Monday, February 25, 2008

Defining Emergency

Here’s a story that might make it into the mainstream Press.

Did FAA brush off 'mayday' call from doomed pilot?

First, let’s look at the facts as we know them. A pilot was having an emergency and his flight was being handled by a Flight Service Station. The FAA has an emergency radio frequency -- often referred to as Guard -- which is monitored by every FAA facility in the country and numerous other entities. This frequency is normally routed through a loudspeaker in the facility so that everyone can hear it. The simple idea is that, if you need help, all you have to do is call on this one frequency and somebody, somewhere, will hear you and provide assistance. Think of it as the 911 system for airplanes.

In this case, it appears a supervisor -- perhaps with good intentions -- turned down the volume on the Guard frequency loudspeaker to a point that controllers couldn’t hear it. I want to make this point clear. I understand the rationale it appears the supervisor was using. A blaring speaker isn’t conducive to the type of operation air traffic controllers run. Controllers can indeed become distracted. The supervisors actions were most likely rational. They were also wrong.

Let’s take a look at some of the rules for air traffic control. The quoted sections are from FAA Order 7110.65 -- also known as the controller’s bible.



a. Give first priority to separating aircraft and issuing safety alerts as required in this order. Good judgment shall be used in prioritizing all other provisions of this order based on the requirements of the situation at hand.
REFERENCE- FAAO JO 7110.65, Para 2-1-6, Safety Alert.

Because there are many variables involved, it is virtually impossible to develop a standard list of duty priorities that would apply uniformly to every conceivable situation. Each set of circumstances must be evaluated on its own merit, and when more than one action is required, controllers shall exercise their best judgment based on the facts and circumstances known to them. That action which is most critical from a safety standpoint is performed first.


There are two pertinent parts n that section. A controller’s first priority is to “separate aircraft and issue safety alerts” -- even if he’s working an emergency. Notice the phrase “good judgment.” You see it again in the “note” -- “best judgment.” It is vital that you understand this if you ever want to understand the responsibilities of air traffic controllers. Controllers may have to juggle more events than it is humanly possible to handle. They don’t get to quit. They are expected to use their “best judgment” and keep going no matter what.



Provide air traffic control service to aircraft on a "first come, first served" basis as circumstances permit, except the following:

a. An aircraft in distress has the right of way over all other air traffic

c. Provide maximum assistance to SAR aircraft performing a SAR mission.


An SAR aircraft is a “Search And Rescue” aircraft. In another version of this same story, on AVweb, you’ll see this.

”But FAA spokesman Ian Gregor told AVweb in an e-mail that by the time the controllers in Oakland had tuned in, the plane had already crashed and all they heard were transmissions from another pilot who saw the crash and was circling the wreck waiting for help to arrive. “

The aircraft “circling the wreck” is a SAR aircraft. There’s nothing special about it. It was probably just another pilot that happened to be flying in the area. Obviously he wouldn’t have the “rescue” portion of SAR but he was definitely involved in the “search.” It’s hard to render “maximum assistance” when you’re not listening to the conversation.

I could go on with this listing of the rules...



Monitor interphones and assigned radio frequencies continuously.


...but I don’t believe there is any need to belabor the point. From what I can gain out of the media reports, the supervisor failed to exercise the best judgment in this situation. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that there could have been another emergency while the frequency was turned down.

If relations between controllers and management were remotely tolerable, this incident would probably never have seen the light of day. In the controller’s eyes, this is a serious transgression. Controllers have to know who they can trust when the chips are down. You don’t get to make too many bad calls in a profession where “good judgment” is all important. The transgression would have been noted and brought to the attention of FAA management for them to handle.

Therein lies the point. Controllers don’t trust the FAA to “do the right thing” anymore. They’ve seen the trust they are supposed to have abused and violated too many times to recount. Relations aren’t normal between controllers and management. Relations are the worst that they have been since the PATCO strike in 1981 and possibly even worse than they were then. Controllers don’t trust FAA management, they don’t trust the Administrator, the Secretary of Transportation or the President.

That fact has an impact on everything. Including your safety.

Don Brown
February 25, 2008

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