Air traffic controllers have been having an awesome couple of months. First they started falling asleep on the graveyard shift, leaving planes in the sky over Knoxville, Lubbock, Seattle, Reno, Washington, D.C. and Miami to feast on dead air as they made their approaches.
Next, a controller at Cleveland Air Transportation center was caught watching a movie on the job, with the soundtrack playing into an open mike and blocking the incoming transmissions of aircraft. The day was saved by a military pilot who overheard Samuel L. Jackson ranting on an air-traffic control frequency. (Alas, the movie in question was “The Cleaner,” not “Snakes on a Plane.”)
Now a controller has allowed First Lady Michelle Obama’s jet to come too close to a massive Air Force C-17 cargo plane, prompting military controllers at Andrews Air Force Base to step in and abort the Obama plane’s approach. The Vice President’s wife Jill was also on board. The Federal Aviation Administration says it is “investigating the incident,” and assures us “the aircraft were never in any danger,” according to a Fox News report.
The C-17 is an enormous aircraft, with a wingspan of 170 feet, big enough to carry a hundred paratroopers. It generates massive turbulence in the air behind it, and it takes a long time to land and clear the runway. FAA regulations require five miles of separation between planes at low altitude. The civilian controller reported Mrs. Obama’s plane was four miles from the C-17, but military controllers discovered it was really more like three, and aborted the passenger jet’s approach.
That seems like a fairly simple rule to obey. It’s remarkable that someone who couldn’t follow it was manning the tower when the First Lady was on her way back from filming an appearance on “The View” in New York. (There’s no fiscal crisis, folks. We still have millions of tax dollars lying around to fly the First Lady to New York City in high style, so she can appear on vapid talk shows. There’s no reason to make the gals of “The View” settle for a televised interview.)
Aviation expert John Nance told ABC News that Mrs. Obama and Mrs. Biden were lucky they were flying in a hefty 737. If they were flying in a smaller plane, “it could have been significant because those horizontal tornadoes [from the C-17’s engines] can upset a smaller airplane.” I hope those heartless Republican budget-slashers don’t start making our high government officials fly around in smaller planes, especially on grueling one-hour flights from Washington to New York.
We were told that the guys falling asleep at their stations were victims of brutal work schedules. Why hasn’t that been a big problem until now? The FAA announced it would implement some new safety regulations, including longer rests between shifts, eliminating three-day weekend shifts, and requiring at least two controllers in the tower on graveyard shifts. Why wasn’t that always the procedure?
Air traffic controllers have a union, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. Maybe their pay and benefits packages have been collectively bargained to levels that prevent airports from hiring enough of them to cover all the shifts with proper alertness and focus. I hope someone at the FAA is looking into it. Not all of us get to fly on large planes.