Apr 25, 2008

Close Call

Recognizing how easy it is for his colleague to become disoriented during operations in poor visibility, this US Air 2998 pilot refuses to accept the takeoff clearance until his doubts are satisfied.

Not only is the United Airlines pilot confused, but the Air Traffic Controller misses key bits of information transmitted by the UA crew - such as the indication that they are near taxiway Kilo, and finally the clear statement that "We're on an active runway!" In fairness, I suspect that the controller also had other communications and duties going on behind the scenes causing her to miss United's confusion.

Communication breakdowns similar to this occur frequently in a typical day on the line. We're only human. That's why safety procedures such as a common ATC language on a common frequency were developed. That's why flight decks are crewed by two people. That's why pilots are trained to never accept an ATC clearance until they are sure it can be safely executed.

And most significantly, we should always be aware that a highly-competitive airline industry is under continual pressure to save time and money. This can easily erode traditional levels of safety as pilots and controllers feel the constant pressure to work too fast, and handle too many tasks in too little time.

Fly Safe!

Here's a longer version that follows on to resolution of the confusion:


Yishi said...

Intense. Intense.

Matt said...

I've flown into PVD before and what confuses me the most here about all of this was that the airport had a program where all aircraft had to have their transponders on for a ground radar program. It sounds like the controller was working combined local/ground which increasingly common nowadays.

Alan said...

I'm so glad that the carbon based lifeforms in the cockpit have common sense and don't blindly follow ATC instructions when they're not sure that it's safe to do so.

Round of applause for the USAir pilot who refused to go anywhere until the situation was resolved to his satisfaction!

Dave said...

First off let me just say how glad I am that I found your blog Aluwings! The "Day in the Life" series is very interesting and has been my bedtime reading for the past few nights now. As a teenage PPL student who spends more or less every waking hour thinking of their airline career words cannot express my gratitude to you for sharing what life is like at the business end of an A320. Keep up the great posts!

And that is one very interesting video. Hats off to the USAir pilots for holding back and not accepting ATC instructions as the be all and end all. Thanks for sharing.

Dave (Ireland)

Aluwings said...

Thanks for the comments everyone.

Ground radar is becoming more common at many busier airports so the controllers can more quickly detect any taxiing errors that might occur. You'd think that finding your way around on the airport was the easiest part of the trip, but not always so.

In that longer version I linked to, it is apparent that the controller has other communications going on at the same time at her tower post. What's troubling though is that she fails to hear the doubt and confusion in the UA crew's transmissions, and clings strongly to her own impression of where they must be on the field - despite evidence to the contrary.

That's often a component of accidents and incidents. Due to a misunderstanding, we are working from an inaccurate picture of reality, and then we ignore the danger signs trying to tell us that. Often because we're just to busy and preoccupied to "process" these telltale signals.

Anonymous said...

Wow. PVD isn't exactly the busiest airport around, and ATC can still manage to lose track of the planes. I think the real problem is that the tower controller is probably somewhat overworked, which seems to work fine when everyone knows what they're doing, but can break down dangerously when someone gets lost in the fog. A good demonstration on the part of the USAir pilot of the proper slightly paranoid attitude toward safety: if you're not comfortable, don't do it. Even if the tower controller tries to make you feel that it's okay.