Thursday, April 17, 2008

FAA History Lesson -- April 17



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

”Apr 17, 1978: National Weather Service meteorologists began working at 13 of FAA's Air Route Traffic Control Centers under a recently signed agreement between the two agencies. At each of those centers, a team of three NWS meteorologists provided information on hazardous weather throughout the day to center controllers, as well as to FAA towers and flight service stations. FAA provided each center with new equipment for receiving data from NWS weather radar and satellites. This new program was part of a general effort to provide pilots with more en route weather information, since the lack of accurate knowledge of hazardous weather, particularly thunderstorms, had been found responsible for several air crashes (see May 19, 1977). NWS meteorologists were already on duty at FAA's national flow control center in Washington, and by Nov 1980 they were stationed at all U.S. mainland en route centers. “

Unfortunately, the FAA’s reputation as “The Tombstone Agency” is well-deserved. This is just another example. I might as well show you this trick. You might want to do some research on your own one day. It’s really simple. Take the date, April 17, 1978, and start reading backwards -- until you find the appropriate accident.

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

”Apr 4, 1977: A Southern Airways DC-9 crashed near New Hope, Ga. The pilot attempted an emergency landing on a highway, but the aircraft broke apart and caught fire. The accident killed 62 of the 85 persons aboard, as well as 8 persons on the ground. In addition, one passenger and one person injured on the ground died about a month later. The National Transportation Safety Board cited the probable cause of the crash as the total and unique loss of thrust after the engines ingested massive amounts of water and hail as the aircraft penetrated an area of severe thunderstorms. As contributory causes, the NTSB listed: failure of the airline's dispatch system to provide up-to-date severe weather data; the captain's reliance on airborne weather radar to enter a thunderstorm area; and FAA's lack of a system for disseminating real-time hazardous weather warnings. (See May 19, 1977.) “

You might think we all learned our lesson -- and to some degree we did. But if we were all honest, we’d know there was more to learn -- and still lessons left unlearned.

”NWS meteorologists were already on duty at FAA's national flow control center... “

It doesn’t take a lot of thinking to figure out the FAA was willing to spend the money for capacity (that is what flow control does) but not safety.

” As contributory causes, the NTSB listed: failure of the airline's dispatch system to provide up-to-date severe weather data...“

Anyone who has ever bothered to listen to an airline dispatcher knows that they spend a lot of time filing routes that keep their airplanes out of the severe weather. Just as those that listen to them know that “flow control” will destroy that careful planning by assigning reroutes that take care of the immediate weather (around the airport) at the expense of the weather down the road.

The FAA currently has a great weather display on the controller’s radar displays at the Centers. Unfortunately, they haven’t spent the money to train the controllers on how to interpret what they see and how to use it effectively. Which is the reason guys like me write things like this.

The National Weather Service meteorologists could really help out in the interpretation department. They do (and have) to some degree. They are occasionally allowed to conduct educational type briefings for controllers. Much more daily interaction with controllers -- providing real-time interpretation of thunderstorms -- would be very educational for all. Unfortunately, the NWS guys are distracted, fighting for their jobs too. The powers that be (I think the NWS but maybe the FAA) want to take them out of the Centers and put them all in a central location. You can guess what the motivation is because you already know it isn’t safety.

Don Brown
April 17, 2008

Southern Airways 242

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