Sunday, August 29, 2010

He Wrote That?

The FAA has a bad habit of striking a match when they smell gas. It is really hard to believe somebody that works for the FAA wrote down something like this. Let me explain.

Boston Tower is having problems with their radar system designed to track surface traffic at the airport. It keep generating false targets.

Logan Airport radar system gives false readings; pilots, controllers air concerns

”The radar system issues occasional false readings indicating that airport vehicles are crossing active runways. In some cases, controllers have had to order pilots to abort landings just before touchdown.

The risks are highest in stormy weather, when the system malfunctions most often, said Matt McCluskey, president of the Boston chapter of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.”

Now, take note that Mr. McCluskey (the NATCA rep) “said” that.

Now, here comes the strange part. The FAA guy replied to the reporter with an e-mail.

”“FAA wants to make sure that not only will the transponders work properly but also not interfere with other operating systems used at an airport,” Peters wrote in an e-mail.”

So far, so good. But this next bit? Oh boy...

”“Getting a false target is a good thing because it makes the controller stop and take a hard look at the target,” Peters said. “It helps increase the controller’s situational awareness. We err on the side of safety. It is better for the system to alarm than not to alert the controller.””

It doesn’t say that was in an e-mail but it would be a logical assumption. I could understand if Mr. Peters uttered that statement when some reporter shoved a microphone in his face a badgered him for an answer. It would be a stupid answer but we humans say some stupid things when pressured. He almost makes a recovery with the last sentence.

”It is better for the system to alarm than not to alert the controller.”

Well, no, it isn’t. It’s better if the thing works. Correctly. Air traffic control worked for decades without these systems. These radar systems are supposed to enhance safety -- not maybe enhance safety. They are supposed to make a system that was safe even safer. Not provide a distraction and cause controllers to issue unnecessary instructions.

But what really gets your goat -- what really gets controllers seething -- is Mr. Peters’ statement that “Getting a false target is a good thing...”. As I said, if he uttered that under pressure, he’s just plain wrong. If he actually wrote it down in an e-mail, where he had time to think about it and choose his words carefully...heaven help us. A false target is never a good thing. Ever. It’s hard to imagine a controller even thinking it. For someone to flippantly write it down in an e-mail to minimize the FAA’s failings would be outrageous. Which, of course, is the reason controllers are outraged about the statement.

Look, I’ve been in front of a radar scope, controlling traffic when a false target popped up -- several times. Sometimes it is no big deal. The target is off all by itself and it just distracts you for a few seconds. Distractions are never a good thing but it’s not the worst thing in the world.

But sometimes, it happens right in front of another airplane. At the same altitude. And it looks like they are going to hit. You start to tell the other aircraft to make an emergency maneuver but it’s too late and you pray they miss. You pray hard. It’s the longest 6 seconds of your life. Your heart is filled with every drop of adrenaline your body can produce. You could pick up a car if you could move. But you can’t move. You have to sit still and watch the radar scope in case there is something else you can do.

Been there. Done that. The FAA doesn’t give you a T-shirt. The doctor gives you these little, tiny, white pills and you walk around like a zombie for three days while your wife prays your heart doesn’t explode. You don’t forget something like that. Even after 11 years.

Mr. Peters, you owe the controllers at Boston an apology. At a minimum.

The FAA owes the controllers at Boston -- and the flying public -- a radar system that works.

Don Brown
August 29, 2010


TC said...

It bugs me to no end that the agency fancies itself a "customer" oriented "business" and defines the USERS of the system as their "customers" when, in fact, they are REGULATED ENTITIES. Nonetheless, if we grant them their customer fantasy, it's beyond me why the alleged "customers" are not screaming blue-bloody murder about being sent around or having take-off clearances cancelled. It's unsafe, and costly. Did I mention unsafe? So why don't they complain? The agency won't listen to us. I'm already on blood pressure meds and less than a year 'til eligible; they don't care about me. But they seem fascinated with being "accountable" (haha!) to their "customers." Until they complain, ain't nothing gonna change.

And I had the opportunity to get to know Peters when I was the rep at BOS during the years when we were the NTSB's poster child for unsafe airports, following a 2005 near collision on the airport. He has no clue what he's talking about, and there ain't no apology coming. Trust me.

Don Brown said...


Just to let you know, my blood pressure went down 20 points (140/100 to 120/80) when I retired. Then I stopped smoking, put on 20 lbs. and it went back up. [sigh] It's a good thing I have plenty of time to exercise now. :)

Thanks for the comment and thanks for reading.

Don Brown