Runway Chicken at DCA

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I was driving in my truck yesterday morning hearing SecDOT Ray LaHood getting mildly backed into a corner in a radio interview about that little runway departure dust-up at Reagan National last month. The host was rather insistent that LaHood assure the traveling public that the FAA would promise that this wouldn't happen again. But LaHood's way too practiced a pol to give anything of the sort. His answers were predictably content free.

I was secretly channeling him to say, "Look, the system is run by humans and humans screw up. That's what happened here. We have a safe system, but as long as people run it, there will be errors."

And so there was, although who made it has yet to be revealed. It seems unlikely that it was a line controller's mistake, however. Just to refresh, DCA was in a north operation on runway 1, but some weather developed near the arrival fixes so the TRACON decided to switch to runway 19, probably using the River Visual. The tapes seem to show that the TRACON duly informed the tower of this plan, but the local controller was never informed. So she launched a couple of departures into a Republic RJ arriving from the south. The worst of the loss of separation was reportedly .82 miles laterally and 800 feet vertically. Not exactly the stuff of near misses.

The incident got a lot of mainstream press play because it just sounds so stupid, but it's not much more than just another operational error. What's going to make it interesting is who dropped the ball and why. The TRACON clearly didn't communicate directly with the local controller. She wouldn't have somehow forgotten that the airport was reconfiguring.

So the smart money is that the stink belongs on the guys wearing the ties—the supervisory ranks. We'll see. These airport configuration changes are an everyday thing in all kinds of complex airspace. To do them right requires a lot of very careful controller-to-controller coordination to shuffle airplanes around without losing separation. Controllers are good at it and someone ought to explain that to the freckle-necked masses flying on airliners. (I just did, but only the choir reads this blog.)

Meanwhile, the FAA is doing its usual national rug dance promising procedures to prevent this from happening again. And that is, of course, just silly. More layers of procedures and people will just introduce the likelihood of some other oversight or distraction causing some other kind of human error. I'd say find the guy who owns this one and tell him not to do it again.

Yeah, I know. That's just too sensible.

Comments (24)

It can't be that way Paul. The problem is that airplanes are "sensational" and "near misses" (which are more than the separation at my local airport, 500' altitude between light and heavy aircraft) are "scary" for John and Jane Public, so they tune in and stay in for a bit. That sells ad space.

You know, a lot of people wail about the "Liberal" or "Conservative" media. They miss the point: the media is Corporate. The media gives eff-all about politics today. No, they care about selling ad space. The two most far out, MSNBC & Fox do it by pandering to a specific demographic. The others do it in various ways. The common theme between all of them is the sensationalism (aka Yelliw Journalism) they use to drive up ad prices.

So I agree with you in one respect, but LaHood can't say that. The "public" demand a fix. Sometimes they demand a head on a platter. They are the ones, driven by the fear-mongering corporate media, that make the FAA make our lives as pilots more expensive. Why? Planes (and pilots) aren't perfect, but the public wants perfect. So the FAA runs around like a chicken with it's head cut off trying to regulate to perfection, lest they be called out as complacent or derelict in it's job when things aren't.

The law (and regulation) have no compassion. They can't, because the people running the agencies behind them can't. You can't make afford a mistake, sometimes even when it seems trivial, because that might cost you

Posted by: Joseph Servov | August 9, 2012 1:59 AM    Report this comment

Part 2:

your job.

I remember an episode of Ice Pilots NWT where the boss is complaining about Transport Canada being inflexible. Well, let's say the nice person is flexible. Then let's say there's an "accident" related to that nice behavior. Suddenly the nice person is a pariah, fired for job dereliction, then roundly spit-roasted by the public, the politicians, and (most importantly) by the media. They are left with nothing.

Don't expect this to change anytime soon :(

Posted by: Joseph Servov | August 9, 2012 2:01 AM    Report this comment

Well-said, Paul. I've been dealing with so many knee-jerk reactions since starting as a controller 27 years ago, that I don't even flinch when I see the knee coming anymore. Hopefully, this one will just die out and not become something permanent. This is a well-used procedure that shouldn't need any tweaking.

Posted by: David Borger | August 9, 2012 7:09 AM    Report this comment

During my controller days - admittedly, many years ago - the tower troops were the ones who dictated changes in landing direction. Interesting that the statements are that the TRACON made the call on this one. Also interesting that there was apparently no voice coordination between the arrival controller and the local controller. Ah, the benefits of automation.

Posted by: Don Beeson | August 9, 2012 8:20 AM    Report this comment

I kinda wonder if it's automation or the insertion of staff levels between the people doing the separating. Maybe both?

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | August 9, 2012 8:41 AM    Report this comment

Hey, instead of non-productivly crucifying a good worker who makes a human error, maybe we could institute a Federal Goat Program where individuals from the mass of government supported nothing-to-do types could volunteer to be thrown to the public in return for extra bennies?

Posted by: John Wilson | August 9, 2012 10:17 AM    Report this comment

When management makes a decision for a controller then it is the manager that is at fault. Why would another facility have the say in a runway change anyway? When the wind changes at the field then the local controllers in the tower should determine what runway to use not the TRACON miles away. Then to make this more confused it was the TMU that made the decision. Last time I checked TMU is a support function of the controller not the other way around, but under the current system the people in traffic management seem to think they are the system and the controllers work for them. The weak link in this situation is miscommunication from management to the controllers. The local controller did the job she was paid to do, she kept the aircraft safe, the aircraft were never in any real danger of colliding, just less than "standard separation"; hence an operational error that was a result of management attempting to be controllers. Time to go back to the basics, let the local controller determine what runway is to be used and pass this information to the downstream facilities not the other way around. As a center controller for 24 years I have never determined the runway in use, but daily I have to change the flow of traffic in the middle of a traffic push when the tower makes the change and it goes rather smoothly because the controllers let each other know what is happening.

Posted by: Scott Jorgensen | August 9, 2012 10:42 AM    Report this comment

I'm curious what the inbound RJ who protested he didn't have "the fuel for this" planned to do if that wx had moved in over the airport. BWI? Dulles?

Posted by: Jim Hackman | August 9, 2012 11:23 AM    Report this comment

One of the reports I read said that although the RJ mentioned fuel, the investigation revealed the airplane had plenty. Don't know if it's true or not.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | August 9, 2012 12:02 PM    Report this comment

A non-event. As a retired controller I agree completely with Don Beeson - the decision should be made by the tower, not the TRACON. The tower controller has the best and most up-to-date wind information, plus the best view of weather. In my experience (extensive and varied) runway changes were always done with a lot of coordination - verging on massive coordination; and always originating with the control tower, starting with the local controller and then by way of the tower supervisor to the TRACON and other 'interested' facilities.

Posted by: Unknown | August 9, 2012 12:32 PM    Report this comment

Paul, you're right on target. My 31 years of ATC in center and tower saw more knee-jerk reactions to incidents, and few of the "fixes" made sense to experienced controllers and pilots. Why was the coordination from the tracon to the tower coordinator? Because that's a fix from a previous incident, that's why! Despite the FAA's best efforts, you can't fix human error by piling on more and more procedures.

Posted by: David Slosson | August 9, 2012 2:22 PM    Report this comment

Methinks this will end up as a total CYA exercise before it dries up and blows away

Posted by: Bruce Savage | August 9, 2012 3:36 PM    Report this comment

"...some weather developed near the arrival fixes so the TRACON decided to switch to runway 19, probably using the River Visual. The tapes seem to show that the TRACON duly informed the tower of this plan, but the local controller was never informed..."

I'm sure there was some chatter between the arrivals and TRACON with the arrivals saying 'I'd rather not go there'.

I assume TRACON has made the call before, and has the authority to do so, to ask for a change in runway use. Must happen multiple times every day.

Paul's right. An individual screwed up, relative to existing procedures. I will also suggest that people in the know already know who and maybe why. A little carpet dance, done, go from there.

No need to involve multiple $100k federal employees for a year.

Posted by: Edd Weninger | August 9, 2012 4:24 PM    Report this comment

"...the RJ mentioned fuel..."

I have several friends who are active airline pilots at our airpark.

Their concerns about fuel are often more about meeting their dispatcher's needs, not the FAA minimums we all know.

Posted by: Edd Weninger | August 9, 2012 4:36 PM    Report this comment

Obviously no body wants anyone to get hurt or lose their job over this, but just think what the reaction from the press and generaly uninformed public would have been if a GA aircraft had been involved with this. There would have been calls for banning GA altogether from DCA, oh I forgot GA IS banned from DCA (unless you can comply with crazy TSA security regs). I wonder how the suspension of these ATC ops are going to effect airports with operations that involve one way in, the opposite way out(ASE, SUN, or TEX).

Posted by: matthew wagner | August 11, 2012 12:20 PM    Report this comment

Dammit. For some reason I read "Runaway chicken at DCA" and thought someone in ATC had loosed a fowl in the TRACON or tower and eagerly clicked for the story...

Posted by: Steven Brecher | August 11, 2012 5:41 PM    Report this comment

That would be runaway chicken.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | August 12, 2012 10:25 AM    Report this comment


Please stop inserting common sense and reasoning into anything aviation related within the DCA 60 DME. *Clearly* the multitude of controllers were pre-occupied with keeping an eye on the terrorists-in-waiting General Aviation aircraft(I believe there's one controller whose sole job is to keep track of a certain 152 out of Smoketown). The proper reaction of the FOD (Forces of Darkness here in DC) is to place further restrictions with even more dire consequences upon GA (perhaps forcing pilots to watch Rosanne re-runs). This should solve all problems and further reassure a nervous travelling public.

Posted by: Bruce Gagne | August 13, 2012 7:17 AM    Report this comment

I agree with Bruce. Even though I'm FRZ-vetted, we can't get near DCA. Who cares?

Posted by: Jack Burton | August 13, 2012 9:34 AM    Report this comment

It won't stop with DCA. This is a system-wide deficiency within the FAA. As controllers, we will all have our hands tied a little more because of this. Safety has always been our goal, but we try to use common sense, too. We CAN have more than one airplane in the system without being unsafe. After we realize that, then we can start working on efficiency. We at ORD prided ourselves on how much traffic we could work and yet be efficient too. But now every time something like this gets raised as a concern in the media, the FAA feels obliged to act. I feel like all the tolls are being removed from my tool belt. Now all I have left is a screwdriver. And I can't even use that the way it's supposed to be used. So be concerned about it wherever you fly.

Posted by: David Borger | August 13, 2012 11:30 AM    Report this comment

In response to controller operational errors, the FAA issued Notice N JO 7110.596 on August 7, 2012; cancellation date August 6, 2013. The Notice was poorly written, restrictive to and extream, and quite controversial, to say the least. As originally written it shut down virtually all access to a good number of CFR Part 139 airports (Aspen, CO, Juneau, AK). Through a series of somewhat frantic internal AT telecons, AT has formally focused the notice on large Tracon servied airports.

Posted by: Doug Wahto | August 13, 2012 2:30 PM    Report this comment

Doug, can you clarify the above? What does the order do, exactly?

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | August 13, 2012 3:08 PM    Report this comment

Ok, so web links are suppressed... Google knows where it is! :)

Posted by: Sam Sun | August 13, 2012 6:03 PM    Report this comment

Here it is:

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | August 14, 2012 10:48 AM    Report this comment

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