Updated: Whoa, That Airplane Is Really Close To Ours

Jon was freaked out when flying on Jetblue and his flight came in close proximity to another aircraft. He wonders if he should, and how he might, report such an incident. His story, and advice we got from an Air Force pilot, inside…

UPDATE: A former Air Force flight safety officer chimes in with some points to clarify about what our Air Force pilot had to say…

Jon writes:

We were about 20 minutes into the flight when the plane made a very sharp (~30 degree) bank to the right and went nose down. A few seconds after the maneuver began the plane began to shake violently. We eventually leveled off and went back to our original altitude. The pilot came on the PA and said that air traffic had given another plane a route to altitude in our path and that we had gone through it’s jetwash. He then stated that basically we got too close. Later in the flight he was announcing our descent and must have hit a pocket of turbulence mid-sentence and we could all hear his voice shaking and he was taken by surprise. After talking to folks on the other side of the airplane (I was in the left side window), they saw the plane and said it was ridiculously close.

I asked my Air Force pilot buddy, Stephen Migala. He was able to explain what probably happened, and how the best way for you to take action is to lobby your reps for more funding for modernizing our current air traffic control system. His response:

The term the pilot used for the jetwash was probably wake turbulence. What your reader experienced is actually quite common, unfortunately.

Envision the skies as you would the U.S. Interstate system, a series of highways that come together around major cities/airports. The amount of traffic dramatically increases the closer you are to these places. Because of noise abatement procedures and what are known as departure and approach corridors (feeder ramps to align you with a runway) there is a very limited way to transition out of these airports and busy airspaces onto these sky highways literally called “jet routes.” Consequently there are a lot of planes in a small amount of space. The FAA does its best to secure and divide the spaces into airspace that air traffic controllers regulate. Obviously it is impractical and difficult to control and talk to everyone flying around, especially smaller commuter or single engine prop planes, so procedures are in place to allow them to fly in certain areas without talking to controllers. The thought is that it is their responsibility to see and avoid other aircraft, meanwhile the larger planes in contact with air traffic control share a responsibility for avoidance with most of the impetus resting with the controllers that rely on passive radar signatures and hopefully working radar beacons equipped on all of these planes. It was these very beacons which likely caused the abrupt maneuver. It was what is known in the field as a Resolution Advisory (RA) from a traffic collision avoidance system. (Ref Wikipedia for more info: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TCAS) A computer on board each equipped airplane searches for other signals and beacons, analysis their position and movement relative to itself and if it is projected to or does get close enough it advises the aircrew of an impending threat. It is only in this case of an computer-advised threat that pilots are authorized to deviate from their assigned air traffic control instructions. Because it is so last minute the maneuvers have to be aggressive to avoid a collision. The aforementioned wake turbulence would then likely describe the violent shaking as the maneuvering plane probably passed the air that the threatening plane disturbed as it flew through creating vortises and unstable air that disrupt normal airflow around the wings producing lift and even into the engines for combustion.

I cannot knowledgeably speak to the consequences for controllers. I know it is not good. A repeated amount will have them in trouble and if the offended planes file what is known as a HATR (Hazardous Air Traffic Report) there could be a mini investigation to find out why such a dangerous situation developed. The FAA does track these and there is accountability. Not to try to take away any empowerment from the consumer but there is an inherent problem in allowing people/passengers to report such incidents. The when, where, how, and why would be unknown as would the circumstances resulting in more paperwork and money and no results. Most of the pilots flying around have thousands upon thousands of hours of experience and training and they cannot sometimes avoid it or figure out how it happened. Tracking this down other than through the filed paperwork by experts in the field and through quality assurance at the air traffic control centers is fiscally impractical at the level that these incidents currently occur. I currently know of no system in place to report such events by the flying public. I would however think that it is public domain to know the frequency of such occurrences and I ‘m pretty sure there are statistics available about this but it would require a lot of digging.

Not to lessen the trauma of such an incident for the helpless passengers but it is unfortunately an increasing commonality as the US national airspace system designed decades ago struggles to accommodate far more planes and passengers than it ever planned for. These incidents are obviously not a result of the airline but of a series of minor lapses and oversights that occur daily by controllers and even pilots which happen to snowball into an event like this.
One of the best ways to take action is to demand from your representatives more funding and a restructuring of the national airspace system to modernize itself. The FAA has also cut back on controllers and many of them are overworked and underpaid for their unnoticed work in helping millions commute safely everyday, more of a voice and public backing for them would surely be appreciated.

Flying is still by far the safest mode of transportation but being the best doesn’t excuse not striving for perfection, especially when lives are at stake. I hope this helps some. While you’re at it maybe a few disgruntled comments about the TSA would help too, the complacency generated by the appearance of security and ironically fear mongering is just as great of a danger.

Here’s a great post Carey wrote about how to most effectively write a letter to Congress.

(Photo: Getty)

UPDATE: Reader Brian, a former Flight Safety Officer at the Moody Air Force Base, has a few points he wants to clear up about Stephen’s response:

Your Air Force friend is looking at this from the Air Force’s point of view, not the civilian point of view. I was a Flight Safety Officer in the Air Force at Moody AFB, and have investigated the Hazardous Air Traffic Reports (HATRs) he mentioned. However, civilians do not file that form normally, that HATR is strictly an Air Force Form 651. Civilians normally file the NASA Aviation Reporting System form (http://asrs.arc.nasa.gov/) , and this in most cases will protect the pilot filing the form of any punishment as it is used to improve safety in aviation system. The only time a HATR is filled out by a civilian is when someone calls the base because of an incident (near miss usually) with a military aircraft. Only the Air Force investigates and tracks HATRs. The FAA does not get involved with HATRs unless it directly involves an FAA resource such as a radar, published procedure, FAA-owned navigational aid, or an FAA controller action.

Also, he is only partially correct on the departure and arrival corridors. Some are for noise abatement, but all are for giving aircraft a way to transition to/from the airways. He said “Obviously it is impractical and difficult to control and talk to everyone flying around, especially smaller commuter or single engine prop planes, so procedures are in place to allow them to fly in certain areas without talking to controllers” is incorrect and misleading. Of course small planes can fly around at low altitudes without talking to controllers, but not commuter planes. They have different routes to fly at the lower altitudes, but they still talk to controllers. Also, when the president visits a city, everyone within 30 nautical miles is required to talk to an air traffic controller, or they get a personal airshow from an F-16 until they land.

His quote “most of the impetus resting with the controllers that rely on passive radar signatures and hopefully working radar beacons equipped on all of these planes” is also misleading. If the radar beacons are not working, they are not allowed into airspace above 10,000 feet and will get a very non-efficient route until it is working. ATC radar is actually active in nature by sending out a signal and getting a return. Passive is where a system just listens for information instead of sending out a “request,” in this case the radar signal. TCAS is actually a passive system relying on the ATC radar to generate a return from other aircraft’s’ beacon, and then it is shown on the pilot’s display. The rest is correct about TCAS.

“..is unfortunately an increasing commonality as the US national airspace system designed decades ago struggles to accommodate far more planes and passengers than it ever planned for,” is not an accurate quote. The National Airspace System can handle the amount of airplanes in it now and more in the future. In fact, the number of cruising altitudes was doubled in 2005, going from 2000 foot separation to 1000 foot separation above 29,000 feet to 41,000 feet. Yet delays were not reduced. The largest problem is the lack of runways built to handle the traffic. The true on ramp and off ramps to the highways in the sky are runways, and until the laws of physics change, only on airplane can land or takeoff on a runway at a time.

As a somewhat recent hire into the field of Air Traffic Control, I appreciate his appreciation of our hard work in the field despite the current relationship with those who are making it harder for us to do our jobs. The FAA didn’t exactly cutback on the number of controllers, they just failed to hire replacements in a timely manner in an effort to reduce payroll for the demanding, high stress job that is air traffic control.

Thanks,
Brian