Trumped-Up JFK Emergency?
Last week's emergency landing at New York's JFK offers yet another example of how a group of pilots—when presented with the same scenario and risk factors—may make diametrically different decisions. The distilled summary: An American Airlines 767 enroute into JFK from Los Angeles arrived to be assigned runway 22L as the landing runway. The wind was out of 310 at 22 knots, gusting to 34 knots—a direct crosswind that might have had a slight tailwind component.
The Captain refused the landing runway and, when ATC declined to assign 31R, he declared an emergency and landed on it anyway. Here's a condensed clip on the incident.
It's illuminating for several of reasons. It's an example of what most pilots and controllers have seen before: a "sort of" or "paper" emergency. Second, regardless of who you think was right or wrong, the incident shows that the person sitting in the left seat is sometimes confronted with judgment calls for which there is no easy answer, even though the Captain is vested with the ultimate final authority on how the flight is conducted. It may be good to be King, but it's not always easy. Worth noting is that there's more going on here than most of us know and, as the Gunny likes to say, there will be consequences. Last, this incident starkly reveals how our air transport system is a tug of war between efficiency and safety.
Since March, JFK has had 31L closed for upgrades and this bollixes up the airport's acceptance rate. The airlines were asked to scale their operations accordingly. I don't know if they have done that or if this was in factor in the May 4 incident. (See above: consequences.) Either way, ATC will configure the airport to suit its concerns, which usually relate to throughput and noise restrictions. Pilot concerns about crosswind limits? Not so much. So it becomes a little bit of a blood sport in a situation like this. If crews keep gutting out landing in a crosswind to the limits of man and machine, controllers will happily let them do it until someone says—enough.
The Captain of American Flight 2 decided he wasn't going to accept a 34-knot crosswind. According to what data I could find, Boeing says 40 knots is the max recommended crosswind component for a 767 on a dry runway. If someone else can dispute that, let me hear from you. Also, American's op specs may call for something lower and those are hard limits. Either way, the Captain decided it wasn't safe and informed the tower he would declare an emergency if he wasn't given 31R. The controller seemed to note this as if he'd take it under advisement and the situation blossomed from there. Remember, the controller is thinking about separation and his flow plan, the pilot is worried about cramming that thing on the runway in a gusty crosswind.
After the emergency was declared, the controller evidently thought it was a "gentleman's" emergency in which he would be allowed to vector the airplane back around for 31R in a more less orderly fashion. The Captain, on the other hand, clearly understood that under emergency authority, he could do what he needed to and seemed to inform the surprised sounding controller of his maneuvering plan. He told ATC—he didn't ask, he told ATC—to clear the runway. American Flight 2 was landing on it. This is about as compelling an example of execution of command authority as you are likely to hear.
Listen to the tape to the end and you can clearly hear the controller's response when the flight clears the runway and asks for taxi instruction. He sounds irritated to me. So let the second guessing begin.
Over on PPRuNe opinions are divided. Some think the Captain should have slipped into the flow and let the controller work out an approach for 31R that would minimize chaos for everyone else. If the flight was so low on fuel as to require unconditional maneuvering, why didn't the crew declare this sooner? And if the crew couldn't handle a 34-knot crosswind as just a day at the office, what are they doing flying into Kennedy? Others cheered the Captain, believing he determined that an unsafe condition existed and acted to correct it. End of story.
I don't have enough experience in this realm to offer an opinion on the righteousness of the Captain's call. Even if I did, I'm not sure I would, because I wasn't in the seat. Nonetheless, I offer a tip of the hat to any skipper who pulls the plug in a situation where system-think has forced go-along-get-along behavior to a point beyond safe limits. Right or wrong, he made a clear, unambiguous decision and acted upon it. It sometimes takes that kind of decisiveness to cut through the fence between pilot/crew/passenger priorities and air traffic control priorities. The two are sometimes at cross purposes.
When they are, someone has to say as much. This Captain did and that's what defines command.
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