Airliners As Interceptors: Bad Idea
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?