Pilot Error, But...

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Authorities Start Probe Of ADIZ-Related Crash...

The pilot involved in the D.C. ADIZ flight plan-related fuel starvation and subsequent encounter with trees last week four miles from Martin State Airport in Maryland has recognized his role in running out of fuel. "Ultimately, the pilot is responsible for what happens," Dale Roger told The Baltimore Sun after he was released from the hospital where he received stitches for a gash in his head. But while Roger nurses the sore head (he and his two passengers suffered only minor injuries) fingers are pointing in a myriad of directions over Roger's one-hour-long wait for ATC to find his flight plan. For one, although he did not declare an emergency, Roger did let air traffic controllers know he was short of fuel 20 minutes before the prop on the rented 172 stopped spinning. As AVweb reported Thursday, Roger was kept circling just outside the 30-nm Washington, D.C., Air Defense Identification Zone for more than an hour because ATC couldn't find the flight plan necessary to allow him to enter the ADIZ and land at Martin. FAA spokesman Jim Peters told the Sun that Roger warned ATC he was low on fuel at 12:15 p.m. and by 12:35 p.m. the plane was nose-down in a bushy area of White Marsh. The NTSB has vowed to get to the bottom of it all. "We're going to sort through it," NTSB investigator Luke Schiada told the Sun. "A big part of this is going to be the air traffic control information -- the timing aspects, what was said and when it was said." Schiada said it will take six months to pull all the information together.

..."Inevitable?" Not So, Say Controllers...

The mishap has prompted calls for the easing of the Washington flight restrictions and some opining. AOPA's Warren Morningstar told the Sun that lost flight plans are a common occurrence and a mishap of some sort was inevitable: "Because of the inability of the system to handle all the aircraft, it was only a matter of time ..." Jim Crook, speaking for the Air Traffic Control Association (ATCA), disagreed, saying, "I don't think they're [ATC installations] understaffed." Meanwhile, David Wartofsky, who operates Potomac Airfield within the ADIZ questioned the rationale behind all the flight planning, transponder codes and ATC attention. "Anyone can get a clearance within the 30-mile ring, so why even ask them for it?" AOPA and other groups have long maintained that the extra workload imposed on ATC by the flight planning and identification requirements of the ADIZ is too much for ATC staff to handle. In the end, AOPA's stance as voiced through Morningstar that "The air traffic control procedures have reached pointless overload" is in rather sharp disagreement with Crook's perception ... and neither presents an immediate solution. For that, it seems we may have to wait at least for the results of the formal investigation.

...And Computers Could Solve It All?

And while the various constituencies discuss the human factors that led up to this incident, a scientist at the University of California in Berkeley has come up with a system he says keeps the pilot out of the security loop. Edward Lee proposes somehow modifying the avionics and flight-control systems of aircraft to cause them to steer clear of restricted areas and prevent pilots -- or hijackers -- from overruling them ... with control inputs, anyway. The system (which has drawn the support of Boeing's Phantom Works) would pinpoint the boundaries of restricted areas and any attempt by the pilot to breach the so-called "soft walls" would be met by active resistance from the airplane itself. The airplane would simply refuse to cross that line in the sky. Lee, who is apparently not a pilot, says he's surprised by the negative reaction of those who do fly. "In general, pilots are openly hostile," he said. Lee said he can't understand the pilots' position given the alternatives, which might include being reprimanded or even shot down for straying into restricted airspace. However, Boeing Phantom Works is sufficiently interested in the system that it is helping Lee test it on high-fidelity simulators and is asking the Pentagon for money for further research into the concept.