California Leads World in Near-Misses Between Aircraft

Greenberg is a Los Angeles free-lance writer

News Item: An Eastern Airlines 727 shuttle flight heading from Washington, D.C., to New York's La Guardia Airport came within 300 feet of another Eastern jet, an A-300 airbus that had just taken off from Newark.

News Item: A Western Airlines jet is forced to take immediate evasive action to avoid colliding with a single-engine plane over the Pacific.

News Item: An American Airlines jet on landing approach at Chicago dives suddenly to avoid hitting a twin-engine plane over Lake Michigan.

Official 'Near-Misses'

These incidents are officially reported as "near-misses." Ironically, a near-miss is the colloquial aviation term used to indicate exactly the opposite--a near-collision in the air between two planes.

The new year is only five days old, but by the end of today in California alone, it is more than likely that three near-collisions will have been reported to the Federal Aviation Administration. Still others will have gone unreported.

The air safety statistics are indeed disturbing. Last year was the worst year in commercial aviation, and here in California there lurks another dangerous statistic: The state leads the world in the number of reported midair near-collisions, and the number of incidents is growing at an alarming rate.

In 1984 the number of reported midair near-collisions in California through November was 126. In the same period of 1985 that number jumped to 186.

What's worse is that the FAA seems to be moving at glacier-like speed to correct the situation.

(In states such as Florida, which runs second to California in the near-miss category, the situation is just as frightening. The number of near-collisions reported in Florida in 1985 is more than double the number reported in 1984.

Recalculated Figures

Officially, the FAA claimed that there were only 292 near-misses in the United States in 1984. But after some consumer groups uncovered reports of additional incidents, the FAA admitted that its initial total was wrong. They recalculated and announced that the "real" total of reported near-misses was 592, 300 more.

"Evidently," said FAA spokeswoman Joanne Sloane, "some reports of near-midairs had been falling through the cracks."

John Galipault, president of the Aviation Safety Institute, a nonprofit industry watchdog, has a harsher interpretation of what happened. "They got caught lying to the public about what is really going on out there," he said, adding that only some of the increased numbers can be attributed to a more accurate accident-reporting system recently established by the FAA.

"We've got an incredibly serious problem up there," said Galipault. "And when it comes to statistics and the real numbers of near-misses, the FAA has been lying, and now they've been caught."

But as Galipault is quick to note, while a more comprehensive near-miss reporting system may give a more accurate reading of the safety margins being violated, it does nothing to alleviate the problem of near-misses themselves.

"ASI operates on a pretty reliable theory that for each accident in the air, there are 300 events that go unreported." he says.

L.A.'s Crowded Skies

"From what we can tell," said Galipault, "roughly one-third of all air traffic is generated in the L.A. basin. You have a preponderance of aircraft operating, and the traffic count is just phenomenal.

"Compounding the problem, and thus increasing the possibility of midair collisions, is that you also have smog and the mountains to the east and ocean to the left, leaving a narrow air corridor. You also have to take into account California's large volume of military traffic, private and corporate aircraft."

More than 60,000 corporate jets are based at airports around the United States, a figure recently brought to light in the wake of the midair collision between a corporate jet owned by Nabisco Brands and a single-engine Piper Cherokee over New Jersey last November, in which six people died.

In California there have been two major midair collisions in recent years. On Sept. 25, 1978, 146 people died when a PSA 727 collided with a Cessna over San Diego.

And in August, 1984, a Wings West Beech C-99 and a Rockwell Commander collided near San Luis Obispo. Seventeen people died. Still, considering the great numbers of aircraft in the skies daily, it is a miracle that more tragedies don't occur.

'Can Happen Again'

"The problem, though, is that San Diego can happen all over again at a number of California airports," said Ralph Baxter, 61, who retired from Western Airlines last year after 33 years as a pilot. "There's no question about it. There are more airplanes in the sky, and the air traffic control system isn't handling them."

In his career at Western, Baxter, who also served as an accident investigator for the Airline Pilots Assn., had more than his fair share of near-misses. "I would make a report and send it to the FAA," he says, "and nothing would happen."

On one DC-10 flight to Mexico City, Baxter was climbing from LAX, nearing 10,000 feet "when a single-engine plane zipped right by us. He was head-on," said Baxter. "How we missed him I'll never know. But what was frightening is that no one on the ground (the air traffic controllers) knew he was there. There was no way to tell us."

Baxter pointed to the San Luis Obispo midair collision as an example. "That tragedy proved once again," he said, "that by the time you see the other airplane, it may be too late. At the very most you've got 12 seconds." That's the time estimated by the National Transportation Safety Board as the least it takes for a pilot to look out the cockpit window, recognize the other plane as a threat, decide to take action and for the plane to respond to that action.

"There isn't a guy out there who hasn't had a close call," Baxter said. "It's unfortunate, but professional pilots have come to expect it as a way of life, and a lot of the pilots have lost faith with the air traffic control system. We feel the FAA is way behind the curve on this issue."

Still, there are those who argue that some improvements have been made.

Terminal Control Area

"Actually, Lindbergh Field (San Diego) is now much better," said one PSA pilot, "since the FAA put in a TCA." TCA stands for terminal control area, a restricted piece of airspace. No plane can fly into or out of this space without being under the direct guidance of an air traffic controller.

"It's been pretty effective," said the PSA pilot, "in scaring away all those Sunday fliers. They can't simply fly up there on visual flight rules; they have to wait their turn like everyone else. Still, I don't want to give you the wrong impression. The TCA gives us no guarantees. Every time we land in San Diego, when we're supposed to maintain a sterilized cockpit and concentrate on our instruments and flying the aircraft, one of us is looking down out the window on descent. We do it a lot at Burbank, too."

"The situation out here is nutty," said one controller at Burbank/Pasadena/Glendale Airport, who asked not to be identified. "The homeowner groups in the area all complain about jet noise," he said, "and that's certainly a problem, but if I were them I'd be more concerned with the real possibility of a crashed airplane in their yards."

Transponder Not Required

The reason, he says, is that private planes are not required by the FAA to carry an altitude encoding transponder in their cockpits. The transponder is an instrument that identifies an airplane by altitude and direction to air traffic controllers; it enables the controllers to maintain safe levels of direction, speed and altitude separation between aircraft.

"On any given day," the controller said, "nearly 1,000 aircraft cross over this area. We're in radio contact with maybe 20% of them--the others are simply unidentified. Now if that doesn't scare you, I don't know what will. I know it scares me ," he said, "because the odds for a midair are extremely high--and getting higher."

In fact, some pilots on approaches to Burbank over the Newhall area have reported near-collisions with hang gliders flying as high as 5,000 feet. Other pilots have reported close calls with ultralight aircraft at similar altitudes, also over Newhall.

Burbank has no monopoly on the high midair incident potential. Other commercial aviation airports considered high risk are Orange County (John Wayne), Long Beach and San Francisco International.

Some officials--and pilots--put some of the blame for the near-collision problem on air traffic controllers. But the controllers in turn blame a system over which they say they have no control.

Ingredients for Disaster

"The amount of high-speed random air traffic has dramatically increased," said one controller at Palmdale (the center that controls traffic in and out of LAX). "The ingredients for disaster are everywhere.

"What's particularly disturbing is that it's been nearly five years since the air traffic controllers went on strike and were fired by Reagan, and there are fewer qualified controllers working now than before the strike, but air traffic has increased."

Some researchers are trying to perfect a workable three-dimensional radar system that will enable controllers to know exactly who is in what airspace, regardless of transponders. This system is considered to be cost-prohibitive.

Others are hard at work on developing a reliable collision avoidance system (CAS) for installation in the cockpits of airliners. "But the problem," said Baxter, "is the system won't work unless every airplane is equipped with it, and the small-plane pilot lobby has fought this idea because no one wants to spend the money for it. These are the same people who don't want to buy a transponder for their little Piper."

It is a less-than-optimistic picture. "But unless--and until--a workable system is developed and made mandatory for all planes," said Galipault, "we stand an excellent chance of being a lot less lucky with the laws of chance."

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