First Lady Airplane Fiasco
I've been corresponding with a center controller friend of mine and we're trying to figure out exactly what happened with this First Lady aircraft fiasco. Was there a loss of separation or not? Piecing together the fractured, inaccurate and overheated coverage from the mainstream media, I think I have finally figured out that there was lessened in-trail spacing for wake turbulence. That's not the same as loss of IFR separation, and I don't know if it counts as an operational error or not.
Basically, in terminal airspace, where Michelle Obama's C-40/737 was, the required IFR lateral separation is 3 miles, which wasn't compromised. But in following a heavy jet like the C-17, 5 miles of in-trail spacing is required for wake turbulence and that's where the bust was. As the C-17 rolled out on the runway, this evolved into a runway separation issue for the tower controller so he sent the airplane around. Big deal. It happens.
Why did it happen? My guess is because the Potomac Consolidated TRACON controller building the final for Andrews just got the vector a little too close. That happens, too. It's not like in the history of aviation an approach controller hasn't handed the tower a crappy sequence. So what's the big deal? There isn't one, except this is coming in the midst of a giant media frenzy about sleeping controllers and other minor ATC misdeeds.
This sent me out in search of world's worst reporter on the aviation beat. And believe me, there's no lack of candidates. I award first place to Lisa Stark, of ABC News, who consistently reports aviation stories, no matter how minor, in urgent, 72-point type. Her report on this incident, while not wildly inaccurate, lacks the balancing perspective a lay viewer could grasp if the story weren't so dumbed down. Her gatekeeping of facts proceeds from the notion that this was a dangerous situation when, in fact, is was just less than optimal. Too tight sequences get fixed every day.
Second place goes to The Washington Post's Ashley Halsey III who decided it would be a good idea to say in his lead that the First Lady's airplane "came dangerously close to a 200-ton military cargo jet." Allowing as how the copy desk—if the Post still has one of those—may have sexed up the lead, it's just wrong. Completely. It's tabloid-level interpretation.
The Post's story got picked up by numerous outlets, including San Diego's Home Post, which fabricated this utterly over-the-top lead: "A plane carrying first lady Michelle Obama almost collided with a military cargo jet on the runway at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, and had to abort landing, according to The Washington Post." Giving a little credit to the Post, its story didn't say that.
One of my correspondents sent me this link on another of Halsey's aviation pieces which my friend described as the worst aviation story he had ever read. I wouldn't go quite that far, but it's imminently worthy of being put out of its misery on the newsroom spike.
But it's not all bad. At ABC, John Nance gets kudos for two minutes of talking head that puts everything in perspective, explains that the 737 wasn't going to get wiped by wake turbulence and just calm down, for %^%$'s sake. (He didn't say that last part, but should have.) Similarly, The New York Times' Matthew Wald put the event properly in context in his story, suggesting that his grasp of the technical details rises above that of your typical liberal arts major. But the Post story got more play, because the Post broke it.
In this tightly written piece, I thought CBS's Bob Orr got it about right, although the term "near miss" is both technically wrong and a clinker. (See the video, not the text.) There was no near miss, just compromised spacing. He left the viewer with the correct impression that this was a minor technicality, not a meaningful safety compromise. The only other way CBS could have improved the story is to not air it at all. Obviously, given events of the last few weeks, that wasn't going to be an option.
As a journalist, I judge these stories on the reporter's apparent ability to listen, digest and understand technical issues related to aviation. There are exceptions, but most general assignment reporters don't do this very well for aviation stories, although not many mangle it to the extent that Lisa Stark does. She is in a league of her own.
But then aren't we all?
SATURDAY ADDITION: Just for the hell of it, here's how I'd write this story for a general audience:
The air traffic control tower at Joint Base Andrews directed an Air Force C-40 transport plane carrying First Lady Michelle Obama to abort its approach because a large military airplane ahead of it couldn’t clear the runway in time. According to the FAA, tower controllers are required to provide at least 6000 feet of space between heavy aircraft landing on the same runway and Andrews’ controllers believed the spacing was too tight to provide this, so they ordered the C-40 to execute a go-around to set up another approach. Go-arounds are common maneuvers which occur when either pilots or controllers believe than an aircraft isn’t optimally positioned to land safely.
When controllers radar vector large airplanes to land at airports, they’re required to provide no less than five miles between airplanes to allow for wake turbulence, vortex-like swirls that trail off the wings of all airplanes. A heavy aircraft such as the C-17 cargo aircraft the First Lady’s aircraft was following can generate enough wake turbulence to compromise safety margins. The so-called “in-trail separation” was compromised when a radar controller at the FAA’s Potomac terminal radar facility vectored the C-40—a military version of the Boeing 737—three miles behind the giant C-17 rather than the required five, although the two were never close enough to represent a collision risk. In order to increase the spacing, tower controllers directed the C-40 to execute a series of S-turns but eventually determined they couldn’t assure the required 6000 feet of runway separation, so the C-40 was issued a go-around. It landed without incident and with only a brief delay. The FAA is investigating the incident.
For an FAA training document on wake turbulence training, click here.