The Risky Lure of Oshkosh
AirVenture is many things to many people, but one thing is undeniable: It is a giant, unending photo-op for airplane junkies. A blind-folded four-year old could swing a camera with the shutter on auto could produce Web-worthy images. So when Jack Roush's jet crumped on the runway last week, it was inevitable that it would be caught on camera. Indeed, we published Brian Flanagan's dramatic images on AVweb.
I talked to two witnesses who saw this crash from beginning to end, and although they agree on the observed fact pattern, their attitude toward the root cause diverges. I'm not going to speculate myself, but one thing that will undoubtedly be addressed in the investigation is this: Do the procedures and clearances controllers use at Oshkosh make this sort of accident more likely? Stated another way, do the reduced separation standards and novel procedures that controllers use set pilots up for these wrecks? In my view, the answer is probably yes. On the other hand, I wouldn't change a thing because the fact is, if you fly an airplane into AirVenture, you better understand that you have to bring your A-game. If you can't do that or you don't have the confidence to know that you can, take the airlines or drive in. Or go to Appleton or Fond du Lac.
People who study such things understand that "safety" comprises a number of elements that coalesce into a system. Pilots rely on controllers to be a critical part of that system while simultaneously forgetting that controllers aren't flying the airplanes. Stated another way, decisions and executions that pilots make can reduce to utter hash the best efforts put forth by controllers to separate aircraft and provide safety advisories. In this equation, pilots are potent, controllers merely incidental.
To accommodate the intense rush of traffic, ATC uses reduced separation standards, thus you will see two airplanes (or three) occupying the same runway at the same time. You'll further hear pilots asked to fly a tighter than normal or a carving base, or to slow it up behind another airplane or to keep the speed up and land long or to join a mix of airplanes with a 60-knot speed Delta or to land on the orange dot or to sidestep on short notice to another runway that might have a blustery crosswind.
In other words, we're talking about the Olympics of visual airport operations—both for pilots and controllers. Safety margins are, in my view, compromised in favor of handling more traffic. If you want to build in more margins—the kind you're used to at the home drome—just plan on more delays and less capacity. It's that simple.
Into this conundrum comes Joe Average pilot, whose skills may or may not be eroded from the impact of $5 gas and a grim recession. Simply being a pilot means you want to walk the walk, so when the controller says land on the orange dot and you're too high and too fast, what do you do? You go for it. The allure of rising to the challenge shunts aside the reality that your skills aren't up to it and even if they were, the airplane might not be. Plus, you don't want to make the harried controller's job more difficult by missing your mark, forgetting that he's there to enhance your safety, you're not there to make his (or her) runway plan work out.
Further, like pilots, controllers sometimes make assumptions about what pilots and airplanes can do that aren't especially anchored to reality. The pressure cooker pace of AirVenture may amplify this. Because we're all wired to make it work, we push on into the margins that are already at their limits. If that isn't the description for a setup, I don't know what is.
Some 10 years ago, I stopped flying into Oshkosh, not out of concern for safety but for convenience during departures. If weather moves in, my schedule doesn't allow for staying an extra day or two, so I simply removed that variable by landing at Appleton. It is unrealistic to expect Oshkosh controllers to accommodate any more traffic than they already are or to push out 100 IFR departure an hour if the weather tanks. The system is reasonably compromised in favor of higher capacity. It shouldn't be asked to do more. Nor should anyone assume the compromise doesn't exist.
I'll concede to being absolutely old school about this. In fact, I'm a fossil. I applaud the FAA's willingness to adjust normally rigid rules in favor of accommodating more traffic. I accept that this raises risk slightly—but only slightly--but I also relish the opportunity to demonstrate that I can perform in circumstances like this. I suspect that a statistical study of AirVenture accidents would reveal a rate-per-operation that might not be remarkable. The higher risk applies to individual pilots who would normally fly more conservatively. Oshosh may simply change the accident venue and concentrate the occurrences.
If I were in charge, I wouldn't change a thing, other than simplifying the NOTAM to something less than 37 pages and placing in it somewhere this exact statement in this exact language:
If you come here, your skills and judgment better be up to it. And remember that all controllers know what this word means: unable. You should, too.