Close call at airport

Saturday incident reveals radar, communications challenges

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— A close call this weekend at Yampa Valley Regional Airport reveals some of the major challenges of mountain flight and small airport operations.

On Saturday afternoon, air traffic controllers in Denver gave a small private plane clearance to take off from YVRA as United Express flight No. 6573 was landing. The two planes managed to avoid one another, but still provided quite the scare for passengers and airport officials.

"Just as we were nearing a touchdown, we suddenly banked sharply and accelerated up at what must have been full throttle," Hayden resident John Merrill, a passenger on the daily flight from Denver, wrote in an e-mail to the Pilot & Today. "After a couple of disturbing minutes, the pilot came on and said that he suddenly saw 'another plane moving onto the runway' and that is why he aborted the landing so abruptly."

Airport Manager Dave Ruppel confirmed Merrill's account on Monday. According to Ruppel, one of the United pilots told air traffic controllers in Denver, "I'm on the deck." The Denver officials then cleared the private plane to take off, Ruppel said, thinking the United flight was on the ground.

"It wasn't a good day, but fortunately, we had a clear day and they saw each other," Ruppel said.

The United plane was a 66-passenger CRJ-700, and the private plane was a 9- to 12-passenger King Air based out of Oklahoma City.

Ruppel said airport personnel in the Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting facility at YVRA saw what was happening but were helpless to do anything about it because both airplanes had their radios tuned to air traffic control in Denver, rather than YVRA's local UNICOM system.

"It was pretty scary to both of" the firefighters, Ruppel said. "They were pretty upset by the whole thing. That was a pretty close thing."

No official record

Ruppel said Saturday's incident was serious, but it was news to Federal Aviation Administration officials Monday.

"Right now, as it stands today, we have no record of this," FAA spokesman Allen Kenitzer said.

While YVRA officials can and did speak to those involved, Ruppel said the airport does not have the ability to file violations with the FAA because it is an "uncontrolled airport." Uncontrolled airports are those that do not have a tower that is part of the FAA air traffic control system. The responsibility to report Saturday's incident lies with the pilots involved and air traffic controllers in Denver.

Kenitzer defended the FAA's procedures.

"What else can we do?" Kenitzer said. "We can't pay people to stand around and watch runways. : We do rely upon honesty and integrity."

Ruppel said Saturday's incident is one instance when one might wish the FAA's rules were different, but overall, he said the policy makes sense.

"It's very frustrating when you have something like this happen," he said. "But if you're not a pilot and you're not in that situation, you may not understand how serious it was. It has to come from someone who actually knows what the situation is."

YVRA's status as an uncontrolled airport also means that neither plane was breaking any rules by not being tuned in to the airport's UNICOM system.

"It would have made sense, when you're in the airport vicinity, to stay on the frequency," Ruppel said.

Ruppel said the private plane might have switched to the Denver frequency early because of a need to quickly communicate with air traffic controllers once the plane was in the air. The reason why the descending United flight was not tuned in is more puzzling.

Ruppel said the United pilot told air traffic controllers in Denver that he was canceling "instrument flight rules." Instrument flight rules, or IFR, are a set of rules for flying by aircraft instruments only, while separation from other aircraft is provided by air traffic control. The rules allow for such things as flying through clouds. When a pilot cancels IFR, he then operates under "visual flight rules," and is responsible for navigation, obstacle clearance and traffic separation.

Local commercial pilot Bret Orr said normal procedure after canceling IFR would be to switch to the local UNICOM system and communicate intentions. Local pilot Mike Forney agreed.

"I am surprised that they weren't talking to each other," Forney said. "That's kind of strange."

Ruppel said Saturday's incident also underscores the need for radar coverage at Western Slope airports such as YVRA. Because of the mountains, planes that are taking off or landing fly too low to be detected by radar in Denver. Air traffic controllers must rely on their communication with pilots - and in this case the United pilot's apparently erroneous claim to be "on the deck." A phone message and e-mail left with United officials Monday were not returned.

Next steps

Municipalities throughout Northwest Colorado are partnering with the FAA and the aeronautics division of the Colorado Department of Transportation to install electronic airplane surveillance equipment that will provide radar coverage. Ruppel said the system likely won't be certified until April 2009.

"With that system, Denver Center would have been able to see that the CRJ was not on the ground," Ruppel said.

The chances of YVRA becoming a controlled airport are slim. Ruppel said the airport has about 15,000 takeoffs and landings a year, when the threshold to receive federal funding for an air traffic control tower is 100,000. The cost of a tower means Routt County is not likely to construct and run one itself. Ruppel estimated a tower would cost more than $5 million to build and about $500,000 a year to operate.

There is a possibility that YVRA would be deemed eligible for a "seasonal tower" during its busy winters.

"That's something that we're exploring at this point," Ruppel said.

FAA spokesman Mike Fergus said Saturday's incident warrants a closer look. FAA officials said more information may be available later this week. In the meantime, YVRA officials are responding as much as their limited clout allows.

"We try to emphasize to all the pilots who operate here that they need to be in touch with our UNICOM systems," Ruppel said. "This type of situation obviously highlights that."

Comments

blackthroatedwind 6 years, 4 months ago

See, wannabe makes my point exactly. The media prints these stories to sell papers. The gullible public then agrees with the media's portrayal that its scary! Yet we think nothing of making a quick dodge to the left in our cars when the City bus pulls out in front of us, or when we have to brake when the trucker changes lanes in front of us.

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WZ 6 years, 4 months ago

For $125, I installed a high rez video camera on my property connected to my computer which streams this 10 frames per second imagery to the internet.

Couldn't a simple system like this (or a more robust system) be used at YVRA so air traffic control in Denver has additional real time information available to them at a fraction of the cost of radar?

Video surveillance is everywhere. Why not on the runway at YVRA?

Of course, this visual system wouldn't be that effective during foul weather, but then again, Saturday was a bluebird day.

Nice going United pilot. We'll be watching you "on the deck"! ;)

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blackthroatedwind 6 years, 4 months ago

How many near-miss automobile traffic accidents do we hear about, in comparison to the number of near misses that happen every day on the Nation's Highways? Driving in Denver is one continuous series of near misses, many involving public transportation (buses, taxis, light rail) similar to that of scheduled airlines. Yet millions of people get in their cars and drive each and every day. The media worldwide sensationalizes aviation incidents, creating distrust and fear of aviation amongst the public. In my opinion, aviation accidents are newsworthy to the general public, near misses are not. Continual media coverage of these incidents just feeds the fire of fear.

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hubiem 6 years, 4 months ago

blackthroatedwind

your first sentence of your first post makes no sense whatsoever. did you intend to compare near miss airline accidents with near miss auto accidents?

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Ed Miklus 6 years, 4 months ago

As a GA pilot, what aviation lexicon is "On the deck?" Looks like the United pilot is in serious need of radio procedure and terminology review. Ah, the human factor in aviation.

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80488mom 6 years, 4 months ago

WZ - could you tell me where you bought the high rez video and how it works thru the internet. Thanx.

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thecondoguy1 6 years, 4 months ago

exactly ed, I flew helicopter out of Centennial, on the deck would have got me a butt chewing from some crabby lady ATC I would never forget, I can't imagine "on the deck" except I am on the ground, parked and having lunch at Jeffco.

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jack legrice 6 years, 4 months ago

No mater what, it was a near miss. It is just a matter of time before there it will not be a near miss. Last reported incident was TWA landing at the Craig Airport by mistake. When there is a near miss on a large construction site it is not taken lightly.I hope that this is looked into and a positive action will come of it.

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id04sp 6 years, 4 months ago

sbvor,

Yeah, it could, but it ain't used until you are actually "on deck." Until then you are "still flying."

My speculation is that the "on deck" call was made maybe 20 or 30 seconds prior to the actual intended landing point on the assumption that eveything was going to be okay in 20 or 30 seconds when they actually landed.

The United Express pilot simply "stretched" things and could have caused a collision. Thankfully, it did not occur. What he did was sorta like gunning it on a yellow light and assuming nobody would be coming the other way when the light turned green on the cross street. It was careless, and should not have happened.

By the way, the guy getting ready to pull onto the runway should also have the sense to take a gander and see if anybody is coming in to land before he pulls onto the runway. It's sorta like when you are approaching an intersection just as the light turns green, and you look to see if somebody is running the red on the cross street, just in case.

The pilot of the aircraft on the ground could file a complaint, and the FAA would investigate, and somebody would probably get a warning, and that's about it. Repeated violations would result in suspension of the pilot's license and probably a fine for the air carrier.

If this had happened at night in bad weather, it could have been a real tragedy. I got delayed on an airline flight one night because an Airborne Express turboprop pulled onto the runway in front of an Air National Guard RF-4C, resulting in pieces of two airplanes spread up and down the runway for about 3000 feet.

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thecondoguy1 6 years, 4 months ago

sbvor, yes you are correct, the takeoff and landing area on a aircraft carrier is referred to as the flight deck, "on the deck" is more slang than a proper call in civil aviation, "roger" this or "roger" that is another old military code for having recieved or understood a order in flight, Air Traffic Control wants to hear "willco", meaning will cooperate, they don't care if you heard it or understand it, they want you to agree to DO it. You can see why there has to be a uniform method of communication by what happend here. No room for error, roger................

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id04sp 6 years, 4 months ago

"Roger" means I heard and understand.

"WILCO" means I "will comply." This is seldom used in air traffic control, since "Roger" means basically the same thing. They gave an order, and you understand it. Some instructions must be read back to the controller verbatim (such as an instrument clearance) so that everyone is sure what you intend to do. This is critical in case of radio failure, where you go ahead and fly the planned route all the way to the approach, and watch the tower for a GREEN signal light for clearance to land.

"Over" means I'm through talking and am waiting for you to say something else.

"Out" means the conversation is over, and I'm not going to say anything else.

There are also some "informal" procedure words such as "Ah $#!+" and, "OH F##K" that controllers take to mean, "Mayday" (from the French phrase, "m' aidez" which means, "aid me," or "help me.").

If somebody sold plaques containing the last words of pilots who died in crashes, most of them would say, "Ah, $#!+" or "OH F##K."

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OnTheBusGus 6 years, 4 months ago

While about to land in PHX on a commercial flight once I was lazily watching the ground speeding by, getting closer, waiting for the wheels to hit the ground when all of a sudden the plane pulled up. Freaked the entire flight out. We ascended, circled Sky Harbor and then the captain explained to us that he got a visual of a small aircraft on our landing area. Apparently the tower cleared the pilot of the smaller craft to take off but that pilot went to the wrong runway. I am so glad that our pilot was alert enough to see what was going on and react. He said he had radar off, so it was only his experience and eagle eyes that kept a 747 from creaming a cessna. Stay alert, stay alive indeed! Also, I'm sure that didn't make the news in PHX, I never heard about it at least.

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id04sp 6 years, 4 months ago

Hunger,

"Near miss," means a collision was imminent, but did not occur. There are specific criteria for the required clearance, but I can't quote them to you.

I was up in a Huey one day around 3,000 feet over Pensacola in IFR conditions (in and out of clouds) and met another Huey coming the other way, on my same altitude, head on, and we passed within a rotor-diameter (50 feet) of each other after my instructor (who was at the controls at that moment) took evasive action. That was a "near miss." If the other Huey had not popped out of the clouds ahead of us when it did, we'd have hit him head-on in the cloud he came out of. Air traffic control had US on radar, but didn't have HIM on radar, and never gave us any warning, nor did ATC see him after the near miss. They saw our RADAR transponder squawk on the scope, but never got a skin paint on the other Huey.

This is referred to as a fundamental failure of the "Big Sky" theory.

Oh, when I saw the other Huey, I only had time to say "TRAFFIC." My instructor looked up from the instruments. He followed up with, "AH $#!+" as he turned to avoid the crash.

And that's the kind of stuff that makes military pilots impatient with whiners and civil authorities who don't enforce the law . . . all that "risk my life every day for YOU" crap only applies on the day you get shot at or go into a burning building. You ain't risking a THING until you're high enough that the fall will kill you, or until somebody is actually trying to do harm to you. The rest of it is just a thing to tell the nurses at the ER in hope of getting laid.

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id04sp 6 years, 4 months ago

The radar on a 747 is not designed to spot other air traffic. It's only for weather. He was blowing smoke up your @$$.

The pilot is ALWAYS watching the approach end of the runway when coming in to land. It would be almost impossible for another airplane to pull onto the runway without you seeing it unless it was night time and the lights were off. The more common hazard is for one airplane to be above another, with the lower craft hidden below the nose of the higher one, and the lower guy can't see the higher one above him because of the cabin roof. This is how one airplane occasionally lands on another one at an uncontrolled field as both are trying to land at exactly the same time.

It's usually the guy on the ground who thinks he's cleared to enter the runway when he's not, and by the time he sees the landing traffic, it's too late to stop or get out of the way. This can happen at places like LA where the control tower can't see all the taxiways, etc. People have to pay attention to what they're doing, and back up the tower controller who can ALSO make a mistake. Pulling out onto a runway and dying just because you were cleared by the tower is a very silly way to die. Airplanes have windows for a reason . . . it pays to know what's going on outside even when you're still on the ground.

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JLM 6 years, 4 months ago

The pilot of the King Air departing should have seen and avoided the landing traffic. No good pilot just blindly pulls out onto a runway without looking. You look to avoid mistakes.

The landing aircraft pilot did his job. He saw the other aircraft and avoided it. That's his job.

Near misses are unfortunately part of the system but in the final analysis every pilot must "see and avoid". The system worked OK but not perfect.

"On the deck" is just plane goofy! Out!

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madmoores 6 years, 4 months ago

Wow...again, wow...a tragedy has definitely been avoided...even though the pilot gave erroneous information, he saved lives by reacting to an imminent threat. Hope this will be a wake up call to beef up the capabilities of YVRA(radar, tower, whatever it takes) because it does not look like they are going to get LESS flights in the future. I also wonder if the counties need to beef up the emergency response system and practice any and all situations in an airport crash incident. I work in the medical field and it worries me if our system would be able to handle something like this actually happening. Is 66 passengers the most that would be landing in one plane, at one time, or are there bigger jets landing there, with more passengers? IF their were survivors, it would max out BOTH YVMC and TMH, which would have to work in harmony during a crash incident. When was the last time they had an MCI practice out there? If both planes were filled to capacity, according to this story, that would have been 78 passengers, does that figure in the crew as well? I know that many of them would not survive but then I look back at the Sioux City crash when half the planes passengers strolled, mostly, out of a cornfield. I think like 112 or so survived. Do you know how overwhelmed our two hospitals would be with 112 walking wounded and injured passengers? I don't even want to think about something like that. I know there must be a plan, I hope they look that over as well. Just looking to see how anyone felt about the emergency response aspect of a large plane crash in the valley. And some people ask why I don't fly(yeah I know, flying is more safe than blah, blah, blah), silly people;)

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