We Nearly Missed a Near Miss

Media recently caught wind of a harrowing story of a large Boeing aircraft having to make a massive evasive maneuver over the Pacific Ocean to avoid colliding with another passenger jet.  Five-hundred and ninety passengers nearly perished in an event that left pilots with only seconds to react as two aircraft approached each other at speeds around 1,000 miles per hour.  How did this happen?  Why was it not immediately investigated?  Quite simply, nothing significant actually happened.

Now, please don’t get me wrong — airplanes encroaching upon one another’s assigned airspace block is certainly a serious incident.  Planes can be viewed as flying bricks, essentially, measuring ten miles across and 1,000 feet in altitude.  This space is almost always available to aircraft as they reach high altitude and the Federal Aviation Administration’s air traffic controllers go to great lengths to ensure that this level of separation is maintained by aircraft in all but the beginning and final moments of a flight’s path from origin to destination.  Technology already exists to allow aircraft to communicate between each other to avoid any close calls while in flight, so this incident was truly uncalled for on many counts.

Firstly, the US Airways flight that was reportedly the opposing plane to United 1205 on April 25th was apparently flying at an incorrect altitude for its direction of travel, though it could have been a simple altitude deviation.  That being said, the closest the two airliners were to one another was five miles and 800 feet, which could easily have happened if the US Airways flight had disabled autopilot and descended just 200 feet unknowingly.  Again, this should never have happened, but the “harrowing” tale put forth by a writer was definitely embellished to increase his own notoriety for this incident and to garner further attention from federal agencies and news outlets for his own gain.  Again… it shouldn’t have happened to begin with.

Regardless of the severity of this altitude incursion, the fact remains that there are three major lessons to be learned from this incident, the first of which is the complete silence of US Airways regarding this issue.  According to the report thus far (on which the FAA has barely issued any comment), the United jet was simply carrying on eastward on its journey to Los Angeles.  Per this report, US Airways will become the main antagonist for the investigation, with regulatory and investigatory agencies focusing on the actions taken (if any) by the US Airways pilots behind the controls on the westbound flight.  A statement will likely only be issued once any significant fault is looking to be placed on the shoulders of the AMR Corporation-owned company.

Secondly, this incident highlights why the FAA is trying to rapidly move over to a system based upon ADS-B technology, instead of the basic ground-to-air RADAR that has been the backbone of the industry for many years.  In the middle of the ocean, it is quite a stretch to assume the world is covered by rotating beacons on the surface tracking each aircraft’s movement.  Case in point?  Malaysia Airlines 370.  With ADS-B, however, aircraft can track one another’s location, speed, altitude, and future flight path with a simple radio transmission that requires no active participation from either pilot.  Potentially, this information could be communicated to a collision avoidance system and aircraft could detect a potential incursion while still hundreds of miles apart, adjusting speed or requesting vectors from ATC in order to avoid passing one another within close proximity.

Finally, the automated system installed on the jets, called a Traffic Collision Avoidance System (“TCAS”) should definitely be given credit for both the “see” and “avoid” aspects of what is a fundamental rule in aviation.  TCAS has certainly provided more than one save, and many have been in closer proximity than this incident.  By providing automatic guidance to both pilots in a potential collision scenario, the technology onboard the aircraft shows its true benefit when aircraft encroach upon each others’ airspace.

What is the moral of this story?  Obviously, the Internet is great for hyperbolizing something and making it seem like a nearly tragic event instead of another day of the industry on which the world so relies.  More importantly, though, we can take lessons from this incident to continue to advance the industry and urge our lawmakers to do the same.

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