Error Of Omission

People, sometimes even us controllers, make bad decisions in life. Oh, they appear to be fine at the time; wise and considered ~ decisions that will bring us to a desired outcome. Sometimes though, we don't think things through or cogitate the possibly negative consequences. We don't do an adequate risk assessment. The result can not only be a bad decision, but possibly the last decision we ever get to make. And sometimes the outcome of a bad decision is exacerbated when important data is discounted or omitted during the decision-making process. That's where we came in on one very inclement Summer day.

Big Time's surveillance radar made its ceaseless sweep around the airspace and each turn of the antenna painted a changing panorama of storm cells and circuitous traffic patterns. Although arrivals were crowding into holding patterns and receiving lengthy EFC delays; approach controllers somehow managed to weave a few at a time around the shifting weather and on toward a waiting ILS. From my position in the tower, the airport was a dreary looking place; partly obscured by steady rainfall and occasional fog. Airplanes were landing though ~ some even reporting decent conditions on final. This didn't mollify our growing concern over the darkening skies just north of the field.

Down in the TRACON, frequencies were squealing with transmissions from pilots who refused to accept assigned headings. Departures were deviating into adjacent ARTCC sectors while arrivals wandered into the departure flow. Pointouts, both inter and intrafacility, were frequent and frantic. Many were done by Supervisors who would dash across the radar room from one sector to another; point at a particular target on the controller's display and say something like: "Watch this guy - he's turning left!" The room was rife with the smell of sweat and cigarette smoke.

High above a small rural town some miles from the city, the pilot in command of one passenger jet in a holding pattern listened to Big Time's ATIS broadcast. He'd been listening to other flights in the pattern. Some were now on their way into the airport while others were being cleared to an alternate destination. It sounded like rough going no matter which way you were headed. He tuned into the tower frequency and listened to a few pilot reports about conditions on final. When his turn finally came to leave holding, he decided to go for it. As he was vectored out of the pattern, other flight crews in the hold were probably happy to sit tight for a while longer ~ hoping conditions would improve.

Unfortunately, conditions were not improving. In fact, they seemed to be worsening. Landing airplanes came into view about a mile out, crabbing a few degrees left to compensate for a gusty, quartering crosswind. Then they'd kick it straight toward the runway, touch down and quickly fade into the mist blown up by their reverse thrusters. Local Controllers would ask; "Say flight conditions on final." The reports remained relatively benign ~ not as bad as it looked ~ braking action good. "Thanks Cap'n. Contact ground point seven." But a vile looking veil of weather was looming to the north and closing in on our only usable ILS.

Wind-driven rain slashed incessantly at the tower windows. Neophyte that I was, I stood at the Ground Control position, watching the approaching darkness nervously and shifting my weight from one foot to the other. Everyone in the cab was talking about the lightning and watching the wind direction indicators; now beginning to twitch erratically back and forth in a 45 degree arc. I saw gusts approach 30 knots and wondered just how wet I was going to get on my way to the parking lot at shift change.

Glancing at the BRITE display, I saw another airliner turn to intercept the final. Lightning flashed within five miles of the field and the rain intensified. Our high intensity runway lights glared in the distance but, from where we stood, there was only a diffuse glow. Somebody called over the outer marker. I remember looking north and imagining the conversation in that cockpit! I could barely see the airfield boundary through the rain but, somewhere out there, a 707 had just touched down. As it rolled onto the second high-speed turn-off, the pilot asked for progressive taxi instructions to a remote cargo ramp.

The next time I looked at the BRITE display, the airplane making an approach was about three miles out. Looking toward the final was like staring into a railroad tunnel. There was nothing to see but blackness.

Just then, someone came up the steps to relieve the tower Supervisor. Comments were exchanged about how hostile the weather looked and how unwieldy the radar operation had been so far. I heard the local controller give another wind check to the guy on final so I looked off into the murk ~ expecting to see some landing lights. Nothing. No reply from the crew either.

A few seconds later, I saw it. First some lights; blurred by the intense rainfall. Then the whole airplane came into view. It was well right of the runway centerline and, somehow, didn't appear to be flying anymore. Still airborne, it looked like it was simply hurtling along on a trajectory established when its wings lost their lift. Nose high and tilted to the right, it fell quickly toward the airport.

Frozen, like insects in amber, everyone in the cab watched in silence. It was the silence of knowing what was to come next. Someone reached for the crash phone.

The plane hit ground with a thud that we could feel a mile away. From there, it slid along the wet grass next to the runway; skipping across a couple of connecting taxiways before skidding to a stop near the main terminal ramp. Along the way, its fuselage broke open. There was no fire and, moments after coming to rest, people began climbing out of the wreck through a gaping crack just behind the wings. Some were clutching briefcases. It was surreal.

The pilot had decided to continue with an approach that would take his airplane into some very sinister looking weather. He'd made his initial assessment before leaving the holding pattern and had decided it was worth coming down for a look. Turning onto the final, the soundness of his decision might have been debatable. However, other flights had gone through ahead of him and known conditions didn't prohibit a shot at the approach. But there were known conditions he was not aware of; conditions unintentionally omitted during his critical decision-making moments.

Were ATC's hands clean on this one? We all thought so. Except for the new kid on Ground Control, the tower crew was comprised of some of Big Time's best and the Supervisor was a savvy veteran who'd seen all of this before. Everything seemed to be clicking and, throughout Mother Nature's assault, we managed to move a lot of traffic in and out. But the tapes tell all.

Sometime shortly after that 707 landed, the touchdown RVR had dipped below minimums for the approach. No one in the tower caught it in time. We were all too busy watching the weather move in. Wind checks, braking action reports and other flight conditions were transmitted while this plane made its approach but we missed that critical change in the visibility. It was an error of omission ~ one that would change a lot of lives forever.

Rain was still falling heavily at shift change. Our crew walked out to the parking lot in small groups; everyone soaked, muttering and shaking their heads in disbelief.

© NLA Factor, 2011


Where Are They Now? Eddie

I got to know a lot of people during my time in the FAA. I need to write about some of them; starting with Eddie.

My most memorable experiences from the '60s were taken from the perspective of an Air Force recruit. The world was erupting and, like a volcano, no one could stop it. Even if we could, most of us wouldn't have wanted to. I could feel everything rocking and rolling but it was from within the constraints of a well pressed military uniform. Come 1969, while much of my generation converged on Woodstock for that three days of peace and music, I stood in an Air Force control tower, lusting after Grace Slick and listening to the derisive discordance of my Sergeant's remarks about "those candy-assed, long haired Hippies!" Well, he'd already done two tours in Vietnam and had been passed over several times for promotion. Bitter about nearly everything; his outlook on life had become just another prisoner of war.

I was discharged from the Air Force later that year. The sixties-style social upheaval threw me from one tumultuous decade to the next, where I eventually landed at Big Time as a trainee controller. Images of those long gone days flicker and blink in my memory like a bad neon sign. As the years pass, they're fading from full color to a timeworn sepia tone. I still see them though ~ mostly at night. I see the people who accompanied me along the way from how things were then to how things are today. I see their faces; some smiling, some smirking and some just strung-out from exhaustion. I like to remember the impetus behind those smiles but I also recall the reasons for those wry smirks and the enervating exhaustion.

I've lost touch with most of them and often wonder; where are they now? Why do I remember so few, having forgotten so many? Why do I remember Eddie?

Eddie transferred into Big Time from another busy airport where he'd spent years working only in the control tower. By the time I arrived on the scene, Eddie was fully rated throughout the facility but clearly preferred tower duty over the TRACON. On the radar sectors, he seemed timid and unsure of himself; testing the patience of many more aggressive controllers. The tower, however, was his domain and he ruled with a flourish. To Eddie, the airport was like an amphetamine and his speed was contagious. Working any position that exchanged traffic with Local Control when he was signed on meant you kept pace with his potency. Here was a guy who couldn't stop. He couldn't even slow down. Airport traffic control was simply the outlet for his overactive adrenal gland.

He was a smooth talker and he talked to his traffic non-stop; which is to say that every pilot on his frequency knew precisely what his plans and expectations were. Accordingly, they were always ready to do their part to make it work. He was a master in the art of the squeeze-play. When I would have bet the paycheck he couldn't get a departure out between two closely spaced arrivals; I'd end up being amazed. As his next departure swung into position, someone in the tower cab might gasp and mutter "Jeesus Eddie!" The pilot on short final might gripe and the Supervisor would just shake his head and look away. In less than a minute it was over. Eddie made it happen.

Down in the TRACON, approach controllers loved him because, when Eddie was on Local, there was rarely any whining over the arrival intervals being too tight. Departure controllers squirmed in their seats; knowing that Eddie never missed a chance to utter one of his favorite phrases: "Cleared for immediate takeoff." Ground controllers liked working next to him because, unless there were unusual restrictions, they could keep a steady supply of airplanes rolling toward the runways. The Assistant Chief would make sure Eddie was sent to the tower whenever departures and arrivals had to share the same runway.

As a trainee, I was often assigned to the mid-shift with Eddie. We'd finish up what was left of the late evening traffic by 1:30 or 2:00, then make small talk while the cargo flights trickled in and out. When the airplanes finally stopped calling and there were no more active strips in the bays, Eddie would glance at his watch. Then, at precisely 3:00 A.M., he'd sometimes suggest that I "go downstairs and study." This was code for "Go home." Too inexperienced to question the call, I'd usually head down the tower steps and into the breakroom, where I'd sleep for the rest of the shift. Getting lots of "study" time was one of the best reasons to work a round of mids with Eddie. Actually, I couldn't wait to get checked out so that I could give poor Eddie a break from those late night doldrums. As I later discovered; he wouldn't have really wanted a break.

Big Time is a sprawling airport where, like us controllers, lots of people work through the night. I met a few of them in my years. Sometimes they'd call and ask to come up to the tower for a look. One night I met a guy who had been in my high school class. Back then, no one could possibly imagine where we'd all end up. He was now employed by one of the airlines and driving a tug on their ramp.

As a trainee working mids with Eddie, I even met a flight attendant! Coincidentally, she was climbing the tower steps at 3:00 A.M. as I was heading down to "study." I guess either her timing or Eddie's was a little off that night. As any controller knows ~ a departure and an arrival should never meet, opposite direction, on the same flight path. She smiled and winked as we passed each other. That was the moment when I understood why Eddie would send me off at three in the morning. I smiled too.

As I said; Eddie was a smooth talker.

Eddie eventually transferred out of Big Time. He went off to another busy tower but it was one where he wouldn't have to work radar. We'd get occasional updates from him for the first year or so but they eventually stopped coming. I suppose he's happily retired by now but who knows? Eddie had a lot of energy to burn and he never knew how to stop.

Why do I remember Eddie so vividly after all the years? Sure, he was cocky, crazy and very capable but so were many of the controllers and Supervisors I worked with. I suppose I remember Eddie because of what I learned by observing him. The lessons went much deeper than basic and advanced air traffic control. He taught me the importance of trusting my professional instincts. The years of experience had taught him to trust his own and it distinguished him from the rest. Take those "squeeze plays" for example. Where one controller may have considered the possibility of getting a departure off between two particular arrivals and wondered briefly if it would work; Eddie knew it would. Had he wasted even a moment or two on second thoughts; the opportunity would have been lost. He trusted the instincts he'd developed over his career and implemented his plan without hesitation.

No matter what the endeavor; Eddie was a 'go for it' guy and I still smile when I think of him.

© NLA Factor, 2011