Airliners As Interceptors: Bad Idea

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Despite a diligent search, I am unable to find a video record of the look on Randy Babbitt's face when he learned that one of his controllers thought it a good idea to request a little impromptu formation flying between a Southwest 737 and Cirrus gone quiet near Jacksonville this week. But I imagine he said something to the effect…"they did what?"

Here's the story from our news columns. It broke just as Babbitt was tamping down the not-so-tiny tempest of the DCA tower gone quiet with a dozing controller plugged into ground and local. If these things tend to happen in threes, Babbitt has to be wondering what's next.

So what's your judgment call on this? To me, it was just a dumb stunt. Although the real risk of a mid-air seems relatively small, it's just indefensible with the flying public and, I suspect, with a lot of pilots who understand the risk of planned formation flight, much less one conducted on the fly with only one participant knowing about it. I'll concede that "formation" is too strong a word here, because news reports said the closest point of approach was 1.2 miles. Well, wait a minute. From 1.2 miles, could you see if (a) an airplane was occupied or (b) the occupants appeared to be awake and alert? I doubt it. When military pilots close up for a good look, they're within dozens of feet of the cockpit.

But here's the thing: What exactly was the value of knowing if the Cirrus pilot was awake or not? What is ATC going to do with that information to affect the outcome of a lost comm event? And is it worth committing a planeload of paying passengers to find out? Not in my book, thanks. The cost benefit ratio is all wrong. As far as I'm concerned, that Cirrus is expendable.

And if I'm sitting in seat 26B, do I get vote on this risk ratchet-up? For all I know, the guy in the left seat of the 737 is a retired Air Guard intercept instructor. Or maybe he's just a pudgy product of some sunshine state pilot mill who always wanted to take a crack at intercept work and has just been given the stage to try. Of such stuff heroes are made. And also smoking craters. Recall how just such an unchecked rescue syndrome killed seven people in 1991—including two kids in a schoolyard—when a helpful helicopter pilot offered to check a gear malfunction on Senator John Heinz's Aerostar. Even the professionals screw it up. During the 1970s, an Air Guard F-4 skewered a Twin Cessna off the Carolina coast, killing all of the occupants. The crew was performing a radar intercept (in weather) to close up for a visual ID, something they were not supposed to do.

And this airliner-as-interceptor idea has happened before. In a little known event, a Gulfstream G-II went dark over an undercast south of Washington, D.C. in November, 1992, having suffered total electrical failure. Lacking any other ideas, approach controllers decided to vector a USAir 737 to lead the G-II to safety. And like Frederick Forsyth's The Shepherd, it was just as improbable. I have the radio and interphone tapes around my office somewhere, but I seem to recall at some point, someone said…wait a minute, we're vectoring an airplane full of passengers toward another airplane that may have no lights over an undercast at night? The effort was appropriately terminated. (By the way, G-II was owned and presumably flown by actor John Travolta and it landed lights out at DCA and came to rest with all of its tires blown. The DCA tower ops were definitely awake for that one.)

After reviewing that incident, the NSTB basically said: Don't do that. It's not worth it. I'd apply the same advice here. I wouldn't suspend the Southwest skipper or the controller, but I'd have them do the rug dance and repeat this: That was a bad idea, I won't do that again.

Travolta incident: Saturday afternoon: a kind reader familiar with the Travolta incident sent me a link with a detailed press report. It's accurate with my understanding of the incident and worth reading. Here's the link.

These incidents are the same only inasmuch as they represent lost comm. The conditions couldn't have been any different--night above an undercast vs. day VFR. On the other hand, the concept is the same and raises the fair question: Do you really want to do this?

Comments (48)

I've been fretting for a long time over the apparent atrophy of human beings' Bad Idea Detectors. I have to attribute it to a combination of the proliferation of infinitely detailed policies and procedures, the steady parade of media "experts," plus some technology induced stupidity. Sadly, it affects some of my favorite people, aviation professionals, along with the general public. Paul, you give me hope. Thanks for the reasoned comments.

Posted by: Glenn Killinger | March 31, 2011 8:34 AM    Report this comment

The finger pointing has started in earnest. But many questions are yet unasked: 1 Was TRACON actively calling them? Or did they look up and notice an absence? 2 Was the Cirrus off course or a danger? 3 Was the Cirrus already talking to JAX Ctr, thus not on freq? 4 What did the Cirrus pilot say to JAX when they called 30 seconds after intercept. (I imagine something like: "There's a &*@! airliner out my window!") I agree, not a smart move...but not enough info yet.

Posted by: Stephen Cote | March 31, 2011 12:00 PM    Report this comment

Ahem, just how does a 737 and a cirrus "fly in formation?"

However beyond that, in a post 9/11 world, we must continue to be vigilant, was this a test of this country's alert level? If so, I believe we failed it. Both the controller and the FAA.

Posted by: Mike Hand | April 1, 2011 6:36 AM    Report this comment

Unless the airliner pilots had binoculars to aid them, I doubt that they could see much from more than a mile away. But if that was the distance between the aircraft, then I also doubt that anyone was placed in danger--in this case.

Fundamentally, it's not a good idea to vector one aircraft to the location of another to check on it--there have been mid-airs as a consequence of such "helpfulness". Consequently, any such efforts must be done with extreme care.

As for this incident, I don't think I would agree with any significant sanctions on either the pilots or the controller, but a strongly worded "don't do that ever again" statement in their personnel records would be appropriate.

Cary

Posted by: Cary Alburn | April 1, 2011 9:12 AM    Report this comment

You chase all the experienced controllers away with stupid burecratic rules, and let the new guys run the show. Somehow the new guys never learn the lessons of old, and have to repeat the dumb mistakes. I am speaking in general terms and am assuming it wasn't a well seasoned controller attempting this. Must we relearn the lessons from the past?

Posted by: Juan Valdez | April 1, 2011 10:04 AM    Report this comment

We don't know all of the details yet. It probably did not need to be done but look, visual separation is used every day for aircraft and that includes airliners. So there is no reason to get so excited about this and have the non-aviator press think things are dangerous.

Posted by: Don Stephens | April 1, 2011 10:06 AM    Report this comment

With all of the training we get on NORDO procedures and the hits we take if we don't follow them, one would think the FAA would follow them, too.

That said, more than once I have been switched to a freqency only to get "Huh? Who are you?" When I switch back I usually get "sorry" and they give me a different frequency.

If they were really worried about what was going on, they should have scrambled the F-15s. They do it all the time around D.C. But we probably don't want to start that discussion again.

Posted by: Byron Work | April 1, 2011 10:13 AM    Report this comment

Another non-event. Bad judgement. Got it--get on with life. People will always make mistakes. We need to encourage people to come up with creative solutions. We can't and shouldn't have a rule for everything. This naturally leads to some bad decisions. That is why we have supervisors and that is one job that supervisors need to do well. We call the controller into the office. Be sure he understands that he made a bad decision, slap him on the hand and let him go about his business. Same for the pilots -- "bad pilots, don't do that again, now go back to work."

Posted by: Kingsley Hill | April 1, 2011 10:17 AM    Report this comment

No dent-no deal. Don't do it again. Had only that ATC supervisor said The Magic Words, "maintain visual separation" there would be little to debate, say FAA's lawyers...

Posted by: Dave Swanson | April 1, 2011 10:39 AM    Report this comment

As a retired controller from the area in which this incident took place, I am compelled to write something. You are only hearing one side of the story. The news media is notorious in reporting conjecture rather than facts in the interest of getting the story out first. I prefer to wait to see what really happened before I form an opinion. For those who have never done anything wrong in their life, feel free to comment away.

Posted by: Rick Crose | April 1, 2011 10:49 AM    Report this comment

The 737 was piloted by accomplished pilots with ATP ratings. I have the utmost confidence in them that they would not put their aircraft or passengers in any danger. I think it was a logical intercept since both aircraft were in the same area and almost at the same altitute. The pilots should not be suspended since it was the controller who asked them to do the intercept. For those of you who say the Cirrus was expendable, you can say that because you were not on board. It is no more logical to have an F15 intercept a Cirrus than a 737 as both are out of the Cirrus league. So far details of the intercept have not been released and it is too early to be so judgemental about what should not have been done.

Posted by: Michael Nielsen | April 1, 2011 11:11 AM    Report this comment

If the separation distance of 1.2 miles is true, I don't see what the big deal the media is making of this incident. I've been about that close on IFR flights before when the controller calls out traffic, I acknowledge I have it in sight, and I'm told to "maintain visual separation". The only reason this was a bad idea is because the controller and pilots were specifically directing the aircraft within close proximity. As pilots, we are taught to think of the phrase "What would the NTSB report read like" when considering a potentially bad decision. Maybe we pilots and controllers should also think of the phrase "What would the news headline for this sound like".

Posted by: Gary Baluha | April 1, 2011 11:31 AM    Report this comment

If an IFR 737 in visual conditions at 12,000 feet peeking at an IFR Cirrus in visual conditions at 11,000 feet from a distance of more than a mile places both aircraft in danger then the FAA had best completely reconsider RVSM and radar and go back to time/distance/course/shrimp-boats/grease-pencils and uncontrolled fields (which ironically would get rid of the sleeping controller problem.) I trust SWA pilots a lot more than I do Air Traffic Controllers to preserve my life....every time I fly regardless if I'm on a SWA airplane or not! Doh! THANKS SWA for your helpful SPIRIT. (If I were Chief Pilot at SWA I'd call those guys in, Tell them their suspended ...until we can finish the beer I'm going to buy them....and ask them not to do it again, and it'd be OVER!

Posted by: George Horn | April 1, 2011 12:21 PM    Report this comment

First of all, although I've worked in and around aircraft since the early 1970s, let me say I'm SLF, not a pilot.

I agree with Mr. Baluha's comments.

Isn't the separation on approaches on parallel runways less than 1.2nm? And that's even for night IFR. Asking a flight crew to do a day VFR barely-an-intercept, i.e. giving them a chance to say no, is hardly a bad thing in my book. In fact, it may even have been a good thing.

Posted by: J. S. Janisch | April 1, 2011 3:06 PM    Report this comment

Sorry folks. If you have passengers on your plane, they are your sole responsibility. You fly A to B. Let somebody with no passengers on board do the chasing. The controller was dumb to ask, the pilots were irresponsible to comply.

Posted by: John Williams | April 1, 2011 7:15 PM    Report this comment

I'm not saying it was a good plan, but just for balance and humor's sake I wonder how the press would cover the story if the pilots had refused?

"Today an XYZ Airlines aircrew refused to come to the aid of a small general aviation aircraft that had lost communications. An attentive flight controller noticed that the aircraft had stopped communicating and in fear for the pilot and passengers asked the nearby airliner to check on the craft. The pilots citing safety concerns for their passengers did not comply with the controllers kind request. It is unknown if the small aircraft was able to safely land, but it is just another example of corporations being out of touch with the people of this country."

Posted by: Kenneth Martin | April 1, 2011 9:19 PM    Report this comment

What a bunch of hypnotized ninnies. The best comment I've heard is that, if anything, it was unnecessary. That it was nothing that couldn't wait for an airforce jet to arrive. But two aircraft in day vfr conditions and under radar surveillance? Cummon, you get closer when landing on parallel runways. Those examples quoted have no relevance here. And its like people here have forgotten the "Help first and ask questions later" maxim that is supposed to be the moral and legal imperative. "Ooooh this is outside the box, there must be something wrong and I might get sued." Passenger aircraft regularly are asked to divert to check out elt transmissions etc. Sorry I am beyond amused and closer to irritated by this. Unnecessary maybe but risky? Not at all.

Posted by: john hogan | April 2, 2011 12:24 AM    Report this comment

@Mike Hand - A SR22 and B737 can fly "in formation," it just doesn't last very long.

As for all the comments about this being a dumb idea, it certainly was. I do not recall the year, but a situation slightly similar to this took the lives of several people including a US Senator.

During approach to (I believe) Harrisburg, PA International Airport, an Aerostar carrying Senator John Heinz had landing gear problems. While working to resolve the issue, a well intended helicopter crew volunteered to take a look at the underside of the Aerostar. The NTSB cited the inexperience of both pilots in formation flying and rested total blame on pilot error. At the time, the FAA gave mandatory briefings to ATC personnel - don't initiate formation-type flight.

Current employment keeps me from expounding more on my opinions. Simply put, those that fail to learn about history and past mistakes are condemed to repeat them...I'm sure; however, history is being replaced with the mastery of other information.

Posted by: Gregg Hendry | April 2, 2011 5:59 AM    Report this comment

Stipulating that the risk involved here was trivial and further stipulating that the 737 crew was stepping up and being helpful, I still don't get what "help" they were going to render.

Pass a note to the Cirrus to change frequencies? Wave a banner? Sign language? Drop down in front of the Cirrus and shake it up with wake turbulence?

This is not a drowning man situation where immediate and decisive intervention could save lives. Best you could hope for is to determine if the Cirrus pilot was awake. But even if he wasn't, how does knowing that change anything?

Lost comm events happen everyday and they always get sorted out somehow, usually without benefit of impromptu intercepts. I'd change my view if someone--anyone--could point out what exactly the potential "help" was here.

I'll admit to occasionally being as thick as a mud fence. Someone enlighten me. Please.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | April 2, 2011 6:33 AM    Report this comment

In the Travolta incident I cited above, the judgement exhibited by ATC rises to the toweringly stupid level, but they self corrected. The USAir crew would have been hailed as steely-eyed heroes had they pulled it off. But they could have just as easily killed everyone aboard.

Allowing for entirely different conditions, this incident is less bad judgement and more...what's the point?

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | April 2, 2011 6:38 AM    Report this comment

"a pudgy product of some sunshine state pilot mill"?, nice Bertorelli, nice

Posted by: William Ross | April 2, 2011 7:07 AM    Report this comment

Saturday afternoon: a kind reader familiar with the Travolta incident sent me a link with a detailed press report. It's accurate with my understanding of the incident and worth reading:

http://articles.orlandosentinel.com/1995-03-27/news/9503270179_1_joseph-travolta-actor-john-travolta-mid-air-collision

These incidents are the same only inasmuch as they represent lost comm. The conditions couldn't have been any different--night above an undercast vs. day VFR. On the other hand, the concept is the same and raises the fair question: Do you really want to do this?

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | April 2, 2011 12:18 PM    Report this comment

Oh...sorry. We have disabled the ability to post URLs due to spamming. I have posted it in the main body of the blog.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | April 2, 2011 12:19 PM    Report this comment

30 Year Controller, Sup, TMC Nowhere does it say if vertical separaton, 1000 ft, was being used. If the 73 sached towards the Cirrus and dipped a wing or flashed a light to get its attention, then I don't see the risk. Apparently it worked since the Cirrus established comm within seconds.

Posted by: Carlos Contreras | April 2, 2011 1:13 PM    Report this comment

The John Heinz accident is far different and ATC self-corrected. (The Aerostar/Helicopter pilots were in communication and agreed to the formation flight...but just because their inexperience led to a tragedy...does that mean every instance of aircraft within sight of each other are at terrible-risk? Give me a break.... As for enlightening you Paul.... the value of the observation by the SWA crew was to allow ATC to decide whether or not an incapacitated crew on the Cirrus posed a hazard to nearby metropolitan areas and needed Air Force involvement...or not. Come on...admit it...this is a non-event. (But like the rest of the media I guess it increases subscriber numbers for Belvoir....(roll eyes)

Posted by: George Horn | April 2, 2011 1:22 PM    Report this comment

I really have no idea what has happened to this country. It seems that nobody is allowed to use inititive anymore. It seems that all I ever read about is how one person heard about what another did, and immediately goes ballistic over it. Why? Cannot a controller control 2 aircraft? Cannot an ATP rated pilot decide what is safe, and what isn't safe? If not, why are either of them in the job they are doing? Are none of the airline pilots in this country competent? Are none of the controllers in this country competent?

It seems that all we do anymore is look for scapegoats. Why is that.

It's been my experience that some of the best lessons are learned from mistakes, but what is today's attitude? Someone made a mistake. Fire them. And then hire another who will make the same mistake. All something like this does is cause people to cover up mistakes, and then nothing is learned from them. And people wonder why the country is in trouble.

Just because an event is "out of the ordinary" does not automatically make it "wrong".

Posted by: David Froble | April 2, 2011 2:27 PM    Report this comment

Come on...admit it...this is a non-event. (But like the rest of the media I guess it increases subscriber numbers for Belvoir....(roll eyes)<<

Bull%^%$, George. This is a legitimate subject for discussion of judgement. You can see that it has generated a variety of opinions, as did the sleeping controller thread. And nothing is "happening to the country" other than we have a runaway deficit and we're shipping jobs to China.

We're not looking for scapegoats, we're merely trying to learn something from these incidents without getting our pants in a wad. We have a forum here to do that.

Get used to it and unroll your eyes.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | April 2, 2011 3:19 PM    Report this comment

To the anonymous poster above:

You are wise. I've a good mind to copy your words and distribute them. And I work for the FAA!

Posted by: Brian Veazey | April 2, 2011 3:23 PM    Report this comment

No harm no foul. When did we become such a nation of sheeple? The thought of a unmanned aircraft flying through Florida's busy airspace concerns me a lot more than a couple of professional pilots taking a look see at a problem. I'm sure the passengers were in no danger and this whole thing is another example of our over regulated Country.

Posted by: Stuart Baxter | April 2, 2011 3:40 PM    Report this comment

Note that both ATC incidents that have made headlines involved FAA managers, not controllers, who get only a few hours a month currency on the boards.

Posted by: Jennifer Carr | April 2, 2011 4:21 PM    Report this comment

In the interest of trying to learn something from this episode, I offer this humble opinion...first, there isn't enough information available to determine if this was a dumb idea or not. And there probably won't ever be enough information to determine that because at the end of the day we are talking about two groups of professionals (ATC and the SWA crew) who go through a lot of training and get paid a handsome wage to use their best judgement in unusual situations. They did, and this is what they came up with. And everybody lived happily ever after. The End. We have gotten to a point where we are so safety concious that we train and train, and "learn from others mistakes", only to have our initiative taken away by the piles and piles of rules and regulations born of incidents with less happy outcomes. Just because a formation flight went bad one time doesn't mean all formation flights should be banned...does it? And yes, the same nerve, skill, and daring that makes great feats possible also makes smoking craters sometimes. That's what we professionals get paid for.

Posted by: Jason Wilson | April 2, 2011 6:30 PM    Report this comment

Don't we look after our fellow man any more? Why the rush to judgment? If the Cirrus had been lost and we discovered that the controllers had the opportunity to find out more about the Cirrus' problem, what would we say about the controllers then? If the Southwest crew had said, no we won't help, more important to stay on schedule, what would we say about them?

Only in hindsight do we know (maybe) that the Cirrus was not in dire circumstances. It's fair to ask the question whether the 'intercept' was the best way to do things... that's called lessons learned, and maybe the lesson is that there was a better way.

But until we learn that lesson - and we sure haven't with all this speculatory judgment - until we understand the situation, then we should commend the controllers for taking some initiative and we should commend the pilots for acting in what appears to be a very prudent manner, taking only miniscule if any risk.

Posted by: Rae Simpson | April 2, 2011 6:31 PM    Report this comment

A made-for-TV film "Mercy Mission" documents (with standard Hollywood inaccuracies) the true story of an Air New Zealand DC10 diverted to find a lost Ag Wagon in the South Pacific.

After retiring, the captain was chief pilot at a local flight school; he did my private check-ride. We held a "premiere" when the film came out, and he described in more detail some of the methods they used to effect the rescue. In this case the pax were briefed and (I believe) unanimously approved.

I offer this simply as an example of the other end of the scale, where airliner-as-interceptor might be OK: comm was available, the guy was lost, conditions were VFR, time was of the essence, and a safe rescue was possible. I always saw this story as inspirational for the airmanship involved, but it is true there was risk.

Posted by: Simon Matthews | April 2, 2011 8:03 PM    Report this comment

first things first, lets discontinue the mislabeling of the perpetrators of the 737/cirrus and dca sleeping incidents as "controllers". they were supervisors. management. the faa, in their infinite wisdom, only requires 1st level supervisors to work an operational position 8 hrs per month to maintain "currency" . currency in no way relates to "proficiency" . they typically sit there for the absolute, to the minute, minimum of 8 hrs/month. we've been big on nordo aircraft as of late, so big that a controller can get in trouble if he doesnt have someone on his frequency with 10 or so minutes after they should be. this "manager" that put the 73 with the cirrus was only reacting to the "freak out on nordos" mentality that the faa has been trying to impart to controllers.

Posted by: Bob Lockwood | April 2, 2011 11:53 PM    Report this comment

continued.....the faa's teachings are due to some misguided notion that their new nordo procedures, which include charging a pilot with a deviation for a long period of radio silence, would have prevented 9/11. so, you get a "manager" getting his 8hrs a month "currency" on a position with a nordo, apparently vfr cirrus and he overreacts in accordance with the faa emphasis on nordo aircraft and has the misguided notion to ask the sw crew to help him. there was no indication the cirrus was in trouble, or needed navigation assistance, it was just a knee-jerk overreaction to misguided policy emphasis by his employer. In my 24 years as a center controller, I've had dozens of nordo aircraft, and would never think of having another aircraft buzz them just to try to ascertain what was going on. there's no solution in that, just the chance that something could go horribly wrong like the aerostar/helo incident. the moral of these two incidents is this: dont send a "manager" to do a controller's job, and beware when they do!

Posted by: Bob Lockwood | April 2, 2011 11:54 PM    Report this comment

I'm going to take a different tack. While now a pilot with my own plane, I'm also a retired SEAL where we valued team work and comradery. I thought those same values existed in the aviation community. I might be wrond based on some of the comments I read. I have no problem with a 737 with professional pilots checking on me if something seems amiss. In fact, I not only would appreciate it, I would hope it would happen. For God's sake, clear VFR conditions with visual separation is a dangerous event? Please planes get closer than that in the pattern. The press and FAA (read bureacrats) are reacting in a manner that we called Pole Vaulting Over Mouse Turds when I was on active duty.

Posted by: John Wrenn | April 3, 2011 1:22 AM    Report this comment

we valued team work and comradery. I thought those same values existed in the aviation community.<<

What this discussion is about is judgment and the exercise thereof. It's also about the dangers of rescue syndrome. If you read this incident in the context of the Heinz crash and the Travolta incident, I think you develop a different perspective.

In the Heinz case, the helo pilot was doing his teamwork thing--another professional trying to help a fellow professional in a way that you say you would want. But neither of the pilots had a clue about the risk involved and neither could walk the walk. Seven people died, including two kids on the ground.

In the end, the two were trying to solve a chicken%^$# problem that at worst would have resulted in the Aerostar landing with a folded nosegear. Scratched paint and an insurance claim. And for this, they risked seven lives.

In the Travolta incident, ATC suggested a midnight join on a near moonless night with an aircraft known to have no lights or electricals and the perfectly qualified and experienced team-playing ATP you have placed your trust in initially signed up himself and entire plane load of passengers to do this.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | April 3, 2011 4:49 AM    Report this comment

we valued team work and comradery. I thought those same values existed in the aviation community.<<

What this discussion is about is judgment and the exercise thereof. It's also about the dangers of rescue syndrome. If you read this incident in the context of the Heinz crash and the Travolta incident, I think you develop a different perspective.

In the Heinz case, the helo pilot was doing his teamwork thing--another professional trying to help a fellow professional in a way that you say you would want. But neither of the pilots had a clue about the risk involved and neither could walk the walk. Seven people died, including two kids on the ground.

In the end, the two were trying to solve a chicken%^$# problem that at worst would have resulted in the Aerostar landing with a folded nosegear. Scratched paint and an insurance claim. And for this, they risked seven lives.

In the Travolta incident, ATC suggested a midnight join on a near moonless night with an aircraft known to have no lights or electricals and the perfectly qualified and experienced team-playing ATP you have placed your trust in initially signed up himself and entire plane load of passengers to do this.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | April 3, 2011 4:51 AM    Report this comment

This, despite the fact they neither he nor ATC had any reason nor plan for what they would do if they did see the airplane or attempt to join on it.

To his credit, he came to his senses and had a what-was-I-thinking moment. But would every pilot, encouraged by ATC or himself to be the shining knight rescuing the damsel in distress, reach the same conclusion? One hopes.

The Jacksonville incident doesn't rise to this level of risk. Not even close, by the sounds of it. So perhaps restrained judgment was exercised after a fashion. But I think it's fair to push back against and recognize the dangers of rescue syndrome encouraging pilots to write checks they can't cash.

And in the end, what problem are you trying to solve? NORDOs are a dime a dozen. Look at the ASRS database and you can read about them all day. What was it about this one that required this sort of intervention? Were lives immediately in danger? I doubt it.

Like everyone else, I don't much care of one-size-fits-all rules that constrain initiative and creative problem solving, which is why I wouldn't discipline anyone involved in this. Nor do I care for hand wringing about the country going to hell just because someone questions an iffy judgment.

My view is this: If you're going to do something like this, fine. But have a good reason for it. I don't see that here. I respect that others might.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | April 3, 2011 5:04 AM    Report this comment

I don't understand Paul's issue. This is not the first time a jet liner has been used to rescue or check on a small airplane.

There has been many occurrences where jet liners have located lost or distraught light plane pilots re-orient them and lead them to safety.

The most memorable was a mid pacific catch of a delivery aircraft lost near new zealand. Does this mean that airliners should not help when requested?

Posted by: Christopher Basham | April 3, 2011 6:35 AM    Report this comment

No Paul, I call bull $#@&! This IS a non event. In three days the media will latch on to something else that puts the public "in danger" and have all the sheeple demand that our government do something about it. And then another company will decide that there is too much liability to operate in the United States.....so they move to China.

Posted by: jere gardner | April 3, 2011 9:04 AM    Report this comment

In a response Paul Bertorelli wrote: "Bull%^%$, George. This is a legitimate subject for discussion of judgement. ...And nothing is "happening to the country" other than we have a runaway deficit and we're shipping jobs to China.... We're ...merely trying to learn ...without getting our pants in a wad.

and then Paul Bertorelli wrote: "What this discussion is about is judgment and the exercise thereof. ... trying to solve a chicken%^$# problem..."

You are a professional writer? For a Belvoir publication? and, IN YOUR JUDGEMENT...that's your "public" vocabulary?

I rest my case with regard to YOUR judgement this is not a "non event".

Posted by: George Horn | April 3, 2011 12:47 PM    Report this comment

As a 20-year Air Force pilot, I have flown hundreds of formation missions in large airplanes including the C-17 and C-130J as close as 500' apart and it's no big deal. But, we also have three things that enable us to do so, one being a set of standard operating procedures, two, very thorough and standardized training, and three, a detailed crew briefing among all the participants that includes all manner of "what-ifs", roles, responsibilities, frequencies, protocols, etc, etc.

The SWA crew, ATC, and the Cirrus had none of these.

In a litigious, liability-concious society, among a field of aviation professionals, most especially in the passenger-carrying business, this is WAY outside the norm. The correct response to such an absurd request is "unable".

Today I fly a Boeing 757 for the Air Force and although our crews are all formation-qualified from initial pilot training, the last thing any of us would do in this aircraft is fly formation. It is simply outside the scope of the mission. In a commerical passenger aircraft, "formation" is not even in the vocabulary, much less an option just because some idiot controller asks for it ... enough said.

Fly safe guys,

Bill

Posted by: William Buckingham | April 4, 2011 2:32 AM    Report this comment

"What exactly was the value of knowing if the Cirrus pilot was awake or not? What is ATC going to do with that information to affect the outcome of a lost comm event?" ----------------------------------

If the 737 jock could have determined whether the Cirrus pilot had malicious intent or was just NORDO, he could have told the controller, who would have passed that onto U.S. Northern Command, who could have then scrambled fighters as appropriate.

It's part of everyone staying alert, being proactive, and pitching in when things don't look right.

The one debatable issue is whether the pilot of the 737 should have first thought of himself as only an "airline pilot," or instead a pilot (a “knight of the sky”) ready to go to the aid of a fellow pilot and help ATC take control of a situation.

One overlooked issue is that the 737 was no doubt the only airplane in the area with enough speed differential to overtake and take a look at the Cirrus. Other pilots in the area flying more mundane single-engine Cessnas and Pipers would have had to say, “Unable, not enough delta-v.”

Posted by: Gary Dikkers | April 4, 2011 11:49 AM    Report this comment

Determine the Cirrus pilot's intent? We already doubted the 37 crew could even see of he was awake from 1.2 miles away, what would he do, read the guy's mind? Or expect that if he was a bad guy he would have explosives tied around the fuselage Wile E Coyote style?

Posted by: Glenn Killinger | April 4, 2011 12:19 PM    Report this comment

Caveat again: I'm not a pilot; only SLF.

Why are we exchanging views about "flying formation?" ATC didn't ask the WN crew to fly formation; they asked them to take a look. Did the WN crew have binoculars? With my cheapo 20x binoculars I would be able to tell if the pilot was sitting upright (maybe nothing more than a frequency problem) or slumped over (CO poisoning, heart attack, stroke, seizure, whatever). Sitting in the 737 cockpit I may not have been able to fix the problem, but may have been able to narrow down the range of possibilities as to what the problem could be. That would give the controller a better idea of what he should do next. And again, the WN crew had a chance to say no.

Posted by: J. S. Janisch | April 4, 2011 2:32 PM    Report this comment

I think one of the other reasons this particular incident seems like a poor idea is because the Cirrus was only NORDO. I've gone NORDO once or twice while on an IFR flight through no fault of my own, simply because I was in an area that has comm issues at the altitudes single-engine aircraft typically fly. There are procedures to follow in these cases, and I was able to reestablish communication on my own. As has been mentioned here a number of times already, NORDO is no big deal. Now, if the Cirrus was having a distress or emergency situation and it was something another aircraft at an obviously safe distance could help with visually, I don't think anyone would be talking about this.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | April 4, 2011 6:08 PM    Report this comment

Paul Bertorelli took the words "wake turbulence" right out of my keyboard - or words to that effect.

Posted by: Bruce Liddel | April 5, 2011 9:35 PM    Report this comment

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