A Quiet Sunday Morning

It was a sloppy setup. If there'd been a few more airplanes in the picture, I would have called it a bad setup. Two air carriers, a B-737 and an MD-80, on parallel courses, were headed toward an empty localizer on a 25 mile long left base leg. The Boeing was on the airport side of the formation and the MD-80 was at its two o'clock and five miles. Although the Boeing would turn final closer to the marker, the Md-80 was s couple of miles ahead. Both aircraft, level at 4000, were cloaked in a cloud layer that extended down to about 2000 feet. Two controllers had all sectors combined. It was a quiet Sunday morning at Small Time Tower.The arrival controller had taken the handoffs at different fixes; each about 45 miles from the runway. He assigned a couple of headings toward final and gave them pilot's discretion down to 4000. The sequence would surely become self-evident when they got closer to the airport ~ although they were running neck and neck all the way. A timely dash of speed control would have taken all the guesswork out, but no. They hurtled on with nose cones glowing. On the other side of the localizer; one lonely air carrier made its way along the downwind leg. Since it hadn't yet passed the airport, there was plenty of time to figure out who'd follow who. It looked like a possible three-way tie to me.

As the dayshift supervisor, I had just finished one of my periodic walking tours of the TRACON. Everything was accounted for. Three airplanes, two controllers, one supervisor and no problems. A countdown to disaster perhaps? Nah! It was a quiet Sunday morning.

I didn't like the approach controller's serendipitous sequencing strategy but he was an experienced enough guy. I knew he'd figure something out. I sat back down at the desk and began pondering Summer leave requests from my team members. Where the hell did I put that seniority list? Oh, I must have set it down on the TRACON Data position during my last walk-through. I got up and headed across the room. Passing the arrival controller again, I noticed the Boeing and Md-80 were now level at 3000, about four miles apart laterally and still in a staggered formation with the Boeing slightly behind. The localizer was only about ten miles ahead. That lone air carrier on the opposite downwind was now looking like the proverbial fly in the ointment. Something had to give but I knew the controller must have a plan by now.

He did. Instructions were murmured into a headset, the controller's voice was heard in the MD-80's cockpit and a plan was thereby set in motion. The plan was that the Boeing would be number one. The flight on the opposite side of the final had been given a speed reduction and would turn to follow. The MD-80 was assigned a right two-seventy for spacing and would be vectored back onto the base leg as number three in sequence. That was the plan. It was a bit extreme but that was because the controller let everyone get to a point where there was no room left for more subtle solutions.

I was back at the supe's desk when I heard the Conflict Alert alarm. Within seconds I was behind the arrival controller, leaning over his shoulder and gaping at his scope with incredulity. The MD-80 was well into a left turn and closing quickly on the Boeing. Since the MD had been a couple of miles ahead to begin with, it was practically turning into the other aircraft's nose as the two aircraft converged. The controller was transmitting excitedly but his words were just white noise. All I could hear was the Conflict Alert alarm which was nearly overridden by a loud ringing in my ears. Data blocks showed both aircraft level at 3000 as the radar targets merged.I stood, frozen in horror ~ unable to speak ~ unable, even, to exhale.You can rediscover an entire lifetime between two ticks of a second hand. A kid lying on the warm suburban sidewalk; watching a Super Constellation climbing away from some big city airport. Years later ~ boarding my first airplane at that same airport and taking off for a four-year hitch in the Air Force. I recalled every tale of aviation tragedy told by the old timers at Big Time Tower. I saw the mortally wounded PSA Flight 182 leaving a clear San Diego sky one September day in '78 ~ victim of a midair collision. All this and more was there between those two ticks ~ including a vision of the headline in tomorrow's newspaper. "Hundreds Killed As Two Airliners Collide"I was overcome by the sickness of paralyzing inability. Nothing could be done but wait and I couldn't even do that. Light-headed; I might have fainted but there was no time. Resigned to the situation, like someone strapped into an electric chair, I began wondering how the collision would appear on our radar. Would there be dozens of tiny targets? Would the wreckage hit a school? Would the Warden call with a last minute reprieve? Whatever the outcome, I knew the next second would represent a seminal moment in my journey. Hit or miss, this was a life changer.

The MD-80 was still in its left turn when, once again, we could discern two targets. The radio frequency was silent. Not a word came from either aircraft as they quietly headed off in nearly opposite directions. The controller issued a descent to the Boeing, then a turn to intercept the final approach course. The MD, now moving away from the airport, was given another turn. I told the controller to have the MD-80 crew telephone the TRACON when they got to the gate. I had him relieved, appointed a controller in charge then made a call to the Regional Office. Somewhere along the line I had to sit ~ so I could finish my heart attack without the risk of falling.

I asked the controller why he hadn't done something when the MD-80 began its left turn. His reply was that it all happened too quickly. There were, of course, a few ways to have mitigated the situation. It could even have been completely avoided if he'd put those two aircraft in-trail 30 miles from the airport. Water over the dam. By the time he realized what was happening it was too late. Thinking about the fact that I was seated at the supe's desk when this started only exacerbated my discomfiture. What the hell was I doing at the desk? Oh now I remember! It was a quiet Sunday morning.

The tape playback verified what the controller had reiterated several times. He'd decided the MD-80 would be number three in the sequence and, to make it work, assigned a right two-seventy for spacing. The pilot's response was vague and should have been questioned. Then the flight turned left. Why? It took a call from the Captain to understand. He'd missed the "right" and heard only the "two-seventy for spacing." This was understood to be the new heading. From where he was, the quickest way to two-seventy was a left turn. Unwilling to believe what I assured him was the controller's actual instruction, I invited him up to hear the tape. Astonishment ensued.

It wasn't even noon and I felt like I'd been inhaling paint fumes all morning. Sick and exhausted, I made log entries and filled out forms for the rest of the shift.

Supervising the TRACON was much different than the tower. Upstairs, I could see everything from the middle of the cab. I could hear each controller and keep a general idea of what was going on across their airport world. If needed, I was ready to help.The radar room was another story. Depending on the number of open sectors, there were as many separate worlds. Standing at a vacant scope and pushing "Quick-Look" buttons only revealed a part of what each sector was doing. I could get a much better idea by spending a little time behind each controller and listening. Even at that; I was seeing and hearing only part of a composite picture. At the supervisor's desk I was mostly uninformed and therefore pretty useless if trouble broke out. But who'd expect trouble to break out on a quiet Sunday morning?

© NLA Factor, 2010


Anonymous said...

Amazing how those little "don't matter" deviations from correct phraseology can bite you right in the butt... a lesson that (still) gets relearned on a regular basis!

No Longer a Factor said...

Yes. The ole' "Devil is in the details" thing. Details like correct phraseology and, of course, details like the supervisor paying better attention to the operation. I once had a supe who'd say "Always work it like you're busy!" Good advice. With only three airplanes; if that "troller" had gotten them set up like there were a dozen more to follow - he'd probably have kept us all out of trouble.

Thanks for your thoughts. Cheers ~ NLAF

Anonymous said...

Great story and I agree with the Supe who said "always work it like you're busy."
I found it interesting the pilot decided a left turn would be the best... Just the other day I told a carrier turn right direct XXX. As they often do he read back Roger, direct XXX. (Note- if it's a factor I make them read back left or right) I watch the target start a left turn and as I had a hole to the left I let him continue. I told the pilot the instruction was right turn but he could continue his left turn. His response was "we didn't hear left or right so we just picked one."

No Longer a Factor said...

Hah! You've got to watch them every minute! "Just picked one?" Yikes!

Under normal circumstances though, controllers issue turns based on the shortest turn to the new heading. If I really needed the pilot to take the long way around, like for spacing, I'd reiterate the instruction, emphasizing the turn direction ~ just to remove any doubt.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Happy vectoring! ~NLAF

getjets said...

Oh Factor...
I decided to dedicate my Friday morning to reading some of your past "Posts".....♠
this one had me reading
slowly, my eyes "Wide Ass" open.....
afraid to continue,
but Not able to stop!!!!

Awesome Writing.....!!