Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Southwest flight that flew nonstop — to West Mifflin, Pennsylvania

While jets and planes of all sorts filled the skies over Pittsburgh International Airport last weekend for the comeback of a popular air show, there was one big one that didn’t make it that far.

It was Southwest Flight 3316, which took off from Orlando, Fla., at 1:45 p.m. Sunday bound for Pittsburgh International in Findlay only to end up at the Allegheny County Airport, a general aviation facility typically reserved for Cessnas, Pipers and corporate jets — not Boeing 737s carrying 143 passengers.

The jet touched down in West Mifflin, about 18 nautical miles short of its destination, at 3:58 p.m. when it ran low on fuel. According to Southwest, the pilot made the decision “to avoid using contingency fuel reserve after being in a holding pattern by air traffic controllers.” The plane landed safely.

At the time, the air space around Pittsburgh International was closed off because of the Wings over Pittsburgh air show, raising questions about whether the restrictions played a role in forcing a commercial airliner low on fuel to look elsewhere for a landing spot.

Maj. Charles Baker, who ran the show for the 911th Airlift Wing in Moon, said Monday he was still trying to gather the details of the incident and talk to the parties involved to determine what happened.

He stressed that there are procedures in place to stop the show and clear air space for commercial airliners in emergencies. Those procedures include an air traffic controller on the ground who is in touch with the control tower in Pittsburgh and the approach facility, he said.

“Safety trumps all. We have no problem stopping the show for safety at any point,” said Maj. Baker, chief of air crew training at the 911th. “We don’t want to be diverting anybody into Allegheny County Airport.”

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, the flight restrictions were in place around the airport from 3:15 p.m. to 4:06 p.m. on Sunday, as the Southwest flight was headed into Pittsburgh.

In its statement, the FAA said the pilot requested to divert to the county airport but did not report an emergency.

That differs somewhat from the Southwest statement. It said that “out of an abundance of caution, the captain in command declared an emergency to receive priority handling from air traffic controllers to use the alternate airport.”

Based on the statements, it does not appear that the pilot asked for the air space restrictions to be lifted so that the plane could land at Pittsburgh International.

Thais Hanson, a Southwest spokeswoman, said the airline had no additional detail to offer. She said the pilot “safely diverted the aircraft, ahead of entering contingency fuel reserves, to an alternate airport — as we do often and by the book when unforeseen operational challenges arise (i.e thunderstorms, high winds, airfield/​airspace closures).”

Maj. Baker called the incident “kind of a head-scratcher.”

“We’re all kind of stumped. It almost sounds like the Southwest pilot chose to go into Allegheny County before he even checked in with Pittsburgh. We’re very sensitive to what we’re doing. At no point, if there were a low-fuel emergency or anything like that would we force someone to divert,” he said.

Maj. Baker said the 911th begins coordinating the details of the air show with the county’s airport authority, which operates Pittsburgh International and the county airport; air traffic controllers; and the station managers for the airlines well in advance of the event. It tries to work around the flight schedules provided by the carriers.

During the air show, pilots are given details about when restrictions are in place as part of the paperwork they receive before taking off for Pittsburgh, Maj. Baker said.

He added that the 911th wants to determine what happened so that it can “do our best to mitigate this in the future.”

For the passengers who ended up short of their intended destination, Southwest provided pizza and buses to make the long trek back to Pittsburgh International. The bus ride added about 45 minutes on the ground to the two hours plus they spent in the sky.

According to the airport authority, some travelers chose to be picked up by friends or family at the county airport.

And the 737? It finally left West Mifflin at 11 a.m. Monday.

Original article can be found here:

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