The captain, the first officer, and the Department of Homeland Security

Recently, two events captured the news media’s attention. One was a Delta Airlines Boeing 767 that landed on the taxiway instead of the runway at the Hartsfield Jackson International Airport. The other was a Northwest Airlines Airbus A320 whose crew failed to communicate with air traffic control or the company dispatch for more than an hour and a half, and missed its destination by 150 miles until the flight attendant knocked on the cockpit door to ask why there was no descent for landing.

The first incident occurred when the Delta crew flew a lengthy international trip. When the Boeing 767 arrived at the airport, the runway end identifier lights were out of service (they’re the little white flashing lights that tell pilots where the runway starts) and the localizer was also shut down (the electronic pathway that guides pilots to the runway end). So, with an air traffic controller obviously asleep at the switch, the big B-767 landed on the taxiway right next to the runway. Under different circumstances, like another airplane on the taxiway, this could have been a disaster. You might ask how that could happen, but here are all the things that add up to this event.

With all of the runways at the Hartsfield, giving landing clearance to an airliner on a runway with much of its safety equipment inoperative is inexcusable. The crew should have refused the landing clearance. But the FAA has for years contributed to the problem by using confusing lighting at the airport. I have argued with the guy in charge of airport signage for 30 years but since the idea wasn’t invented in his head, nothing gets changed for the better. The runway lights are orange, both sides and the centerline. The taxiway lights are green down the centerline and blue on each side. Since the centerline of some taxiway’s are green, and some are yellow like the runway and yes some are green and yellow at the end where the runway intersects, it’s no wonder that a pilot looking at them from afar can mistake a taxiway, especially a large one, for a runway. So the flight deck crew, tired after a long flight, looks at the myriad of lights and thinks the taxiway is to the left instead of the right because there is nothing to identify it clearly and lands on the taxiway. Nothing really unsafe here as long as the taxiway is unoccupied because the taxiways at the Hartsfield are as wide as runways at other airports. If the taxiway had totally blue lights it would have been unmistakable but, no, the FAA has a better idea, keep it confusing so one disaster or near disaster after another can happen. The controller too must have been glassy eyed because he didn’t warn the Delta flight and at that hour he had nothing else to do.

All accidents and incidents have more than one cause. In this case it was the combination of no warning, no runway identifier lights, no localizer, confusing taxiway lighting, tired crew.

The Northwest flight is another near disaster. The flight departed San Diego, CA for Minneapolis. Shortly after passing Denver, air traffic controllers were unable to raise the flight by radio. Company dispatch likewise couldn’t get the flight deck crew’s attention. The aircraft flew 600 miles, passed Minneapolis and then only after a flight attendant pounded on the cockpit door, the crew turned the airplane around and landed. The cockpit voice recorder was recorded over so the cockpit conversation that preceded the turnaround was unavailable. The flight deck crew first reported they were having a heated discussion and just lost situational awareness. Then they said they were working on their laptops, a prohibited flight deck activity. The FAA’s punishment was swift and not unexpected, emergency revocation of the flight deck crew’s pilots’ licenses, a vocational death knell to this very experienced and otherwise incident free crew. It is painful to see this unfold because the crew was obviously sleeping. Had they come clean right away and blamed it on scheduling, or interruption in their circadian rhythm from sleep deprivation, perhaps a little mercy would have been shown them at least on appeal.

But never touched by the press was the fact that the Department of Homeland Security was more sound asleep than the crew. That aircraft was airborne far longer than any flight on 9/11 yet no fighters were scrambled to check on it, no steps were taken to protect cities, sensitive military or civilian installations from an aircraft that, for all the Department knew, was hijacked. Falling asleep and endangering the passengers by possibly running out of fuel is one thing but risking them being shot down is quite another. In short, everyone on that aircraft could have been dead either from a crash or a worst nightmare, being shot down for no good reason.

What we need to ask ourselves is how did the Department of Homeland Security fail us again? It demonstrates to me that we have learned nothing from 9/11 and worse, after hundreds of billions spent, we are no better off eight years later.

Now Congress, if it can interrupt its current investigation of the two concussions suffered annually in NFL play, should instead focus on why Homeland Security failed us and whether a Bugs Bunny alarm clock is needed in aircraft cockpits. More realistic however, should be the introduction of real time video of the cockpit crew steaming back to the dispatcher. This would obviate the need for a cockpit voice recorder and be a useful tool to address a growing problem of cockpit fatigue due to the boredom of automated aircraft. It would also vastly simplify accident investigation.

This week was prophetic and lucky. The fatigue suffered from having nothing to do is risky, the absence of hundreds of deaths because of it is really lucky, and the incompetence of the Department of Homeland Security may sadly portend bad things to come.

– Arthur Alan Wolk