Category Archives: Aviation Safety

ATC Zero — The Nightmare at Chicago En Route Center

Standard FAA Facility Warning SIgn

Standard FAA Facility Warning SIgn

This week we got yet another lesson on the dangers of consolidating air traffic control facilities in the name of “saving money.” We also got a lesson on the abject failure of privatization, the “think tanks” that push privatization, contracting out maintenance of vital infrastructure, corporate greed, and the Washington corruption that breeds this sort of thing.

Harris Corporation employee Brian Howard allegedly cut radar and communications cables, set fire to vital equipment, and then attempted to go all Norman Bates on himself this past week.

Future Harris Corp. employee Norman Bates

The result is millions of dollars in damages and probably hundreds of millions in lost revenue to the airlines. That Harris contract, by the way, is worth some $331 million. Considering the impact to people, business, and national security, was it worth it? Ask your congressman and senators.  And ask if Harris Corp. is going to foot the bill, although we already know the answer to that one.

While you’re at it, ask where your congressman and senators stand on the consolidation agenda of Congressman John Mica of Florida’s 7th Congressional District, or the privatization of vital national defense infrastructure also pushed by him as well as the completely discredited Robert Poole of the Reason Foundation. For if both these men had their way it is very likely Indianapolis Center, Minneapolis Center, Cleveland Center, and Kansas City Center would not have been around to pick up at least some of Chicago Center’s traffic. Instead, if these two had their way, all those centers would have been in just one facility, and that facility would be the one down.

What would have been the impact of that? See for yourself:

FAA Area Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC) Boundaries, a.k.a., “En Route Centers

We get this lesson on a fairly consistent basis. There was the 2003 evacuation of Southern California TRACON (Terminal Radar Approach Control), which handles approach services to every major airport in Southern California. That disruption resulted from a brush fire and effectively shut down to IFR aircraft nearly every airport in half the state. In the past three years alone we witnessed no less than three evacuations of the Chicago TRACON, which serves O’Hare, Midway, and other Chicago area airports. And in 2007 Memphis Center went ATC Zero because a single critical phone line bundle was cut. That disruption closed off 100,000 square miles of airspace for around three hours.

But that’s all peanuts compared to this latest failure. It will be weeks, possibly even a month, before Chicago Center is up and operational once again.  Meanwhile, adjacent centers are trying to pick up the slack and Chicago Center controllers are being assigned to various TRACONs to handle what part of the load they can.

By the way, we’ve already tasted the devastating failures of at least one of Robert Poole’s ideas — the destruction of this nation’s Flight Service Stations and the services they once provided to general aviation pilots. Read:

During the Cold War no one would have stood for consolidation and privatization of such vital national defense infrastructure, yet we have bought-and-paid-for politicians, “think” tank “experts,” and corporations pushing this agenda every day. Why? Because there’s a lot of money to be had, that’s why.  Government money.  Tons of it. And these people don’t care about national defense, so this latest lesson will be conveniently swept under the door mat once public memory has faded.

But rest assured that this lesson has not been lost on those who would do us harm. They now know our vulnerabilities. They’re probably counting on those vulnerabilities to exploit them in the future. And I’m sure those same people are sitting back, planning and plotting, and all the while cheering on the likes of Robert Poole, the Reason Foundation, and Congressman John Mica, and wishing them all the best of success in their endeavors. Because, as we all know, greed is good . . . if you’re looking to exploit an enemy. That’s why the standard FAA ATC sign you saw above — the one so prominently displayed outside every FAA ATC facility in the nation — should read:

How FAA Warning Signs SHOULD Read

How FAA Warning Signs SHOULD Read



Filed under Aviation Safety, Opinion Piece, R. Doug Wicker

What We Now Know About Malaysia Airlines 370, and What We Still Do Not

9M-MRO, the aircraft that would become Flight 379

Many of you will recall that I said it was just far too early to determine what happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. (See: Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 — What We Know and What We Don’t and Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 — It’s STILL All About What We Don’t Know)  Guess what: It’s still too early And it will be until the aircraft is located and the black boxes recovered.  We may all be scratching our heads over this a decade from now, and probably will be.

Any “expert” on CNN telling you otherwise is only displaying their total ignorance. Indeed CNN’s reputation took at least as big a hit as Malaysia Airlines did during this entire fiasco, but in the case of CNN all that remains of their journalistic credibility is a smoking crater with a bunch of people standing around it, scratching their heads, wondering when they went from being respected journalists to being merely silly, uninformed, and unworthy of the profession.  At least they now know that they’re of Fox News caliber if they ever lose their jobs at CNN.

News Flash: Boeing 777 won’t fly without fuel. REALLY?!

 So, what do we know?  We know the Boeing 777 did not land on some remote airfield.  We know that the Malaysia Air Force defense radar was not sufficiently accurate enough to justify the earlier report of the aircraft climbing to 45,000 feet — several thousand feet higher than the Boeing 777’s certified ceiling.  We know that the Australians were searching in the wrong location based on an erroneous “ping” detection that turned out to not be from MAS370.  (no, I’m not faulting the Aussies; they did what they had to do because of the reported detection)  We know that Inmarsat told the Australians that the most likely final resting place is several hundred miles south southwest of where they were looking.  We know that this new search area is 23,000 square miles (the previous search area, which took a month to cover, was only 330 square miles — do the math on that one).  And we know that we have long missed our chance of picking up those black box pingers in this new location, so the search is going to be painfully slow, exceedingly tedious, and ridiculously expensive.

What we have surmised.  The Boeing 777 was probably on autopilot from the time it turned south to the time it impacted in the waters of the Southern Indian Ocean after fuel exhaustion (see CNN headline above for what most likely happens when the fuel runs out).  It appears that no one attempted to open the cabin doors after impact and escape, suggesting that no one survived the impact.

What we do not know (despite the “experts” on the telly, and especially over at CNN).  We do not know if the aircraft was hijacked.  We do not know if one or both of the pilots commandeered the aircraft.  We do even know if the crew were conscious after the initial “event” that led us to this point, which would make for a lot of red faces if this is indeed the case.  If they were unconscious, we’re suddenly looking at a whole host of very different possibilities including unintentional gradual depressurization from a hull leak or rapid decompression from an explosion or major catastrophic structural failure.

So, once again, disregard all those “experts” telling y0u what happened or may have happened.  Listen instead to the true experts who are telling you to sit tight and wait . . . and that wait could be for a very, very long time.


Filed under Aircraft, Aviation Safety

The Latest on Malaysian Government Incompetence

9M-MRO — The Boeing 777 that would become Malaysia Flight 370

Back when I was the QATS (Quality Assurance & Training Specialist) for El Paso Airport Traffic Control Tower and TRACON (Terminal Radar Approach Control) one of my duties was accident/incident investigation.  As an investigator one of my most crucial responsibilities was transcribing onto paper from audio recordings a complete, verbatim account of any and all radio and landline communications related to any accident under formal investigation.  This required headphones, copies of the original recordings, and endless hours of playing and replaying each snippet of communication no matter how seemingly trivial.

The primary task during such a tedious and time consuming endeavor is to transcribe every utterance with 100% accuracy.  If I couldn’t make out precisely what was said then I was required to note it in the transcript with something such as, “roger, mooney um four seven two (unintelligible) good day“.  In a formal transcript there is no capitalization, no punctuation, no guesswork.  If I heard “ah,” “uh,” or “um,” then I put “ah,” “uh,” or “um,” into the transcript.  I was not even allowed by regulation to use an apostrophe for an obvious contraction — absolutely nothing that could even remotely be construed as inadvertently influencing or unduly weighting the actual official record whatsoever.  The only thing that went on the transcript were the time the transmission began, the entity making the transmission, and what precisely was said word . . . for . . . word.

What has this to do with MAS370, you ask?  It’s being reported in multiple U.K. outlets including the BBC that Malaysia just corrected their account of the final transmission from MAS370. The revised account reads, “Goodnight Malaysian three seven zero,” rather than the, “All right, good night,” version given to the public twenty-three days ago.

We are now three+ weeks into this thing, and the Malaysian government can’t even get straight something as simple and straightforward as the air traffic control transcript.  If they cannot even do that much, what hope is there that any information coming from Malaysia has any validity whatsoever?

This has to be by far the most incompetent air incident investigation ever run, worldwide, throughout the history of aviation, bar none.

It’s being reported in multiple U.K. outlets including the BBC that Malaysia just corrected their account of the final transmission from MAS370.  The revised account reads, “Goodnight Malaysian three seven zero.”
We are now three+ weeks into this thing, and the Malaysian government can’t even get the ATC transcript correct.  This has to be by far the most incompetent air incident investigation ever run worldwide.
Un-Frappin’ Believable!


Filed under Aircraft, Aviation Safety, R. Doug Wicker