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30 March 2010

NTSB to investigate near miss involving a 777 over San Francisco

United Airlines 777 N216UAThe NTSB has launched an investigation into a nearly catastrophic collision between a United 777 and a small private aircraft over San Francisco last weekend. The NTSB estimates that the two aircraft missed each other by less than 300 feet.

At about 11:15 a.m. PDT on March 27, United Airlines Flight 889, a B777-222 (N216UA) carrying 251 passengers and 17 crew members on a flight to Beijing, China, had just departed from San Francisco International and was climbing through about 1,100 feet when both air traffic control and the aircraft's collision avoidance system reported air traffic nearby.

Example of an AeroncaThe flight crew saw a small aircraft, an Aeronca 11AC (N9270E), in a hard left turn traveling from their 1 o'clock to 3 o'clock position. The first officer interrupted the climb and leveled out the aircraft. Both crew members reported seeing only the underside of the Aeronca as it passed to within an estimated 200-300 feet of the 777.

After the encounter, the flight crew continued to Beijing without further incident.

You can listen to this edited recording of transmissions among air traffic controllers and the two involved aircraft (Source:

Midair collisions that result in passenger deaths on large jet airliners are very rare events. According to's list of midair collisions, the last midair involving a jet airliner was a 29 September 2006 collision between a Gol Linhas Aereas 737-800 and ERJ135 Legacy 600 executive jet over Brazil. All on board the 737 were killed, and everyone on the ERJ135 survived.

The last airliner midair in the US was a 31 August 1986 collision between an Aeromexico DC9-32 and a Piper Archer over Cerritos, CA. All occupants of both aircraft were killed. More recently, a private plane and a sightseeing helicopter collided over the Hudson River near New York, killing all on board both aircraft.

Photo credits: Drewski2112 (777), Wikipedia (Aeronca)

26 March 2010

Issues surrounding a fatal EMS helicopter crash near Memphis

The following is based on the article EMS helicopter pilot worries; "If they knew what I knew, even the nurse and paramedic wouldn't get on board." from the blog Christine Negroni ON

The crash Thursday morning of an emergency medical helicopter in Tennessee is another tragic reminder of the crisis in medical aviation. Three people were killed when a Eurocopter AS350 (N855HW) operated by Hospital Wing crashed near Brownsville, Tennessee after delivering a patient in Jackson. While the crash happened shortly before 7:00 a.m., the bulk of the flight occurred during what is considered "the backside of the clock" the hours between ten p.m. and six a.m.. This is the most dangerous time to fly by helicopter medivac. Nearly half of all the EMS helicopter crashes take place on the backside of the clock.

This statistic comes from the Comprehensive Medical Aviation Services Database (CMAS) which was compiled by Dr. Patrick Veillette and myself. Fatigue is a pervasive problem in these accidents, according to Dr. Veillette, a commercial pilot and former EMS pilot. The situation seems to be getting worse. "In just the last 8 years there have been 48 accidents that occurred on the back side of the clock."

Reviewing the so-far-incomplete details of the accident, it appears notably and tragically typical. The aircraft had already delivered the patient and was returning to base, there was bad weather in the area and the flight was being conducted under visual flight rules, without the assistance of enhanced visibility instruments. Our database shows these are the consistently reoccurring factors in helicopter medivac accidents.

What's so frustrating is that it is no mystery how to make air ambulances safer. When EMS helicopters are required to carry two pilots and equipment to help them fly in limited-visibility conditions safer flights will result.

Since 1987, nearly half of the EMS helicopter accidents occurred either at night or in weather that obstructed the pilot's vision. Our statistics also show that people are twice as likely to die in limited-visibility accidents as in those occurring in good weather during the day. Considering the layers of risk in reduced-visibility flights, one would expect operators of air ambulances to make sure their aircraft are equipped to fly in these conditions. But only a small portion are equipped with enhanced-visibility systems.

The EMS helicopter industry has boomed from a few hospitals in Colorado in 1972 to a multi-million-dollar business which operated nearly half a million flights in 2009. This phenomenal growth has been based on a disturbing business model; fly the helicopters as inexpensively as possible - meaning one pilot and a minimum of safety equipment - even though these are inherently more hazardous missions. As one EMS pilot told me, "If they knew what I knew, even the nurse and paramedic wouldn't get on board."

In a study of turbine engine airplane accidents, a noted aviation research company Robert E. Breiling Associates of Florida, concluded that single-pilot flights are riskier than those with two pilots. The statistics show the risk of a fatal accident is 3.7 times greater with a single-pilot. In publishing these findings, AOPA Pilot magazine wrote "single-pilot operations create higher workloads and greater demands on pilot skill when the chips are down and stress levels run high."

Flying a helicopter - any helicopter- is not like flying an airplane. The pilot is busy from start to finish. To an already higher workload and often under time pressure the EMS pilot has additional concerns, a 24/7 flight schedule, a lack of a weather information for the route or destination, operations in and out of non standard landing zones including rooftops, highways and parking lots and flights that take them through obstacles and obstructions.

It is this last factor that makes the need for two pilots most obvious. Of the accidents over the past 20 years, one in of three - involved the aircraft hitting something. With the exception of a pilot-check ride in Michigan in May 2007, all the others were operated by a single pilot. Medical helicopters in Canada and air rescues conducted by the U.S. Coast Guard already require two-pilots. What do they know that America's air ambulance operators do not?

When it comes to making air-ambulance flights safer, the elephant in the room is money. Nobody wants to talk about it because to do so would be to puncture the myth that no expense is too high when it comes to rescuing those in need.

Bringing complicated medical equipment and highly trained professionals to the skies is already an expensive undertaking. Most EMS helicopter companies are businesses with bottom lines to consider. Often a hospital contract will go to the company that offers the lowest bid, which is why additional equipment and doubling of pilots is such a hard concept to sell.

It is imperative that the industry equip all EMS helicopters for reduced visibility conditions and put two qualified pilots in the cockpit to fly them. It's expensive. But once again, investigators have been called to the scene of the crash that is a tragic reminder of the alternative.

Read more about medical aviation in this excerpt from The Crash Detectives.

Photo Credits:
Crash site: Karen Foucht
ES350 in flight:

About Christine Negroni is pleased to welcome Christine Negroni as a guest contributor. Her reporting appears in The New York Times and many other publications. She has worked as a network television correspondent for CBS News and CNN. She is also a published author. Her book, Deadly Departure, on the crash of TWA Flight 800, was a New York Times Notable Book. Her upcoming book The Crash Detectives goes in-depth into the world of transportation accident investigation.

21 March 2010

GAO recommends cost and benefit analysis for new scanners

The failed attempted bombing of Northwest flight 253 last Christmas, highlighted the reality that in spite of all of the security measures implemented since 9/11 and the attack by convicted shoe bomber Richard Reid, that someone could still get past those measures and get a bomb on board a US airliner.

One response of the US government was to speed up the delivery of full body scanners to airports around the country, with plans to install about 300 by the end of 2010. While the scanners may be capable at finding explosives hidden under their clothing, a key issue is whether this effort, which may cost several billion dollars, is effective and reliable enough to justify the costs.

Role of the GAO
The General Accountability Office (GAO), a US government organization which examines the use of public funds; evaluates federal programs and policies; and provides analyses, recommendations, and other assistance to the US Congress, reviewed recent efforts to put advanced imaging technologies in US airports, specifically the full body scanners, to help find hidden items under a passenger's clothing.

TSA policy changers after the Christmas attack

After the Christmas bombing attempt, the TSA made two major policy changes. First, to increase the number of planned full body scanners from 878 to about 1,800, and second, to use these scanners as a primary screening device whenever feasible rather than as a secondary screening. Full deployment would not occur until 2014, and even then, these advanced scanners would only be available at about 60% of the checkpoint lanes of the US airports with the three highest TSA security categories.

To give you an idea of how limited this coverage would be, the TSA is responsible for security at about 450 airports, and according to a 2007 GAO report, less than 40% of all airports are in these three highest categories, and nearly 300 smaller airports are in the two less sensitive security categories.

Costs and benefit analysis not done
The most recent report, plus the earlier report from 2007, provided several important insights into the the use of the advanced screening technologies:
  • Advanced imaging systems will not be fully deployed for at least three years

  • When fully deployed, they will be only in a fraction of airports

  • In the airports with these new scanners, not all passengers will be screened using these advanced technologies
Perhaps the most important point made by this report was one that there has not yet been a cost and benefit analysis done for these new technologies. While the rush to do something to prevent airborne bombers appears to have been done with the best of intentions, it seems sensible that someone should review whether this effort will be effective, especially given the expense involved with getting it done.

16 March 2010

Virgin America flight 10 hours late including, 7 on tarmac

Last Saturday on March 13, 2010, Virgin America flight 404, a flight from LAX airport in Los Angeles to JFK airport in New York, left California just after seven in morning for a scheduled five hour flight. Unfortunately for the passengers and crew, the airplane was diverted to Newburgh, NY, where the aircraft was stuck on tarmac for at least four hours. Eventually, the passengers were taken by bus to JFK, arriving about 12 hours behind schedule.

Many of the media reports about this event are focusing on the human behavior aspects of the story, including tales of passenger misbehavior, fight attendants rationing potato chips and cookies, the screaming babies, and a social networking site CEO creating online videos and live Twitter posts.

No airliner incident involving a flight from LAX would be complete without a Hollywood connection. One of the passengers was Carrie Ann Inaba, a judge on the "Dancing with the Stars" television show, who you may remember from her (un?)forgettable role as Fook Yu in the movie Austin Powers in Goldmember (not to be confused with the character Fook Mi, played by the equally memorable Diane Mizota).

Long tarmac delays now tracked by the DOT
In the last few years, tarmac delays became a very visible issue in the media and with numerous members of the US Congress in response to a series of incidents in which passengers were stranded on the ground aboard aircraft for lengthy periods. The US Department of Transportation (DOT) proposed a rule change in November 2008 that requires airlines to provide adequate food and water within two hours of a tarmac delay, and to keep lavatories in operation. This change in tarmac delay regulations was adopted in December 2009.

Another change was that the DOT now provides detailed information on flights with delays of three hours or more. One of the most reliable sources of information for US airline data and statistics is the DOT's Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS). Their reports provide information on departure delays that includes details on individual flights that were delayed three hours or more, as well as summaries of departure delays by airline and by airport.

According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, there were 902 flights with tarmac delays of three hours or more in 2009. Some of these flights were delayed even longer, with 137 flights delayed four hours or more.

What to do if you are stuck

Surprisingly, the BTS summary data would likely exclude the Virgin America event because the BTS only tracks data for 19 of the largest US airlines. Fortunately for the average passenger, any extreme delay incident will likely make it into either the traditional media or some kind of online media. In the unlikely event that you are stuck on an airplane for several hours, there are many things you can do to get the word out and perhaps encourage the airline to address your situation. Some examples include:
  • Contact your family to update them on your situation.

  • If you have a Internet capable device, update your Twitter account, Facebook page, or any other kind of social media that you have.

  • If you have the capability to document your delay with photos or videos, do so during the event, and when you have a chance add it to a service like Flickr or YouTube.

  • Contact local news media and encourage them to cover the event.
Do You Have an Extreme Delay Story? - Please Share it With Us
The delay data provided by the DOT is quite valuable in that it provides a statistical summary, but it doesn't provide the kind of personal perspective that a passenger can. If you have been on a plane in one of these extreme delay situations, we'd like to do our part and publish your story. Please visit the Online Complaint Form and share your experience, even if it did not involve an airliner flight in the US. We'd like to post one or more of these stories on

Graphic: New York Post

11 March 2010

Former TSA employee accused of attempted computer sabotage

Earlier this week, federal prosecutors in Colorado charged a former Transportation Security Administration employee with attempting to sabotage TSA computer systems, including one that contains key terrorist watch lists.

The former employee, Douglas Duchak, 46, of Colorado Springs, faces two charges of attempting to damage protected TSA computers. From August 2004 to October 2009, he worked as a data analyst at the TSA's Colorado Springs Operation Center where the government maintains computer systems that contain among other things the government's no-fly list. He allegedly tried to send a virus into the computer system's servers in late October 2009, after learning he would be terminated.

The computer system includes the government's no-fly list.

In the federal indictment, prosecutors stated Duchak failed in his attempt to introduce a virus into the computer system. Had he been successful, prosecutors claimed that his actions "would have caused damage affecting a computer used by the United States government in furtherance of national security."

Duchak was informed on October 15, 2009 that his employment would end on October 30th. In the indictment, he is accused of having introduced malicious computer code into the system on October 22nd and October 23rd. The indictment implied that his employment was terminated on October 23rd, a week before his employment was originally scheduled to end.

Duchak entered a not guilty plea during a hearing in Colorado and was released on a $25,000 bond. If convicted of both counts, he faces up to 10 years in prison and a fine of $500,000.

09 March 2010

Pilot flying without proper licenses caught after two years on the job

Recently, a Corendon Airlines pilot who was about to fly 101 passengers from Amsterdam, Netherlands to Ankara, Turkey was arrested, allegedly because he did not have an appropriate license. According to various media reports, the pilot was a 41-year-old Swede and was in the cockpit when the Dutch police arrested him after a tip from the Swedish authorities.

The arrested pilot claims that he has been flying for 13 years and has over 10,000 hours of flying experience. He had worked for airlines in Belgium, Great Britain and Italy, and according to a lawyer for Corendon Airlines had been at that company for about two years.

The pilot did have a license, but it was not valid for the aircraft he was operating. In both the US and in most of Europe, civilian airline pilots for large jet transports like the 737 must have at least 1,500 hours of total flight time before obtaining the appropriate license, and in addition must meet additional requirements for the specific type of airliner.

While the pilot apparently did not have the correct credentials and was not certified to fly a 737 with passengers on board, it is not clear if he was unqualified to fly the aircraft. What is clear is that it was not the first time this pilot was accused of flying without the proper licenses. CNN reported that the pilot had been accused of similar infractions in his native Sweden.

Corendon Airlines is based in Turkey and was founded in 2004. According to the airline's web site, it operates a fleet of seven 737s, mostly to destinations throughout Europe. The airline has not had a fatal or serious accident.

Pilots with improper licenses are not limited to Turkey. A July 2008 article in the Sunday Times of Sri Lanka described the case of a German national used fake documentation to fly as a captain with SriLankan Airlines, operating a number of flights in the A340. According to the article, he was qualified to be a flight officer, but not a captain on an A340.

05 March 2010

Letting kids talk on ATC radio not smart, but also not dangerous

Last month, an air traffic controller on two occasions brought a child to work at the control tower at JFK Airport in New York and allowed the child to radio instructions to pilots. By now you have probably heard the exchange between one of the children and a jet on the ground at JFK. Clearly, having a child talking to an aircraft is out of bounds, and the FAA has responded by suspending both the controller and the controllers supervisor pending an investigation of the incident. Like the deliberate crash in Austin and the accidental crash in East Palo Alto discussed previously by and, audio played an unexpected role in the JFK incident.

Air traffic control transmissions and

Unlike cockpit voice recordings, which are rarely released to public, transmissions between aircraft and air traffic control can be heard by anyone with the proper equipment. In the old days, one had to be in the local area with a specialized video. Today, thanks to the Internet and a worldwide network of enthusiasts, it is easy to listen to just about any air traffic control transmission. In the last few weeks, one web site,, has provided the public with recordings of one of the two children at JFK, and the eerily normal conversation the Austin suicide pilot had with ATC shortly before his death. The simple lesson is that any conversation with ATC can be recorded, and if the recording is particularly controversial, it will be widely available to the entire world.

Access differences between cockpits and control towers
Access to airline cockpits and air traffic control towers in the US are subject to many restrictions, with airliner cockpit access being extremely restricted during all phases of flight, and it is very difficult for anyone other than crew member or government official. Control towers on the other hand don't have severe restrictions, and having visitors in the control tower or other ATC facility is a common occurrence.

How dangerous was it to have a child on the radio?
The JFK incident, although good for a few scary headlines, was a clear violation of the rules, but probably not a violation that put aircraft at risk. The child was apparently having a routine conversation with an aircraft that was on the ground, with the air traffic controller directing what the child said. There was no indication that the pilots were told to do anything that was in any way risky.

Is audio surveillance a good thing?
Had the JFK incident happened 15 years ago, it is very likely that anyone other than the the pilots and air traffic controllers tuned to that frequency would have heard it. If the public found out about it, it would not have been through a recording, but through a second or third hand story that would likely escape the attention of the mainstream media.

In contrast with the past, the future will likely have more, and not less private audio surveillance from the likes of If you are a pilot or air traffic controller, the safe assumption is that anything that gets broadcast can be recorded. Given the ongoing improvements in computers, storage, and search technology, it would be safe to assume that one day transmissions would not only be recorded, but also accessible and searchable online.

Whether this kind of surveillance is good or bad isn't important. It is a reality that is happening now, and will likely continue to happen in the future. Given these trends, the best advice to any pilot or air traffic controller is to be careful of what you say on the air.

Audio of both incidents on February 16 and 17th
The the following video, courtesy of has audio from both days. Day two starts at around the three minute mark. Clear space is edited out. The radio scanner that recorded the audio clips the audio between both tower channels as it's recorded, so not every word exists on this audio recording. This is the reason for missing audio in some sentences.

03 March 2010

Passenger arrested after exposing himself on Southwest flight

Earlier this week, a passenger on a Southwest Airlines flight was accused, in the words of an FBI agent, with "making an obscene and indecent exposure of his person, and a lewd, obscene, and indecent act" while on a Southwest Airlines aircraft. Southwest flight 228 was in route from Philadelphia, PA to Denver, CO on March 1st, when during the flight, male passenger is alleged to have exposed himself and masturbated next to a female passenger. That female passenger had no prior relationship with the accused passenger.

Federal Jurisdiction and Crimes Aboard Aircraft

For the gory details, please review the criminal complaint which provides more than enough details to paint a nauseating picture of what went on in the aircraft. Many criminal acts that occur on airliners fall under federal jurisdiction, including the alleged behavior of the Southwest passenger, and those convicted of those criminal acts would be punished accordingly. The maximum penalty in this case is 90 days in jail and a $5,000 fine. The passenger was released on bond yesterday, and has been ordered not to fly.

What to do if this happens to you
The passenger in this Southwest incident did the right thing. She contacted a flight attendant, and the cabin crew took steps to isolate the accused passenger, and made sure that the passenger was arrested after the aircraft landed. If something like this happens to you, or if you suspect that it is happening to someone else on the flight, take action and inform a flight attendant, and if necessary move to another part of the aircraft.

What happens after an event like this depends on where you are. Most countries have laws very similar to that of the US, and it is likely that the offending passenger will be arrested and charged with a crime. In other countries, the story may be completely different, and the police may not take any interest at all. If you come across a situation where a passenger was behaving inappropriately, and no action was taken, about the only thing you can do is make others aware of your situation. You can send a complaint to the airline, the government agency responsible for regulating that airline, or even to the Complaint System.

Unaccompanied children and travel risks
Children who are traveling alone are particularly vulnerable to the kind of abuse that occurred on the Southwest flight. Unaccompanied children, like all passengers, have no control over who is assigned to an adjacent seat. You should tell the child to contact a flight attendant and change seats if he or she feels threatened by someone sitting near them.

In general, the parent or other adult who is arranging travel for that child should be aware of airlines rules on unaccompanied children, or take other steps that will make your child's trip safer.

Photo credit: Matt Coleman