The air traffic control profession just can't get a break and this was supposed to be such a happy time for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. Every Spring, the union holds its annual awards ceremony a splashy event- - this year in Las Vegas -- in which controllers and pilots are honored for spectacular, sometimes lifesaving acts over the past twelve months that may or may not have made news but certainly have made them heroes among their peers.
But this calamitous spring, as the ceremony was about to get underway, it was marred by the headline-making news that a supervisor at the Reagan National Airport tower had fallen asleep on the overnight shift, leaving two airliners to land using see and be seen techniques. You can read more about that here.
Well the NATCA convention-goers probably haven't unpacked their suitcases but already they're hearing about a new investigation.
This evening, the Federal Aviation Administration announced it is looking into the decision of a supervising controller at the TRACON center in Jacksonville, Florida to send a Southwest Airlines plane to fly up close to a private plane to see if the Southwest pilots could determine why a private plane had been out of radio communication for more than an hour.
Calling the decision to send the passenger carrying Boeing 737 on a discovery mission, FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt said, "the air traffic controller compromised the safety of everyone involved."
Southwest Flight 821 was flying at twelve thousand feet en route from Phoenix to Orlando on Sunday night and was 10 miles behind and one thousand feet above a single engine Cirrus SR22. The Southwest pilots agreed to the controller's request to eyeball the cockpit of the smaller plane. Approaching it the Southwest pilots radioed back that they could see two pilots in the small plane.
Florida controllers may be understandably nervous about small airplanes that go nordo. This is eerily similar to the situation on the LearJet carrying golfer Payne Stewart in 1999. In that case, the pilots and passengers were incapacitated by hypoxia shortly after the flight departed Orlando and the plane flew on auto pilot until it ran out of fuel in South Dakota and crashed into a field.
Nevertheless, sending a passenger plane to play fighter jet is wrong in all sorts of ways. The post-9-11 world has lengthy lists of procedures for how to respond to airplanes that go mysteriously silent, none of which include having passenger planes fly in close for a quick peek.
The commercial flight and the Cirrus apparently landed without incident. Meanwhile the FAA says the controller has been suspended. At the risk of sounding redundant, you can be sure that everyone in the TRACON center, the folks in the Cirrus and the pilots of Flight 821 will all have a lot of 'splaining to do.
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