Wednesday, March 03, 2010

"Flight 7845 to Little Jimmy in the Tower ... Clearance for Takeoff?'

[UPDATE, March 5 -- See below, with comments and reply]

Gawd almighty, I do not know which is worse in terms of regularly making idiots of themselves -- the TSA or the FAA.

Today the FAA pulls out front, with reports that the grade-school-age son of an air traffic controller was allowed to issue five separate tower-to-cockpit verbal transmissions to pilots preparing to take off at Kennedy airport.

Here is a link to the audio.

[UPDATE: And oh, man, note in that link that a second child has now turned up playing air-traffic controller in the JFK tower.]

Hey, some fun we're havin!

The FAA calls the incident a "lapse in judgment" and has suspended the controller and a supervisor.

Some controllers are unhappy, believing that an innocuous situation has been blown out of proportion, and that the kid was not creating a safety hazard because he was merely repeating what his father told him to say. But the National Air Traffic Controllers Association said, a little weakly if you ask me: "It is not indicative of the highest professional standards that controllers set for themselves and exceed each and everyday in the advancement of aviation safety."

Why is this worth noting? Well, just consider: If this were pilots screwing around on the cockpit radio during departure it would be literally a federal case. And I know a little something personally about the profound consequences of laxity and poor supervision in air traffic control -- though thankfully not in the U.S., where our air traffic control system is the finest in the world.

One aviation buff quoted in the MSNBC story insisted, "It was a controlled situation."

Nyuk, nyuk!


UPDATE, March 5 -- To the comments below, from sensible and courteous readers who seem to be knowledgable about air-traffic control, I will say only this:

I am obviously especially sensitive to laxity in air-traffic control because I (barely) survived a mid-air collision over the Amazon in 2006 that was caused (as the National Transportation Safety Board found) by laxity, poor supervision and systemic problems in Brazilian air-traffic control. The other plane involved in that disaster crashed in the jungle, with 154 killed. Other factors may have contributed to the accident, but the central role of air-traffic control was crucial, and the laxity in training and supervision is not in dispute. Ask any pilot who flies the Amazon skies -- though by many accounts Brazilian air traffic control has improved steadily since the disaster.

American air-traffic control is the world's best. But there are problems in the towers. In 1981, Ronald Reagan fired 13,000 striking air traffic controllers, and their replacements are now at or near retirement age. Staffing in towers is at critical levels. In some towers, as many as half of the controllers on duty are trainees.

This is no time to be screwing around, letting kids play with the active tower-to-cockpit communications. Kids should not be in the towers in the first place.

It's a matter of professionalism. And as I said, if pilots were screwing around with communications during departure operations, it would be literally -- literally -- a federal case.



the said...

Other than "because The Media is making a big deal of it", can you articulate *your* reasons why this is such a big deal?

It's quite clear none of the pilots involved thought it was a big deal. I wasn't there that day, but as an airline pilot, I don't see this as being a whole lot different from a trainee controller issuing instructions while being observed by a certified controller -- they're both plugged in at the same time and if the trainee screws up, the certified controller can immediately step in and override the erroneous instruction. And *that* kind of thing happens quite often.

Anonymous said...

I for one do not think that controllers' attention should be split between supervising traffic and supervising children.

A trainee controller is different because they are authorized to be there.

I'd have thought that entry procedures to towers in the post-9/11 world would be stricter than this.

Reality Check said...

There’s no question whatsoever that the JFK Tower Controller (and his Supervisor) screwed the pooch here, and that their actions as aviation professionals are disappointing.

That said, it’s more disappointing to see how the media has largely mishandled the coverage of this event. It’s yet another object lesson in perception versus reality that has its roots in the media’s apparent pre-disposition to reporting “facts” without corresponding “context.”

The child was NOT controlling traffic. The child was NOT making any safety-related determinations as to when it was OK to takeoff, or switch from Tower to Departure frequency, or OK for a departing aircraft to turn to a certain heading---the child’s Controller father was the one making all those decisions and his son was just parroting what he was told and talking on the radio. Both Controller and child were simultaneously plugged-in on their own individual headsets, and any potential error the child might have made could (and would) have instantly been corrected by the Controller. The information I have indicates that the flight crews involved knew in advance that the child would be on the radio (as should be easily deduced by anyone listening to the conversations), and the same crews were all clearly being supportive and encouraging to the child, who may one day be inspired to pursue aviation as a career. I can’t fault the intent of the Controller, but, again, the Controller (and his Supervisor) exercised very poor judgment in letting the child use the radio. I’m NOT in any way defending their actions.

The reporting of the event has undoubtedly left most in the public with the erroneous impression that this kid was making his own safety decisions on how to control the aircraft and, my gosh, he could have driven two of them together. Gasp! How did the media come to this conclusion? Did the Boston TV station that originated the “story” have the time or inclination to do some basic fact-checking, or did they just take what they might have heard off as Gospel and run with it? The station’s own helicopter pilot(s) could have provided the proper context, or did that pesky stuff get in the way of the story? Once the story went national, the horse was out of the barn. Newspapers used to print retractions and corrections to incorrect information, but good luck trying to catch all the gazillion folks that caught the “story” via electronic media and getting them the real truth of the matter.

The media’s mishandling of the event reaffirms to me that the public doesn’t get actual news from the media, but only the media’s “opinion” of what the news is, with that “opinion” being filtered by the media’s level of expertise (or lack thereof) in a particular area, whether it’s a “slow news day”, or whether a “Sweeps” ratings period is in effect. As such, any resemblance of the “story” (as published or broadcast) to reality is purely coincidental. As a 30-year airline industry veteran (and not a Controller, BTW), I can see frequent inaccuracies in aviation reporting, but I must also reluctantly conclude that similar short-cuts and errors are made in stories concerning the areas that are outside my personal level of expertise, like politics, business, national and international events, and a host of others. Is it any wonder that, as a society, so many of us are ill-informed?

ChefNick said...

I heard the exchanges. The actual ones. Perhaps you'd think it better if a robot delivered it?

The little kid did it perfectly, the dad was supervising, the pilots involved had a break from their day BECAUSE THEY'RE PILOTS who basically just need a nod and a wink from ground control at the best of times.

Haven't you ever heard of "Bring your kid to work day?"

Someday that little kid might be Sully Sullenberger. And YOU might be on his flight.

Incensed said...

My father was an Air Traffic Controller. As a teen, I was allowed to visit for personal "tours". He was off the boards (not controlling), while he showed me the details of his job. At no time was the idea of me speaking to a pilot ever entertained. There used to be tight restrictions over who could enter the control room.

This is what being a professional means. Kids, no matter what age, should NEVER be allowed to speak to pilots in a tower, supervised or not. As anonymous said, controllers' attentions should not be split between supervising traffic and supervising children.

If you want your kid to fully experience your job, run a simulation in the training room.

This controller has shown a severe lapse in judgment at the very least. It makes me wonder what other rules and regs he bends for his own desires.