Editor’s Log: 10/06



The late August crash of Comair Flight 5191, a Bombardier regional jet, appears to be an event typifying the old maxim that an accident results from a chain of events. Break any link in the chain and the accident never happens. If, as early reports indicate, the jets crew did attempt to take off from the wrong runway at Lexington, Ky. (LEX), for a rainy, pre-dawn departure, the act of advancing the throttles probably will be identified as the last in a series of events resulting in the accident.

Flight 5191s demise is an opportunity for all pilots to review our role in breaking this chain. Unfortunately, its also shaping up to be an opportunity for those wishing to score points on behalf of their own political agendas.

Leading the charge was none other than FAA Administrator Marion Blakey, who in early September used 5191 as an opportunity to push ADS-B, the agencys latest and greatest automation scheme, saying it tells pilots which runway theyre on and that might have alerted the crew in time to avert the disaster. But it didnt stop there.

The controllers union, NATCA, used 5191 to escalate its war with the agency over ATC staffing issues. Ruth Marlin, the unions executive vice president, told The Eagle Tribune, “The FAA is short-staffed at OHare, Atlanta and Dallas towers. If you dont have enough people, you either cant provide the service or cant maintain the safety margin.” Its just a coincidence, of course, that NATCA is engaged with the FAA in contract negotiations and has long been hoping to sway public opinion to its side.

And never an institution to leave unused an opportunity for demagoguery, Congress even got into the act. Pointing to revelations that only one controller was on duty in the LEX tower that morning, contrary to FAA policy, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) is demanding that all towers in his state must be fully staffed around the clock. He went on to say only two of 12 towers in New York meet that criterion. Never mind, of course, that the vast majority of the states airports are non-towered.

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-MN) and others demanded an investigation by the Transportation Departments inspector general. “In aviation, theres no curb to pull over and look under the hood,” Oberstar not-so-helpfully added to the discourse.

All of which would be useful if any facts said providing new and more modern equipment, increasing the number of controllers or-just pull my ticket now-adding to ATCs responsibilities could have prevented this accident. Instead, these reactions and proposed solutions only serve to obscure a simple, inconvenient fact: Aviation is risky. As long as humans are involved in the design and use of flying machines, accidents will happen. Its up to those of us who arrive first at the accident scene to prevent them.

-Jeb Burnside


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