February 14, 2011

Close Calls in Connecticut Skies: NASA Data Highlights Air-Safety Problems

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A pilot landing at Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks hears a roaring noise just above his plane, but checks his traffic alert system and sees nothing in the area.

“Do you have traffic on top of us?” he asks an airport controller. The response is matter-of-fact but chilling: The plane has entered an area of “heavy military operations,” with a pair of F-15 fighter jets that departed nearby Barnes Municipal Airport coming close enough to deem the incident an “NMAC,” or near midair collision, a January 2010 report says.

A pilot heading to Sikorsky Airport in Bridgeport is forced to make a 360-degree turn to avoid colliding with another plane that comes within 400 feet. “I talked to the [local controller] later in the day and found that this was another case of New York TRACON making a late handoff to the tower,” the pilot reports in 2008. “This airport is plagued by late handoffs from New York TRACON,” as radar control facilities are called.

A controller at Bradley’s radar facility is directing one plane through Bradley airspace while also working “several aircraft arriving to satellite airports over a control span of 100 miles.” His attempts to coordinate handing-off a plane to New York’s radar control are unsuccessful. He reports confusion in the skies, created by traffic at Bradley and arrivals and departures from three towered airports and several non-towered airports. “Handoff failures [to New York] were common in this area,” his May 2010 report says.

These are just a few of the more than 1,580 close calls and safety lapses occurring in the skies above Connecticut or on the state’s runways that have been reported by pilots and air traffic controllers in the last 10 years, according to a little-known national safety-reporting database reviewed by C-HIT.

At least every two days, on average, a pilot, controller or other air-safety professional in Connecticut or nearby TF Green Airport in Rhode Island reports a safety lapse or concern to the NASA-run Aviation Safety Reporting System [ASRS], which is designed to detect dangerous patterns. Reports to the ASRS have climbed since 2001, both in Connecticut and nationally. Last year, 179 incident reports were submitted in Connecticut—an increase of about 40 percent over 2001. The reports, which are submitted voluntarily, comprise only a fraction of the true number of such events that occur, ASRS director Linda J. Connell says.

A C-HIT review of the publicly available safety reports shows that a number of the close calls in Connecticut have been caused by “handoff” or other coordination problems between New York and Boston radar control facilities and Connecticut airports. As planes travel across Connecticut, they are handed off among controllers in various geographic sectors—sometimes three or four times, depending on their routes. The Northeast corridor has the nation’s busiest air space.

“The confusion in handoffs in these high-traffic areas is a matter of numerous sectors, numerous aircraft flying at the same time, and perhaps you’ve also got a mix of experienced and not-so-experienced controllers,” said Terry von Thaden, an air-safety expert at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who trained in air-traffic control in New England.

She and other air-safety experts worry that such coordination problems could worsen, as the FAA faces massive retirements of experienced controllers who were hired after the 1981 air-traffic controllers’ strike. The FAA estimates that it will need to hire and train nearly 11,000 new controllers by fiscal year 2019 to replace those hired after the mass firings 30 years ago.

Generally, von Thaden said, “We are seeing many more operational errors, especially on the ground. We’re seeing a lot of [situations] where an aircraft is cleared to land, and the previous aircraft has not yet cleared the runway… There are a lot of close calls.”

Paul Lange, chairman of the Connecticut Business Aviation Group, said some air-traffic problems in the region have been resolved in recent years, but coordination between some sectors, such as New York’s TRACON and Bridgeport’s Sikorsky Airport, remains a concern. He described some incidents in which the New York radar facility temporarily “leaves pilots in limbo” as they are descending to Bridgeport.

“[New York] is supposed to coordinate in advance with the Bridgeport tower, but sometimes they get very busy,” he said. “If the Bridgeport tower happens to be talking to another aircraft in that minute, you can have a pilot ending up at Bridgeport without a controller who knows where everyone else is at the time. Not a good situation.”

Only about one in five of the ASRS reports that are received by NASA are made public. C-HIT reviewed the public database for Connecticut, which contains 206 reports in the last 10 years, and 981 since 1988. Of the 981 reports, more than 70 are recorded as “near midair collisions”; dozens of others involve close calls on the ground, weather-related mishaps, or cases involving equipment problems or pilot fatigue.

Among the most serious incidents are those that involve operational lapses by controllers. Just since 2005, at least 20 near-misses contained in the public database involved a lack of coordination or other air-traffic operational problems. They include:

• At Groton-New London Airport in December 2009, a Providence radar controller reports a close call between an arriving helicopter and a departing small jet, after he confuses the runways being used at the airport and gives the jet the wrong heading. “I need to adjust my preparation . . . to more firmly imprint the information to avoid making this mistake again,” the controller says in his report.

• A pilot of a small plane flying just northeast of Waterbury-Oxford Airport in August 2009 reports being told by a Bradley controller, “Radar services terminated… contact NY approach if you want advisories.” The handoff causes the pilot confusion and puts the plane into significant turbulence:

“I wasn’t sure of my exact position, for two reasons: a) I’d been vectored around [Bradley] traffic for a while, and b) the turbulence was so rough that maintaining heading and altitude was taking up most of my attention,” the pilot reported. “It took a few minutes to raise NY Approach (they were busy); during this interval (after realizing I wouldn’t immediately make contact with NY Approach), I did a 90 right turn to try to avoid or get out of the Delta Airspace,’’ inside the airport boundary. “But I’m pretty sure I was inside the Delta at some point.”

• At Tweed-New Haven Airport in August 2006, the pilot of a small corporate plane has to take quick action to avoid two other planes, after what he describes as “confusion” during a late handoff from New York’s radar control facility to Tweed’s tower. “Our late [arrival] into the [traffic] pattern made it extremely difficult on the [controller] to sequence 2 [aircraft]” on short approaches to the same runway, the pilot reports.

• In 2006, the pilot of a small plane flying near Ellington Airport narrowly misses hitting a skydiver who has parachuted from a Cessna—in part because of a botched handoff between Albany and Bradley controllers. The pilot says that unknowingly, he was out of touch with Bradley for at least 15 miles after Albany, NY, terminated contact with him, and he did not know he was entering a “jump zone.”

“While I was making my exit out of the jump zone, this Cessna had circled me and was now 100 ft. off my [right] wingtip,” the pilot reported. “I was stunned to see such a large acft [aircraft] suddenly appear alongside of me, and I was still so thrown, and pumped with adrenaline, recounting the dangerous situation that I’d placed myself and the jumpers into… Why didn’t Bradley ATC [air traffic control] ask the jump plane to wait a min or two until I was through the area?”

• In October 2007, a controller directing traffic at the Boston Air Route Traffic Control Center, a regional center that handles high-altitude Connecticut traffic, reports a close call between two commercial jets, a 747 and a 767, in which he is forced to direct the 747 to make a turn and descend:

“I estimate that separation [between the planes] would have been lost within a minute,” the controller reported. “The sector was saturated for a full 30 mins prior, no assistance was provided by the supvr [supervisor]… This was the same situation, the day prior, same sector, same supvr, same overloaded situation. I think managing [traffic] flows and volume are not the focus of supvrs. Safety has taken a back seat to managing time on position.”

Arlene Salac, a spokeswoman for the FAA, said the Northeast corridor “is one of the busiest sections of airspace in the world” and requires extensive coordination. In response to questions about late handoffs and other operational problems in the ASRS reports, she said, ”Events reported in the 1990s and early 2000s do not reflect the current system. We don’t believe there are any systemic problems with handoffs in this airspace.”

But Terry von Thaden, the air-safety expert, said many air traffic controllers are facing “task overload,” as the FAA copes with limited resources and a new batch of trainees coming in to fill retirees’ positions. She said turnover among controllers is a concern, 30 years after former President Reagan ordered the mass firing of the nation’s unionized controllers.

“When you lose the older people, the experienced people, they’re taking with them the tacit knowledge of the ins and the outs,” she said. “They’re virtuosos by the time they get to that position… in how they sort of push the envelope and squeeze things in.” Newer controllers are “expected to keep up the same tempo, but they don’t have the same experience.”

Last October, the Office of Inspector General announced that it was initiating an audit of controller staffing and training at the FAA’s busiest air traffic control facilities.  “Due to increased controller attrition and hiring,” the OIG said, “FAA faces a shortage of fully certified controllers, with 26 percent of its current workforce comprised of controllers in training.”

One veteran controller in New England who previously worked at Bradley said the high volume of traffic, the influx of inexperienced controllers, and “frequency congestion’’ in transmissions all contribute to problems with operational coordination.

When communication transfers are delayed as a plane is preparing to land, the result can be tragic.  “That’s when you have no time to do anything,’’ said the controller, who asked that his name not be used.

“There have been times when I’ve been working 15 aircraft and talking to a supervisor when I need to be talking to the controller in the next sector,’’ he said.  “Controllers can be saturated with so much work, they can’t take a handoff – or they can get pigeon-holed if they’re focusing too intently on one thing.’’

Pilots and safety experts say experienced controllers are critical in New England, with its multiple sectors and frequent handoffs.

Steve Smith, owner of the Future Flyers of Connecticut flight school in Simsbury, said that while air traffic coordination has improved in the last 10 to 15 years, Connecticut pilots still face some “gaps in coverage” between sectors.

“Right now, there are a lot of different sectors, with TRACONS that have limited ranges, so you’ll have frequent handoffs, especially when you’re under 6,000 feet,” he said. “Going out of Bradley, there’s actually a dead zone you have to get through.”

He added that advances in technology, including an onboard mapping system that allows pilots to see nearby aircraft, has helped with collision avoidance.

In a written statement, FAA headquarters said the ASRS reporting system “represents just a small part of the data the FAA collects” about safety issues.

“While ASRS data can be useful, it has some inherent limitations” because reports are subjective, anonymous, and not always complete, the statement says. In addition, the FAA says, NASA publicly releases only a portion of the data, “which makes it unreliable for statistical analysis purposes.”

This story was reported in collaboration with the Investigative News Network. (Read national report.)

One thought on “Close Calls in Connecticut Skies: NASA Data Highlights Air-Safety Problems

  1. While Ms. Salac, for the FAA, acknowledges that the Northeast corridor “is one of the busiest sections of airspace in the world” and requires extensive coordination, she says that ”Events reported in the 1990s and early 2000s do not reflect the current system. We don’t believe there are any systemic problems with hand-offs in this airspace.”  The article provides chilling examples of dangerous lapses in 2008 and 2010.  Regardless of the matter of hand-offs, which does not appear to be improved, there are other more chilling problems that need to be addressed.  I’m not planning to fly anytime soon.

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