Monday, January 07, 2008

Losing the Flick

I was just visiting my buddy Todd’s blog -- ”Vanity Fair Musings” -- and saw he has an excellent example of “losing the F lick.” It’s also a good example for the lay person to see just how complicated air traffic control can get.

(Edit: Todd moved his video. Try this link at The Cranky Flier)

As a matter of fact, it’s a good example of a lot of things. Remembering my ongoing efforts to explain airport capacity, take a look at the video on Todd’s blog. There are several things to note (besides how weather reduces capacity) so you’ll probably have to watch it more than once.

The first thing to realize is that it is foggy and the controller in the Tower can’t see a thing. Keep your eye on UAL1448. It’s so foggy that the pilot gets lost and turns onto the wrong taxiway. The next time you hear controllers asking for ground radar -- a radar system that can track airplanes on the ground in the fog -- you’ll realize why they want it. Right now, the only way for most Tower controllers to “see” what is going on is with the picture inside their heads -- the Flick. When the pieces of the puzzle are moved without the controller’s knowledge -- when the United got lost -- it is really hard to immediately absorb that something went wrong. The fancy phrase for it is “cognitive dissonance” and you can read about it in detail at The FAA Follies.

The appropriate response from the controller -- had she recognized that something was wrong -- would have been the ATC version of Everybody FREEZE ! All traffic would have been stopped. Nobody taxis out from the gate, nobody takes off and nobody lands until the United airplane gets “unlost.” But the controller didn’t recognize what was happening and succumbed to the pressure to keep everything moving. Think about that for a second. Think about how much pressure a pilot is under to make sure the flight is on time and how much pressure they (and management, both FAA and airline) transfer onto controllers to keep airplanes moving.

Other things to note. Why is this controller (apparently) working two positions ? Working the taixways is the job of Ground Control. Working the active runway is the Local Controller’s job. Two heads are better than one. If the Ground Controller has an airplane that gets lost the first thing he tells the Local Control to do is stop traffic. This controller appears to be doing both jobs -- with the predictable results.

Note the phraseology of the pilots. The controller wasn’t the only one suffering from “cognitive dissonance.” The United pilots knew where they were supposed to be and they knew that something wasn’t right but they hadn’t quite made the difficult mental leap to “ Oh &%$# we’re lost !” That was about the time the first plane flew over them. After that, note how their phraseology gets more specific and more forceful. Now they know something is wrong and they are desperately trying to sort it out and communicate it to the controller.

And finally, take note of the USAir 2298 pilot. He’s not suffering from “cognitive dissonance.” He wasn’t being pressured to keep things moving. He wasn’t trying to do two jobs at once. He had time to think, time to take note and he still has the Flick (thank God.) And it probably saved his life, the lives of all that he was carrying and all the ones on the United. Because, by this time, it’s obvious to him that the controller has lost the Flick. The pilot of USAir 2298 refused his takeoff clearance. He should have been given the “Free Beer for Life” award.

Like I said, you can learn a lot from this video. Play it a few times so that you make sure you’re learning everything you can. That is the reason people concerned with safety make them and publish them. It’s also the reason we get so upset when somebody pulls a stunt like NASA did last week and keeps people from learning all they can learn.

Don Brown
January 7, 2008

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