Not only to fly, but to bring the world's eyes...skyward.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

DCA tower reverts to "Channel Z"

The headlines blare, in 48-point Tsunami Bold font,


Can we stop screaming long enough to don our oxygen masks? Please? Thanks. Now...

First of all, there isn't a person alive on this Earth who was ever going to "help" those pilots land. Air Traffic Control's primary function is singular: to keep aircraft from swapping paint. Period. Controllers do a marvelous job of fulfilling that and their secondary mission to keep them from contacting terrain, obstructions, and thunderstorms. They also provide much-needed periodic doses of levity for pilots and each other as a byproduct, but honestly, that's it. Oh, and they do call the fire department and/or 5-O if/when necessary, but as for "helping" airline pilots with up to forty years' experience land, "Negative, Ghost Rider, the logbook is full."

Every tower in the world could get sucked into the twilight zone simultaneously and no passenger would ever know the difference. Airliners have collision avoidance equipment (Mode S transponders and TCAS) that act independent of, and has primacy over, ATC instructions. Pilots also have biological photo-imaging devices and software (eyes and brains) with a virtually uncorruptible down-time minimization bias (survival instinct) built in that virtually guarantees they will not intentionally attempt any rogue airline mergers. Rules and standard procedures make operations from airports that have never had a control tower as smooth and safe as a suburban intersection with a four-way stop sign -- that is, if drivers had to prove their competence every year or so and could lose their licenses forever by making a mistake.

Second, tower (or "local," as it's called in the ATC community) exists mostly as a runway utilization manager. They "clear" aircraft to either take off or land on the active runway based on their own authority to ensure no other aircraft are doing anything that will interfere. That clearance either comes or is withheld without regard for whether pilots have lowered their landing gear, done their checklists, or ensured that an F5 tornado isn't sitting smack in the middle of their flight path. That's why pilots get paid "so much, just for flipping switches and pushing buttons." For a controller, it's all about keeping a certain-size bubble of air around every airplane from getting popped by another plane - and thereby getting themselves "popped" later.

If a tower controller falls asleep, gets locked out, or is abducted by Tom Cruise's Mothership, he isn't going to be able to clear any planes to take off, either, which, short of the plane ahead of them being left unable to taxi after landing (maybe the controller forgot to "tell" them to lower their landing gear!), is the only conceivable way that runway isn't going to be clear for another that's been cleared to approach.

Finally, all of aviation is built around the idea of safe recovery from failure. It's almost as ingenious as the Constitution (and followed far more closely), and it's how we've amassed the enviable safety record that allows passengers to act as if they've just had their birthday taken away when a flight that couldn't be safely operated at any reasonable cost, cancels. In the old days of tube-driven radios, a thin filament of metal was all that made a radio a radio and not a paperweight.

When a good frquency suddenly reverts to Channel Z (all static, all day, forever), we've got that covered. As Robert Stack, playing self-admiring Captain Rex Kramer in the 1980 classic, Airplane!, would say, we do "just what they're expecting us to do." We follow our flight plan - religiously. And by "religion" I mean something far closer to Sharia Law than Zen.

These pilots had already been cleared for their approach, which means they were guaranteed separation from other aircraft all the way to the runway. Since landing is the reason for, and thus the expected outcome of any approach, it's what anyone tracking the flight would plan for. If the communications failure had occurred aboard the plane, the controller would have directed other planes as needed to clear a path for the quiet one. Put the failure on the other end of the wireless, however, and pilots still have no logical choice but to land, if possible, on that first approach. The only other thing they could possibly do is execute a busy missed approach procedure which, at DCA, could provoke a military response to any mistake. They'd then have to fly another approach that may, or may not, rate a landing clearance. Knock out a control tower at a busy airport and, employing this flawed logic, you'd eventually get a lot of airplanes taking evasive action awfully close to the ground and/or each other, and ultimately running out of fuel and being truly "forced" to land somewhere probably far less hospitable than their stricken destination airport. And this, still, without any "help" from the tower, by the way.

The next time you see something in the news media that frightens or angers you about flying, please, please talk to someone who works in The System and get their perspective. I'm always open to questions here. But regardless, next time you fly, take a dramamine (and maybe a shot of your favorite aperitif) and rest assured there's far more than one of everything that's truly needed to keep you from becoming a statistic--and not a single one of them is free.


  1. It's cool to get the insider's perspective. Its amazing what all goes on behind the scenes and most of us get to be happily oblivious. You are right about us (i.e.) me being spoiled by the efficiency of the system.

  2. Thanks for reading, Nicki! Every job's got its secret complications and saving graces. I try to remember that when something happens to me, too, but the temptation to become a self-appointed expert at everything can be seductive.


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