My Big Deal: A Pilot's Tale

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AVweb's editor recounts an incident in 1990 when an ATC operational error nearly ended his flying career.

I'll never forget the day ATC almost dealt me out. It was Saturday, March 3, 1990. I was the pilot and sole occupant of my Cessna 310. It was the home stretch of an hour-and-a-half IFR flight from Hayward to Santa Monica (both in California).

I was tracking southeastbound on V459 at 6000' assigned, talking to Burbank Approach Control. Flight visibility was unrestricted above a low stratus undercast. The Santa Monica ATIS indicated that the field was IFR and the VOR-A approach was in use.

The Burbank controller was talking to three aircraft: a Skywest Metroliner descending into LAX, a Westwind bizjet headed for SNA, and me. I was a only a few miles from DARTS intersection, the IAF for the SMO VOR-A approach. At 6000', I was awfully high.

The controller was obviously having a tough time getting me down, because the Westwind was overtaking me from behind at 5000'. To buy some time, the controller put me on a 120 vector heading, "vector across the final approach course."

To make things more complicated, the Skywest Metro was also at 6000' and overtaking me. The controller turned Skywest right to 160 to achieve divergent course separation with me, then cleared him down to 4000'.

Finally, the Westwind passed and I reported it in sight 1000' below. The controller told me to maintain visual separation with the Westwind, descend to 5000', and turn right to 260 to intercept the VOR-A final.

As I rolled out of the turn and levelled at 5000', I was paralyzed by the sight of a Metroliner flashing in front of me from right to left, precisely at my altitude. I could see S-K-Y-W-E-S-T going by like an electric sign in Times Square. I could see individual passenger windows going by.

It was really close. I don't mind telling you that I was scared to death.

I took no evasive action. There simply was no time to react. The whole thing was literally over in a flash.

"Burbank, Twin Cessna `38X. Do you know that you almost ran us into a Skywest Metroliner?" (About an octave higher than usual.)

"Twin Cessna `38X, two miles from BEVEY, cleared for the Santa Monica VOR-A approach."


Twenty minutes later, on the ground at SMO, I phoned the watch supervisor at Burbank TRACON. The supe was very much aware of the near-midair, but was very defensive and uncooperative with me on the telephone. I got mad. I informed the supe that I would be filing an ASRS report and a NMAC report.


The next day (Sunday), I filed an ASRS report and wrote a letter to the facility chief of the TRACON with a copy of the ASRS form attached. In my letter, I requested that the tapes be preserved and that a NMAC report be filed. I also posted a detailed account of the incident on the CompuServe aviation forum (AVSIG), and asked for suggestions about what further action I should take. A senior airline captain suggested that I call the legal office at FAA Western Region and make a formal request for a copy of the audio tapes, the radar track analysis, and the Operational Error report under the Freedom of Information Act.


First thing Monday morning, I phoned the Legal Affairs office at FAA Western Region. I explained that I was a pilot involved in a near-midair and wanted to make a FOIA request. "Was anybody killed or injured?"

"Fortunately not."

"Was there major physical damage?"

"No."

"Then you don't want to talk to Legal Affairs. Let me transfer you to the System Effectiveness." Click.

Eventually, I wound up speaking to Bill Patterson, supervisor of the System Effectiveness department, Air Traffic Division, Western Region. Although it was only 8:30 am on Monday morning, Bill already knew all about the incident, and already had an investigation team enroute to Burbank TRACON. He sounded informed, concerned, and cooperative. He suggested that I write him a letter making my FOIA requests and assured me that he'd take care of it.


About two months later, I received a letter from Patterson saying that my FOIA data was available for release, and asking me to send a check for $39.80 to cover copying costs. I did so, and shortly afterwards received a fat envelope from the FAA. It contained the 20-page Operational Error report, a NMAC report, several incident reports, an NTAP radar plot, and an audio cassette containing a certified re-recording of the audio tapes. It was quite fascinating going over all this material. I was amazed (and pleased) to see the depth of investigation that was performed by the FAA following this incident. Listening to the tapes and seeing the radar plot sent shivers up my spine once again as I recalled just how close I and a Metroliner full of other people came to being splattered across Beverly Hills that day.

I subsequently learned through the grapevine that the controller involved in this incident was subsequently de-certified from working radar and reassigned to a tower assigment.