Thursday, February 16, 2012

Boston Improving, But Report Warns of “Catastrophic Accidents”

BOSTON (FOX 25 / - The U.S. airspace is one of the safest in the world, but close calls remain a real problem.

FOX Undercover obtained air traffic control recordings that give an inside look at the communication between air traffic controllers and pilots as they face close calls.

One close call unfolded in the sky over New England last October as a pilot lost engine power while traveling from Fitchburg to Vermont.

Pilot Janice Peaslee is heard on the Air Traffic Control recording saying, “The engine is just, is, is losing power, I guess.”

Air Traffic Controller Chris Henchey was on the job.

“You know I knew that this was a serious situation because the type of airplane she was flying only has one engine. So there's no backup,” said Henchey.

Henchey says the pilot wouldn't make it to the nearest airport in Concord, New Hampshire, so he directed her to a nearby field.

They kept talking until they lost contact with each other because the plane was so low.

“It's a waiting game,” said Henchey. “You're kind of hoping and praying at that point that she gets down safely.”

Out of contact, Peaslee made one last attempt to start her engine, and it worked.

Henchey and Peaslee reunited in Atlanta earlier this month as the National Air Traffic Controllers Association honored Henchey for his life saving actions.

It's the type of happy ending everyone hopes for.

But a 2011 aviation safety report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office warns of the “risk of catastrophic accidents”.

"Mishaps and close calls involving aircraft or other vehicles at airports or in the airspace around airports are common," according to the report.

The most serious close call at Logan airport happened in 2005 when two planes were cleared for takeoff within five seconds of each other.

The problem? Air traffic controllers didn't notice the planes were on intersecting runways.

The planes took off separated by less than 200 feet.

It's called a runway incursion, the unauthorized presence of a plane, vehicle or person on the runway.

The F.A.A. categorized that one as a Category A, meaning a collision was narrowly avoided.

FOX Undercover obtained records from the F.A.A. about runway incursions and found that since 2009, there have been 34 at Logan.

Thankfully, the most serious ones were Category C, meaning there was enough time or distance to avoid a collision.

“Runway incursions are a problem,” said Henchey. “They're a loss of separation. We have rules in place to make sure that safety happens. And runway incursions are a violation of those safety rules.”

Henchey admits it can be a stressful job, but he knows it also has its rewards.

“You have to make a decision, sometimes in a split second. And make sure that it's going to work. And keep people safe is our main priority,” said Henchey.

Logan had the most runway incursions in country back in 2005 with 15. In 2011, the airport had nine.

National Air Traffic Controller's Association spokesman Doug Church sent a statement to FOX Undercover:

"Air traffic controllers in Boston and nationwide are committed to aviation safety and are proud that the U.S. has the world's safest runways. The number of serious runway incursions dropped 90 percent from 2000 to 2010. Controllers have worked collaboratively with pilots and the Federal Aviation Administration to achieve our high level of safety and we will continue to work to raise that level even higher."

The F.A.A. also sent a statement: “The Federal Aviation Administration and the Massachusetts Port Authority have worked closely with other members of the aviation community to improve runway safety at Boston Logan International Airport over the past few years. We track every incident, even if it poses no immediate risk -- like the runway incursions at Logan in 2011 -- to better understand what we can do to further improve safety. Analytic tools help us mitigate any safety risks we identify.”

“At Logan, a new centerfield taxiway has helped reduce runway intersections and recently-installed runway status lights provide another important tool to help prevent runway conflicts. Recent changes in air traffic phrasing require a pilot to get a controller's approval before crossing each runway and clarify how a pilot waits for departures before obtaining a takeoff clearance. The FAA is continuing to deploy Next Generation Air Transportation (NextGen) technology and procedures that will further enhance safety.”

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