Friday, January 26, 2018

Horizon / Alaska Airlines, de Havilland Dash 8-400, N412QX: Incident occurred December 29, 2017 at Pullman–Moscow Regional Airport (KPUW), Whitman County, Washington -and- Accident occurred November 19, 2017 at Sacramento International Airport (KSMF), California

‘It’s a cover-up from the Federal Aviation Administration at the highest level’: Cockpit voice recording can’t be used in investigation, source says

The mystery at Pullman–Moscow Regional Airport (KPUW): Plane mistakenly lands on taxiway, but was key evidence inspected?

A top Federal Aviation Administration official has forbidden inspectors who are trying to determine why a Horizon Air commercial jet mistakenly landed on a Pullman, Washington, airport taxiway from reviewing “critical” evidence: recorded cockpit conversations between that flight’s pilots, a federal official familiar with the investigation said

The directive came straight from John Duncan, FAA’s head of flight standards who is in charge of the agency’s flight inspectors across the country, said the source, who requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the probe. Despite the cockpit voice recorder being quarantined by Horizon Air, inspectors investigating the incident have been prevented from listening to the audio of the pilot discussions.

“It’s a cover-up from the FAA at the highest level,” the source said. “We don’t want this to happen again because next time they could hit someone and people will die.”

FAA spokesman Ian Gregor declined to comment Friday: “The FAA does not comment on pending investigations.”

The wayward flight is the latest high-profile airport mishap involving botched landings, including three at San Francisco International Airport — one of which could have resulted in one of the country’s biggest air disasters. Experts have said cockpit voice recorders are critical to determining what caused flight crew confusion. In the end, the Dec. 29 incident at Pullman-Moscow Regional Airport ended with the Horizon jet, along with its 38 passengers and four crew members, landing safely with no injuries.

U.S. Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, has been lobbying for improvements to how aviation and airline officials collect and save the cockpit recordings, which are often lost if not immediately pulled because the audio will overwrite itself. After the three alarming SFO incidents and others across the country, DeSaulnier wrote the FAA and pushed for a public hearing on the issue.

“Oh man,” DeSaulnier said by phone Friday. “What are they hiding? Why aren’t they being more forthcoming?”

The congressman said his office was in the process of crafting a letter to the FAA asking for details about the Pullman incident.

On December 29, Horizon Air Flight 2184 landed on the small airport’s taxiway during a driving rain storm that had shorted out the runway lights. Alaska Airlines, which operates Horizon, said the 17-year veteran pilot misidentified Taxiway Alpha as Runway 6 and landed. The airline also said the pilots have been temporarily suspended from flying during the investigation.

Because the Horizon plane actually landed on the taxiway, federal regulations require the airline to immediately report the incident to the National Transportation Safety Board and to preserve the critical data, including the cockpit voice recorder. The airline followed the rules, but the NTSB declined to investigate the incident.

It’s not always required that cockpit voice recordings be retrieved, and if they are not, they will be overwritten. That is what happened in the SFO near misses. In one case, an Air Canada plane narrowly averted landing on a taxiway crowded with four fully loaded jets awaiting takeoff. But because it didn’t land on the taxiway, the airline was not required to retain the recording and the plane took off hours later.

The FAA has initiated a probe in the Horizon Air incident, but that effort has now been diminished, according to the source.

“If I were doing it and I didn’t have all the information, I couldn’t close the investigation. It is that crucial … The CVR will tell you everything,” the source said of the cockpit recordings. “(The FAA) flat out told them you can’t listen to that tape. To me, that’s very troubling.”

Interviewing pilots is helpful, experts have said, but the raw conversations leading up to the aviation error are pivotal.

“It helps us figure things out in case someone lies to us,” the source said.

Federal regulations require the recorder to be held for at least 60 days by the airline, but the federal official said the concern is that once that period ends, the data could be lost forever.

“Then we’ll never know what happened.”

Story and comments ➤

PULLMAN, WASH. —  Last month, a Horizon Air plane mistakenly landed on a taxiway at a small airport in Washington. It was serious enough that the flight crew was suspended, but federal aviation officials have kept most of the details under wraps.

The major gaffe had a happy ending — the plane landed safely on the empty taxiway and no one was injured. But some aviation experts say the Pullman mistake coupled with several other high profile near-misses involving botched landings, including three at San Francisco International Airport, provide a good reason why cockpit voice recordings should be preserved and reviewed after dangerous aviation incidents, wreck or no.

Congressman Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, is someone who also wants to make sure critical evidence is kept. When aviation and airline officials failed to collect evidence from the three SFO incidents and others across the country, DeSaulnier pushed the Federal Aviation Administration to find a way to capture more of the recordings and for a public hearing on the issue.

“We need to get to the bottom of these,” DeSaulnier said. “We need to understand what the standards are, if they are followed and do they need to be strengthened.”

And that’s why the Pullman incident is so strange.

Because the Horizon plane actually landed on the taxiway, federal regulations require the airline, which is operated by Alaska Airlines, to immediately report the incident to the National Transportation Safety Board and to preserve the critical data, including the cockpit voice recorder.

The airline and federal officials confirm that this was done. However, the NTSB declined to investigate the incident. The FAA has initiated a probe but refuses to say whether its investigation will include reviewing the audio. It hinted it will not.

FAA spokesman Allen Kenitzer repeatedly told this news agency his agency could not comment on an ongoing investigation and his only comment about the cockpit recordings was: “The FAA does not have the regulatory authority to remove cockpit voice recorders.”

Taxiway landing

On Dec. 29, a heavy rain and melting snow created a flash flood that caused an electrical failure of the Pullman-Moscow Regional Airport’s runway lights, leaving only the blue taxiway lights working as Horizon Air Flight 2184 approached.

At about 6:20 p.m., the flight crew, about three miles from the airport, positioned the aircraft for landing and attempted to activate the remote-controlled runway lights, according to an Alaska Airlines statement. The crew had not been alerted about the inoperable lights — the airport director said the facility did not know about the outage yet — and the 17-year veteran pilot misidentified Taxiway Alpha as Runway 6 and landed. No other aircraft were on the taxiway at the time.

“The pilots have been temporarily removed from flight status while the landing is being investigated internally and in partnership with investigating authorities,” Alaska Airlines said.

Aviation experts say taxiway lights are clearly blue and instruments would have guided the flight crew to the airport’s darkened runway, which should have caused the pilot to abort the landing. The Pullman airport, which has one landing strip and one taxiway, has no tower, but air crews can communicate with each other via radio.

“It is a big mistake,” said Michael Barr, former director of the USC Aviations Safety Program. “Especially at night because runway lights are much different than taxiway lights.”

The runway is 100 feet wide, but the taxiway a narrow 60 feet, said airport manager Tony Bean.

“I don’t think visibility was a problem (that night),” Bean said. “It was a very, very, very strange occurrence.”

Normally, after a major incident, the FAA, even when it is investigating, will provide the public with basic preliminary information. However, all the flight specifics from Pullman came from the airline and airport manager. And there was confusion three weeks after the incident between the NTSB and FAA.

“For more information, you’ll want to contact the NTSB. They are leading this investigation,” Kenitzer said on Jan. 18.

The same day, NTSB spokesman Eric Weiss said: “We are not conducting a separate Investigation on this event. As such, we did not gather any recorder data.”

The next day, Weiss said: “We are looking into several wrong runway/airport/taxiway landings and have documented that this event occurred. However, we will not be conducting a separate investigation given our current resources.”

He did later confirm that Horizon properly notified them and the airline “indicated that the recorders had been quarantined.”

The FAA refuses to say if they are reviewing the audio. Nearly a month after the taxiway landing, no one will say what happened to the cockpit voice recordings after they were removed by the airline, or if they have been reviewed.
Barr said that audio is critical evidence to find exactly why the pilots veered from the runway.

“It’s very important,” the aviation safety expert said, “if they’d like to know what happened.”

Story and comments ➤

Federal Aviation Administration / Flight Standards District Office; Sacramento, California

Flight QXE2119:  Aircraft sustained a birdstrike to the nose of the fuselage. No injuries. Damage substantial. Landed without incident.

Date: 20-NOV-17
Time: 03:33:00Z
Regis#: QXE2119
Aircraft Make: BOMBARDIER
Aircraft Model: DH8D
Event Type: ACCIDENT
Highest Injury: NONE
Aircraft Missing: No
Flight Phase: EN ROUTE (ENR)
Aircraft Operator: HORIZON AIR
Flight Number: QXE2119


  1. If the voice recorder is used as a tool to discipline pilots, where everything they say can be used against them, then pilots might be less inclined to talk with each other or to the tower... and that in turn may cause more accidents.

  2. You have no right to that information unless there is grave bodily injury or aircraft structural damage to determine the cause of an accident. As an ATP, I can tell you right now this will not improve cockpit communications if this tape gets released. Communication on the flight deck is the greatest player in safety. That means every time we make a mistake, the tapes are on the table. If you think we won't shut up or use pen and paper to communicate what we're really thinking, you're mistaken. If you're not an airline pilot, your two cents is great, but you have no idea what happens up there and you never will. This isn't a conspiracy or a cover up. When an airliner leaves a smoking hole in the ground and people are dead, you'll get your tapes. This has been the rule on the books for decades and it isn't about to change because two guys landed on a taxiway.