• Published
  • By Lt. Joshua M. Fulcher
  • Torch Magazine
While those will undoubtedly ruin your day if they get out of hand, I've found something equally as dangerous that can get you in trouble way quicker than any of the aforementioned aircraft systems: poor communication with air traffic control.

First, I must say that our best friends in the sky are air traffic controllers.

Because of radar coverage alone they have big picture situational awareness that no aircrew could ever hope to have. Add to this the facts that they are managing all filed flight plans and in direct radio communications with the vast majority of aircraft -- especially those operating anywhere near an airport -- and you have aviation's most valuable resource.

Like any other aspect of aviation, however, even the best systems are limited by a very important item: the human factor.

Rewind four years and three time zones. A good friend of mine was flying the mighty Herc to a lovely place in Alaska called "Cold Bay." (They don't call it "cold" bay for nothin'!) On this particular day, he and his band of merry men were on a logistics mission to run some supplies and a fresh crew out to a helicopter that had laid over a night on its return from a search and rescue mission out in the Aleutian Islands.

The weather was marginal but doable that day; so the crew headed into the clouds to deliver said supplies and personnel.

They arrived to find the weather not as bad as they expected, but still right at minimums. Now, Cold Bay is an old World War II-era stopover point for aircraft crossing the Pacific and boasts a great approach lighting system and a 10,000-foot runway -- supposedly it's an alternate for the space shuttle.

The crew approached from the south. They reached minimums, didn't see the runway and
executed the missed approach. No big deal ...
the missed is a simple straight ahead climb to 4,000 feet and proceed out about 3 miles north of the field. They caught a glimpse of the runway lights as they went missed, and the weather was, according to the forecast, supposed to be improving rapidly. So they contacted air traffic control and requested another approach.

Simple right?

Air traffic control cleared them to land and told them to maintain 4,000 feet for the initial part of the approach.

"Roger that," the crew responded. The approach was in the clouds and pretty bumpy. The winds were gusting 20 to 30 knots from the northeast, which caused a significant amount of turbulence off the proximal mountainous terrain.

Despite the bumps, everything was going great -- just another routine instrument flight rules approach, until ...

About 4 miles south of the initial approach fix and perfectly in position (so they thought), the most terrifying thing an aircrew can hear while flying in mountainous terrain screamed through their headsets: "WHOOP, WHOOP, PULL UP!"

In utter disbelief of what the ground proximity warning system was telling them, the crew did as training directed and pulled back on the yoke, applied full power and began an
emergency climb. The co-pilot and navigator both glanced at their approach plates and, to their horror, saw that they were nearly 3,000 feet lower than the approach plate called for and 2,200 feet below minimum safe altitude for that sector of the
approach! (Of note: About 5 miles south of the initial approach fix and about a half mile right of the arcing course lies a 3,920-foot peak. Recall the clearance issued by ATC, "... maintain 4,000 feet....")

Fast forward three years (and three time zones) to Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark., where I had been assigned as the Coast Guard liaison officer to the Air Force. It was a great assignment that allowed me to, among other things, instruct at the Air Force C-130 Flight Training Unit, a.k.a., "the schoolhouse."

On this day, my crew and I were executing a completely different kind of mission in a completely different environment -- formation visual low-level combat airdrop training. The scenario was to launch a two-ship flight of C-130s, fly a visual low-level route to "Blackjack" drop zone, kick out a heavy equipment load, and "escape" back to the airbase for some pattern/assault work. The lead crew consisted of the following: yours truly at the controls in the left seat, a flight evaluator standing behind me giving me my final "flight instructor training" evaluation flight prior to designation as full up schoolhouse instructor, a student pilot with about four hours of C-130 time in the right seat, an instructor flight engineer standing up with his student in the engineer seat, and an instructor navigator standing up with his student in the nav seat.

Basically, there was not a fully "qualified" aircrew member directly at the controls of the lead aircraft. (At the time I had just less than 4,000 hours of C-130 flight time and was a flight examiner in the Coast Guard, but still required this final evaluation to be a fully qualified Air Force flight training unit instructor pilot.)

The number two aircraft had basically the same compliment, except it was commanded by a very experienced instructor pilot, Maj. David Smith.

No big deal, however; this is what we do at the schoolhouse, and this mission had the distinct advantage of having great weather and a pack of very sharp students.

The formation took off at the planned time, flew our route, executed a perfect "point of impact" airdrop, and escaped from the simulated combat zone without incident.

We contacted air traffic control off the drop zone. Positively radar identified, we proceeded on the very familiar recovery route that takes crews from the drop zone to the airbase every day. About five minutes later we identified the final turn point, pointed the nose westward toward home, and began the climb to 1,800 feet for the overhead back at the airbase.

Everything was going great, and the students were looking at great write ups for an outstanding job on this mission when ...

The traffic collision avoidance system, known as TCAS, showed an aircraft directly in front of us, but didn't display an altitude. Almost immediately after we saw it on the instrument, air traffic control made the following radio call, "Jody one zero flight, traffic, one o'clock, altitude unknown."

"Traffic not in sight, searching," the trusty student co-pilot responded.

Suddenly, "TRAFFIC, TRAFFIC!" blared in my headset. Before I could utter a word, air traffic control boomed over the radio, "Jody one zero turn right 45 degrees IMMEDIATELY!"

The monkey at the controls that day did exactly what he was told, and I rolled into a hard right turn and somehow managed to blurt over the interplane frequency, "Jody one zero CHECK RIGHT, NOW!"

"Anybody see him?" I yelled.

Before anyone could answer, a calm but stern voice sounded in my headset, "Lead two, roll out, NOW!" Another banana....

I leveled the wings to see a white and red Mooney Acclaim Type S cross left to right just off the nose of my aircraft. I remember distinctly that the airplane was white with a red belly, and the pilot was wearing a blue polo shirt, Dave Clark headset and pair of those cool Ray Bans I've been meaning to pick up. .... All kidding aside, we were really close!

Air traffic control wasn't talking to the Mooney, and he never deviated from his course. So I wonder if that guy has any idea how close he came to dying that day. Had I remained in that turn, there is a very good chance we would have hit.

All I have to say is, "Thank you, Dave, I owe you big!"

Wait a minute, rewind the black box 15 seconds. ... Didn't ATC say the traffic was at "one o'clock?" If the traffic was ahead and to the right, why the heck would he tell me to turn right? The world will never know. My theory is that the controller got a bit nervous because of the impending collision -- he likely had some sort of collision alarm going off at his station -- and said the wrong thing. No matter what I believe he meant to say, there was nearly a midair collision between two aircraft during broad daylight!

We shook off the near miss, said a few choice words (rated "M" for mature!) to each other about the you-know-what in the Mooney and motored in for the overhead recovery. The remainder of the flight was uneventful, and we made a full stop back home to debrief then retire to the squadron bar for a much needed adult beverage. I was proud of the crew, especially the students on board, for their ability to quickly get past what just happened and focus on the more important task of getting the plane safely on deck. Once inside, we debriefed and filed a hazardous air traffic report to the Air Force Safety Center.

In both cases above, the pilot at the controls, backed up by the crew, did exactly what air traffic control told them to do and nearly died because of it. Now, keep in mind that air traffic controllers are highly intelligent, highly trained, highly motivated and highly regulated. They are bound by a set of regulations that make Air Force Instructions read like a cheap novel. One has to also consider the daunting task that most controllers face on a daily basis in regards to traffic they handle.

In the Alaska example, the controller was an "Anchorage Center" controller and was physically sitting about 550 miles from where the incident happened. In fact, because of the mountainous terrain around Cold Bay, the plane was likely not even on the controller's radar screen. The missed approach holding altitude was 4,000 feet, and the southern half of the arc was 4,600 feet. The controller could have very likely issued the clearance with the assumption that the crew would maintain 4,000 feet until commencing the approach, vice maintaining that assigned altitude for the entire approach. Seemingly clear instructions led to confusion and near disaster.

The event at Little Rock happened in one of the most intensive military training areas in the nation. On any given weekday, Little Rock AFB launches and recovers somewhere around 40 C-130s. Add to this, Little Rock National Airport 20 miles to the south, an Army National Guard airfield 5 miles west, and two busy civil aviation fields within 20 miles of the field, and you have a swarm of airplanes at any given time under control of Little Rock approach. Also consider the weather the day of the incident: clear and a million. While we would normally think of clear skies being a positive thing, we also must consider that when the weather is good, people fly, and they fly visual flight rules. More people in the air, more likelihood of traffic conflicts. So, it's hard to estimate the number of contacts on the controller's screen that day, but it would be reasonable to guess he had 20 or more aircraft under his direct control.

As stated earlier, the one factor that can never be taken away from aviation -- whether it be operators, controllers or ground handlers -- is the human factor. Controllers, just like pilots, are human, and just like pilots, they make mistakes. No amount of training or regulations can totally prevent this. Did the controllers make mistakes in both cases listed? Yes. Did the aircrew also make mistakes in the scenarios? Most certainly yes. More important than the mistakes, however, are the lessons learned (see "Lessons Learned" at right). We must take incidents like these, analyze what happened and learn from them. And, most importantly, take what you learn, and pass it on!