The gleaming new terminals at San Diego's Lindbergh Field, seemingly the ultimate in 21st-century transportation technology, bely a troubled air-traffic control system prone to outages and human error that are, in the words of one anonymous pilot, "an accident waiting to happen."
So say incident reports posted online by NASA's Aviation Safety Reporting System over the past two years that tell chilling tales of incoming planes stacked up too closely, dangerous wake turbulence, and ghostly radar images.
In October of last year, the pilot of a 737 coming in for a landing complained that air-traffic controllers in San Diego "were pushing hard on both our arrival flight and our departure flight."
We were already close to the preceding aircraft such that we had to fly high on the glide path to avoid wake turbulence, and they cleared an aircraft on the runway before our arrival that just barely got airborne before we landed.
On departure we were cleared for departure just after a B737 and just in front of a landing aircraft.
We were much heavier and required more ground roll than the preceding aircraft and we ended up hitting their wake turbulence on departure.
I realize that traffic is tight in SAN; however both of these incidents were too close for me. It would be better to build in a little more buffer between flights and not push so hard on all of us. This practice is an accident waiting to happen.
Another pilot blamed himself for an April 2012 incident in which the 737 he was piloting on approach to the airport got too low to the ground.
With it being daylight and the terrain and obstacles insight, I was lulled into focusing on the area of low visibility.
This was apparent when the First Officer correctly called "airspeed" when I allowed the airspeed to drop more than five knots below target. I corrected, but was still focused on the area of low visibility.
Then we received the alert "Terrain Too Low." That got my attention and I corrected immediately.
The first thing I did wrong was forgetting my first priority to fly the aircraft. The second thing I did wrong was [that I was] too lulled into a sense of security by having the terrain in sight.
The third thing I did wrong was to focus on the area of low visibility which caused me to lose focus on the first two priorities. I allowed myself to be distracted. Ironically this area of focus, the low visibility never became a factor, yet it brought other more serious factors into play.
Fly the airplane!
Safety issues haven't been limited to Lindbergh alone, as evidenced by a report from an employee at the Southern California Terminal Radar Approach Control facility on Kearny Villa Road. According to the website of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, it is "the busiest air traffic facility in the world."
This past June, an air-traffic controller reported a problem that arose at Los Angeles International: multiple false radar targets approaching a 737 on final approach for landing on the airport's runway, 25L. An enhanced tracking system called FUSION apparently was the problem, the report says.
I asked for the Supervisor to come over and look while the same issue started to occur with a company B737, the next arrival to 25L about 7 miles in trail.
The Supervisor had me immediately switch to single sensor mode as the Operations Controller had told him that one of the San Diego RADAR's had failed. Going to single sensor eliminated all of the false targets.
FUSION, for all of its good qualities, has some glaring problems, among them the propensity to reflect targets or generate false targets. I have been through this situation of converging targets and pilots that are issued traffic alerts on false targets due to FUSION, and it has to stop.
We, as controllers are losing the trust of the pilots when we issue stuff, in a somewhat harried way that is false information. If I cannot trust the RADAR display, I think reverting to a system that actually works would be a better and safer call.
Maybe SCT has too many RADAR sensor inputs to make FUSION truly workable. Whatever the answer is, it has to stop, it is not safe.
A report issued in February of this year by the auditor general of the U.S. Transportation Department noted "losses of standard separation — when aircraft do not maintain the minimum distance apart — remain a significant safety concern."
In January 2011, an operational error — a loss of standard separation caused by air traffic controllers — led to a near mid-air collision between a commercial airliner and two military aircraft near New York City.
But the audit found that increases in so-called separation incidents at the San Diego air-traffic control center were largely due to changes in reporting.
FAA reclassified 147 aircraft landings guided by the Southern California TRACON as operational errors.
Originally, the landings were not classified as errors because the TRACON was operating under a waiver that allowed aircraft landing simultaneously to be closer than normally allowed.
In 2010, the Air Traffic Safety Oversight Service revoked the waiver, citing safety concerns, and subsequently reclassified aircraft landings that occurred under the waiver. This accounted for 23 percent of the increase.