at GMU (the longest one) is only 5,393 feet long. Drive down your favorite highway at 55 MPH and only give yourself half the time you’d normally allow to stop at the traffic light. Does that feel safe ?

I also know the conditions that contributed to this incident. The controllers that work this airspace don’t work any airplanes below 11,000 feet all day long -- except on their midnight shift. That means they don’t work any airplanes down low -- no approaches, no departures -- except on their once-a-week midnight shift. I also know their radar doesn’t “see” below 2-3,000 feet. In other words, when it gets down to the nitty-gritty -- when an airplane is approaching the airport -- the target drops of the radar scope. It makes it tough to say “Hey Buddy, you’re lined up on the wrong airport” when you can’t see the airplane.

Don’t get me wrong. These controllers are among the best in the world at what they do. They just don’t have a chance to remain proficient at working airplanes around airports. Been there, done that. I learned this lesson firsthand when I botched a vector to the approach at GSP one night.

Kudos to the pilots for catching the mistake. Shame on the FAA for putting them in a position in which it was so easy to make the mistake.

Don Brown
August 6, 2007

P.S. You did think about fatigue didn’t you ? This airplane landed at 4 minutes after midnight -- “65 minutes after the scheduled arrival at 10:59 p.m.”

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