First Lady Airplane Fiasco

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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.

Comments (74)

The weather at the time of the "incident" was:
METAR KADW 182055Z AUTO 18014KT 10SM FEW140 24/07 A2989

If the following exchange had taken place, I doubt we'd even be talking about this.

"Report the airport in sight for a visual approach."
"Airport in sight."
"Cleared visual approach, caution wake turbulence following heavy C-17."

The worst part of this story is that it reinforces the notion that pilots cannot find runways safely without federal assistance (loved that line, Paul).

Posted by: Andrew Pietila | April 20, 2011 6:25 PM    Report this comment

Some people blame the pilot; some the controller.
I blame the president for giving a town hall meeting on fiscal responsibility at precisely the same time that his wife uses state property (a 737) for a personal appearance on "The View".

That's the real story of problems in the system; it's NOT "Michell Obama's plane". it's our plane being misused that was the problem.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | April 20, 2011 9:00 PM    Report this comment

With TSA rubbing everyone the wrong way and the stupid media scaring the average passenger about the lack of government assistance to handicapped pilots who can't find the head without help from the flight attendant, it is a wonder people still want to travel on the airlines.

Posted by: PAUL MULWITZ | April 21, 2011 5:55 AM    Report this comment

I used to work in television news, in fact, I lived in the Hotel Ukraine in Moscow in 1989...

I think the news media is blowing this WAY OUT OF the water. But of course, this sells newspapers.

In 1968, my father was flying a Sabreliner into PHX and a Boeing 747 was on final into PHX, we were second. Same story here, we had to do a go-around at night. No big deal, we were insignificant and humble humans in both the 747 and the small Sabreliner.

Had this NOT been Mrs. Obama and had the stories about the "sleeping controllers" not been in the news in the last 4 weeks ago, I think the news media would only have made this story a "blip" on their collective radars. But the snoozing controllers have brought tunnel-vision to their trade and the flies and roaches in the news media see this as fresh cat poop on a warm bed of honey, and they just can't resist licking (and milking it) for all it is worth.

Posted by: R.S. Brooks | April 21, 2011 6:10 AM    Report this comment

Thanks for the realistic assessment of coverage of this event. Unfortunately, after incidents like this where the entire aviation community is villified, we wring our hands to ourselves and complain about poor reporting. When are WE going to take out a full page ad in USA Today or another national publication and educate the public about what really happened? We as a community of interest need to do a much better job at educating the public on all things aviation...not just preach to the choir.

Posted by: Lindy Kirkland | April 21, 2011 6:18 AM    Report this comment

Is Nexgen supposed to be something that reduces human interaction in air traffic control? If so, John Nance and others missed a chance to plug a project that is supposed to improve our air traffic control system, if it ever gets the funding needed.

I know Nexgen is a hot button topic with GA folks but if you listen to Internet streamed audio from controllers at JFK you can clearly hear the need for major improvements in air traffic control technology.

Posted by: Bruce Leary | April 21, 2011 6:37 AM    Report this comment

Ok, so lets stop just talking and put the darn ad in USA today. All it take is $ and so someone with the savvy set up a site to collect the donations and we will draft the ad/response on behalf of GA. Unless we can get the all too political AOPA to do it for us!

Posted by: Norm Green | April 21, 2011 6:42 AM    Report this comment

Mr. Frazer beat me to the the same time that idiot george stephanopolous was grilling michelle bachman about how we need to raise taxes because "every little bit helps", "our" government is paying, what, hundreds of thousands of dollars?, to fly michelle and jill to NYC to appear on the view??? No body in the media thinks THAT is an issue? But this aviation non event is one.......goes a long way to explaining this country's economic woes if you ask me....

Posted by: SCOTT PETERS | April 21, 2011 7:02 AM    Report this comment

I don't see a return on the investment in a publicity ad to make us all look better.

It's not as if we were running for political office or something. If we were, then we could get some big corporation to donate millions of dollars for our election campaign and use that money to make us look like angels.

Posted by: PAUL MULWITZ | April 21, 2011 7:03 AM    Report this comment

Good point Paul!

Posted by: Norm Green | April 21, 2011 7:04 AM    Report this comment

good read paul, yes it is a shame the media is allowed to throw out there anything that will sell. as we know the more dangerous when it comes to aviaition sells.i have been flying 35 years 25 for a living. i think our ATC do a phenominal job daily. bad WX they are your best friend emergency best fiend, it goes on. like you say just a seperation issue no big deal, but the media puts such spin on this there has yo be people sacrificed. great blog to bad people can not address the issue and leave politics out of it. obviously mr.fraser "above" is not interested engaging in the issue it is a platform for his agenda. while they are in office these aircraft are theres. thanks for a great opportunity to exchange comments..

Posted by: jim russell | April 21, 2011 7:25 AM    Report this comment

Brian Williams got it right on NBC. He said something like the go-around was an "abundance of caution", which many are.

Posted by: William Kight | April 21, 2011 8:04 AM    Report this comment

Paul, ABC's John Nance does gets kudos for pointing out just how BIG that a 737 is; well done! The next logical question was "so why did 2 people take such a huge Government 737 on a personal jaunt?"

The problem is not technical, not ATC, not even aviation related. Those are all red herrings. The problem is WHY was that 737 in the air in the first place!? That's journalism.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | April 21, 2011 8:25 AM    Report this comment

I was at the gym on the treadmill the afternoon (about 4:45 PM CDT) watching CNN and a reporter came on trying to explain the situation with the First Lady's plane. He was correct in noting that the separation was not dangerous and that it was an in-trail loss of separation. However, in giving details and numbers about distance between the planes and the speed of the planes he really goofed. He said something to the effect, "I know her plane will travel at about 500 mph..." So he proceeded to explain his calculations based on the fact that Mrs. Obama's plane was coming in on final at 500 mph which is rediculous. I was breathing hard on the treadmill and don't know who the reporter was who gave the explanation, but the time I saw the report is fairly accurate in case someone wants to check.

Posted by: Ray Mansfield | April 21, 2011 8:29 AM    Report this comment

You think Miles O'Brien would have reported that the 737 was going 500mph?

Posted by: JIM MCCREERY AVIATION | April 21, 2011 8:33 AM    Report this comment

I'm left wondering if the link in this article is the one intended... The Lisa Stark report in this link seemed quite reasonable and used Nance's input in a reasonable fashion (considering the wild reporting we usually see in public media...actually COMMERCIAL meda.)
But here's what comes to mind...if public media is so wildly inaccurate...then why such outcry against funding NPR/PBS ??? It seems to me that if all one wishes is to see/read/hear news which commercial interests wants us to see/read/hear...then getting rid of NPR/PBS will certainly accomplish that.
As for Mrs. Obama riding in gov't planes... that's a nearsighted criticism Fraser. Did you complain when Laura Bush did so? (I thought not.) cont'd

Posted by: George Horn | April 21, 2011 8:38 AM    Report this comment

I am not a journalist so I don't know the business, but Paul, isn't it possible for you or one of your colleagues to arrange to be consulted on such matters by the news outlets? While it might be idealistic, I do believe that in its heart of hearts the news media wants to be accurate (and somehow simultaneously "sell papers"). It would seem that a campaign to sell yourselves to news outlets as a experts in aviation would be beneficial even if you only periodically appear. There certainly are many talking heads out there...another, better informed, one seems like a plus.

Posted by: Kingsley Hill | April 21, 2011 8:41 AM    Report this comment

molehill -> mountain. But it gives the pearl-clutchers something to hystericize over...

Posted by: Karl Schneider | April 21, 2011 8:42 AM    Report this comment

cont'd: As for the issue of traffic seperation... I think our familiarity as pilots with spacing might contribute to our lackadaisy view... I witnessed a Challenger's emergency arrival in DAL following it's encounter with C-5 turbulence enroute...and it looked like a bomb had gone off inside...with a pax ambulanced to ER with a ruptured spleen. If the C40 S-turned/circled without pax noticing... Good Job! and that's what Lisa Stark reported in the link provided. So, Paul... isn't this AvWeb article also a bit "overblown" with hype regarding news-reporting?

Posted by: George Horn | April 21, 2011 8:43 AM    Report this comment

Horrors! Next we’ll hear that the First Lady’s motorcade had to stop for a red light; like the rest of us.

Posted by: JOHN MININGER | April 21, 2011 9:10 AM    Report this comment

Eye of the beholder, I suppose. I find Stark's utterly lacking in the detail necessary to make the viewer understand that this is a trivial, non-event. Further, her delivery makes everything sound breathless.

Clearly, Orr, Wald and others did much better and the only thing that save Stark is Nance's explanation. I give ABC credit for that. I guess we just disagree on what good reporting is.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | April 21, 2011 9:23 AM    Report this comment

Re trying to explain these things in reasoned tones to the non-aviation world: I gave it the ol' college try with a couple of the recent snoozing controller stories. I actually created a login and posted some comments on one of the major web news outlets. One or two pilots chimed in to agree, another knucklehead replied with an obviously complete misunderstanding of what I had been trying to point out, and in 15 minutes my lonely reasonable comment was buried three pages deep in trolls calling each other names and arguing about the Holocaust. It just ain't worth trying.

Posted by: Glenn Killinger | April 21, 2011 9:30 AM    Report this comment

Paul Bertorelli wrote:"I guess we just disagree on what good reporting is." I wouldn't say we disagree on what constitutes good-reporting.... It might be more accurate to say we perhaps disagree on what constitutes interesting-subject-matter. If this topic had been directed towards investigating FAA administrator reaction to this "news story" in light of recent ATC gaffs... it would have shown investigative initiative on the part of AvWeb, instead of simply more drivel. IMO (But I do understand the difficulty in producing a regular newsletter with so-little newsworthy reflection, AvWeb does a creditable job.)

Posted by: George Horn | April 21, 2011 9:36 AM    Report this comment

Kingsley, these outlets do have their own consultants. ABC uses Nance and he is always spot on, without being an apologist. I forget who CBS and NBC use, but when Robert Hager did aviation reporting for ABC, he was always good. I think he's a pilot. Ditto Miles O'Brien, who is with PBS now.

But they're under even more urgent deadline pressure than we are, so they don't always have time to consult an expert. They do the reporting, write the story and air it or publish it. Fix what's wrong later. Unfortunately, as Miles has told me, the cable news desks don't push for accuracy, but timeliness.

So here's the trick: A technically oriented person--not necessarily an aviation expert--can report on these things accurately, as Wald does in print. You have to listen carefully, ask the right questions then write the piece to put that information in context without emphasizing the wrong things. Which is another way of saying emphasizing danger and risk that don't exist.

If you, as a pilot, read or view this material and find it accurate in emphasis, context and detail, then the reporter did a pretty good job. And some do. Unfortunately, many do not.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | April 21, 2011 9:39 AM    Report this comment

"operated by an Air Guard unit". When did Air Guard assets get tasked with hauling "Federal" politicians? Two people in a 737. Just imagine the catering
required for this long trip!

Posted by: Frank Strickler | April 21, 2011 9:46 AM    Report this comment

Let's see, George, I have about six minutes a day to do a blog, the rest devoted to editing print magazines, video and audio. How the hell much time do you think we have to do "investigative" work. (Which we give to you for free, by the way.)

Come spend a day with me sometime and I show you how "modern" journalism works, compared to how it worked five years ago.

You'd be shocked. Our colleagues at the networks have the same problem, but at least they don't have to chop their own film. Yet.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | April 21, 2011 9:46 AM    Report this comment

Fellow aviators -- influence the public by writing a "Speaking Out" letter to the editor of your local newspaper. Use the excellent common-sense approaches in this and related Insiders to educate the public. Have a PR-savvy friend proofread your article for tone and clarity. Blue skies!

Posted by: BRADLEY SPATZ | April 21, 2011 10:03 AM    Report this comment

unfortunately, since the media consistently gets aviation news wrong, I have to accuse them of guilt by association - I find it hard to take any news media story as legitimate. If i really want to know the truth I will wait for a well-researched book or talk to those on site. My favorite consistent news source quotation is the one that goes, "I heard the plane stall." Huh?

Posted by: Pete Anderson | April 21, 2011 10:20 AM    Report this comment

Mark Frazer and Scott Peters got it right. It's this administation with its warped sense of just about everything that is to blame. Let's rise up an vote right next time!

Posted by: Ed Hirsch | April 21, 2011 11:27 AM    Report this comment

When I want aviation reporting done right, I come to The nonsense on TV just raises my blood pressure.

Posted by: Bruce Liddel | April 21, 2011 11:59 AM    Report this comment

Oh my gosh, the system worked... didn't it. No stratched paint and they do appear to have been awake and paying attention. Like none of us ever had to do one or maybe been the reason. Preception is rapidly becoming reality

Posted by: Chuck West | April 21, 2011 1:13 PM    Report this comment

I was watching the Today show when Jim Miklaszewski, their "Chief Pentagon Reporter" described the horrible safety issue caused by this almost tragic event (I can't think of his words or words as strong as he used). Then when I heard that the aircraft were 3 miles apart, I thought Shakespeare had it right: Much ado about nothing. No doubt getting too close to a landing C17 would cause a lot of discomfort due to wake turbulence, but since when is 3 miles too close? On paper yes, but realistically no.

Posted by: Cary Alburn | April 21, 2011 1:24 PM    Report this comment

Why the C-140 (B737)?

Having worked for a major federal law enforcement agency then the FAA as a Controller I believe the First Lady and all the immediate family members are required to fly on White house planes.

I really enjoy reading the post on this blog, very little hateful comments but lots of good information.

And yes, this was a non-event until the media got hold of it. I just hope the FAA releases their final determination of the facts.


Posted by: Ray Laughinghouse | April 21, 2011 1:30 PM    Report this comment

Instead of pointing childish fingers at the president, government,'stupid media', the TSA, and calling interviewers 'idiots' while giving the crazie being interviewed a pass, I offer a step beyond what Lindy K. offered.

We need an aviation czar, someone to go to every time an event or flight related incidence occurs for sound, accurate reporting, as timely as a controller is writing down a tail number. Have the alphabet groups pool monies together, if we are really serious about this, and we should be, and rent a nice media room always on standby to go to in DC for up to the second aviation news. Use social media, old media, Skype, who cares. I suggest Jim Tillman as the first spokesperson. He can diffuse reporter emotionalism and keep the focus where it is supposed to be and we can avoid blaming everyone else and looking like immature, angry finger pointers year/blog after year/blog. Of course, even then, results will be in proportion to the level of fear and maturity in the populace, as it is now. But to me we have a serious PR problem, maybe not of our own making, and we should be always trying out new, creative ways for promotion and GA health.

Posted by: David Miller | April 21, 2011 1:42 PM    Report this comment

Gee, I thought the Russian Marxists murdered the last of the Czars in 1917.

Why is it American Marxists now want to bring the Czars back?

I guess this is an appropriately silly approach to deal with the silliness in media reporting. For me, none of this is worth spending any serious money to fix. I think the general public realizes the media is in the business of yanking on their emotions more than reporting the facts. Apparently that is what sells the stuff we see in the commercials that surround the "News".

Posted by: PAUL MULWITZ | April 21, 2011 1:57 PM    Report this comment

"ATC Supervisors Only For Obama, Biden Flights"

I guess we are to assume then, that Supervisors are better at controlling aircraft than "regular" ATC guys.

In that case in the interest of safety, I DEMAND that only a supervisor be assigned to me every time I fly rather than "just" a mike jock..

Ridiculous is all I can say, and BTW, why does the first lady rate only a B737? should she not have her own Airforce 2?

Posted by: JERRY COCHRAN | April 21, 2011 2:05 PM    Report this comment

My intention of using czar was tongue and cheek, I apologize if it sounded political. I am not politically motivated at all when it comes to aviation. If you can replace what you call my silly approach, Mr. Mulwitz, with something more effective and helpful for GA in this subject I would be more than happy to support your ideas. I offer mine with only good intentions.

Posted by: David Miller | April 21, 2011 2:38 PM    Report this comment

Actually, what seems to be going on is that the supervisors are plugged in and monitoring. We're told that a lot of them aren't qualified on position, so they can't control airplanes.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | April 21, 2011 4:21 PM    Report this comment

Paul... I believe you are correct, at least that is the way it was done in the past but I have not been able to find the actual wording off the FAA order.

Most news agencies are releasing the following....


Unless something has changed a supervisor must be qualified on all positions before he/she is certified as a supervisor. Can he/she work all heavy traffic, doubtful but then when a White House aircraft is involved most traffic is run off.

I agree this was a non-event, the back door when plan "A" did not work.


Posted by: Ray Laughinghouse | April 21, 2011 4:37 PM    Report this comment


The quote got dropped for some reason....

FAA says planes carrying Mrs. Obama or Vice President Joe Biden will be handled by an air traffic supervisor, not a controller.

Posted by: Ray Laughinghouse | April 21, 2011 4:39 PM    Report this comment

Mr. Miller,

Please accept my apology. I have no sense of humor when it comes to czars.

I think the best way to make friends for GA is to aim at a smaller target than buying whole page adds in the media. A letter to the editor could work just as well with no big price tag. Also posting on social media sites and other such small efforts aimed at small audiences seems like the best approach to me.

The only problems I see with GA are:
1. The politicians, particularly the ones who are always waging class warfare, portray people who own and fly airplanes as the "Evil Rich" who should be as broke as "We" are.
2. Young folks are not willing and able to become fliers.

These are both problems which will never be completely solved. Still, a few friendly conversions and some appropriately positive publicity might help.

Posted by: PAUL MULWITZ | April 21, 2011 5:31 PM    Report this comment

I wonder if procedures are different at military airports. When I used to fly into White Plains, NY on Friday evening, the airport would be closed for an hour while the GV carrying first lady Hillary Clinton landed. Approach would stop all traffic while the GV would land, taxi and she would depart the airport. The highways were closed as well. No separation problems here. All other airplanes were just kept out of the area.

Posted by: DANA NICKERSON | April 21, 2011 7:04 PM    Report this comment

I love the scale of some of the graphics shown in the TV news reporting. The two planes appeared to be a couple plane lengths apart. If they were shown to scale with a 3 mile gap viewers would have had a better idea of the actual level of danger involved.

Posted by: Frank Arrison | April 21, 2011 8:17 PM    Report this comment

For those who complain about the First Lady and Second Lady being flown on government airplanes do you think it was any different for previous holders of those titles? I think the Secret Service insists that the President's and Vice President's families don't fly commercial, probably just to keep their jobs simpler.

Posted by: Dave Werth | April 21, 2011 9:30 PM    Report this comment

I mostly agree with Andrew Pietila's previous comment here. If the 737 crew would have called the field in sight, or if the controller would have asked the leading question "do you have the C-17 on short final in sight", then the 737 would have been immediately cleared for the visual approach. Once this happens the aircraft on the visual approach assumes responsibility for aircraft separation and wake turbulence avoidance.

This happens all the time. LAX comes to mind -- they pack in airplanes with less than ideal separation and then expect you to accept the visual. If you don't you may get sent around or on a vector for another radar pattern. Pilots know this and are prepared to take the visual. Three miles should be enough unless the airplane on the runway delays turning off. As long as the preceding aircraft is clear of the runway by the time you are on short final (or maybe closer) you'll be cleared to land.

Posted by: Nite Rider | April 22, 2011 4:16 AM    Report this comment

"Once this happens the aircraft on the visual approach assumes responsibility for aircraft separation and wake turbulence avoidance."

Ummm...I don't think so. But maybe a tower controller can clarify for us. This is from an FAA training document: "The tower controller shall not provide visual separation between aircraft when wake-turbulence separation is required or when the lead aircraft is a B-757."

Whether visual was an option or not, wasn't really the problem. This was a too-tight approach sequence that evolved into a squeeze for the tower, which resolved it with a go-around. I haven't been able to determine if the in-trail spacing bust was an operational error or not. That's just a fine point, but an interesting one.

The tower was on the hook for runway separation. According to the 7110.65, when either airplane is a category III aircraft (a heavy), 6000 feet of runway separation is required. In a dynamic situation, with one airplane moving slowly down the runway after touchdown as another approaches, judging whether that 6000 feet will exist may be a little tricky.

So...for the mere expense of a go around, why push it? According to news reports, the tower tried to build in a gap by directing the C-40 to do some S-turns. In other words, he tried to make it work out, but couldn't, so the C-40 gets a spin. Sounds like the right kind of call to me.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | April 22, 2011 5:36 AM    Report this comment

All of which re-enforces this point: This is a fine example of how the system works as it should, overcoming minor but inevitable human errors to build in a little extra margin.

And that's why it's a non-story. Coming full circle, if technically oriented reporters grasped this, they could explain it better to readers.

For example, in Stark's report, she said the tower controller "over ruled the regional controller." No he didn't. He merely played the hand he was dealt with two tools available to him (or her) S-turns and the go-around.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | April 22, 2011 5:56 AM    Report this comment

Another example of how the media fosters airplane hysteria. They just love to scare the public about those big, mysterious things which levitate as if by magic, and make everyone worry that one will fall from the sky like a dead bird and clunk them on the head.

Unfortunately, there's not a single, responsible reporter in the general media who seized the opportunity to tell the story of how well the systme works, of the great job ATC does in making all the minor adjustments to ensure that 99.99% of the time we all have safe, comfortable flights.

I don't care which party is in power, I think members of the first family traveling on personal business should be required to take the back seat in an F-15E. They'd get there faster, safer, and cheaper.

Posted by: Mark Consigny | April 22, 2011 9:06 AM    Report this comment

Hey Paul.... If the two aircraft were handed off in trail at the same altitude less then five miles apart then an error occurred including the error of the receiving controller in accepting the hand-off. Of course with automation the hand-off could have been accepted before the controller realized there was less then standard separation.

The C-140 may have come to the receiving controller faster then the C-4 and when the controller realized this he/she began the S turns to compensate.

I question why the FAA has classified this as the highest (worse) type of system error unless the aircraft were at the same altitude and less then three miles apart.

Could there be some politics involved?... Ray

Posted by: Ray Laughinghouse | April 22, 2011 9:25 AM    Report this comment


Please change C-4 to C-17 in my last, still waking up... Ray

Posted by: Ray Laughinghouse | April 22, 2011 9:29 AM    Report this comment

Ray, the airplanes involved are actually a C-40 and a C-17, with the 40 being the military variant of the 737.

So if this classified as a deal, then I suppose the TRACON controllers gets decertified-recertified, just like any other deal. I don't know how political it is, other than to note that I doubt if it would have made the news if all of this other noise with ATC hadn't been happening.

Also, if the tower controller had sorted it out and the go around didn't happen? Less likely, I think, to hit the evening news. As you know, tower controllers deal with this all the time. Some years ago, I spent some time in O'Hare tower, watching local and ground ops.

Those guys know how to build a final, but that doesn't mean every sequence is perfect. They work it out and/or send airplanes around. I recall one exasperated United Captain got sent around three times on one arrival.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | April 22, 2011 11:19 AM    Report this comment

I looked at the Lisa Stark video. The graphic wasn't just vastly over-simplified in the proportions of the following distance, but at the end of the report she stated that the S-turns weren't sharp and the passengers didn't know anything was going on. They sure looked sharp in the video.

Posted by: John Worsley | April 22, 2011 4:28 PM    Report this comment

I don't mind the scale compression so much as the wrong emphasis. To me, the real issue was the lack of anticipating separation on the runway which appears to have been caused by the tight sequence.

The wake turbulence issue, while perhaps a factor, is minor in my view. Many of the reports I saw made a biggish deal out of the go around, not really understanding why it happened.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | April 23, 2011 6:35 AM    Report this comment

Paul, indeed, the wrong emphasis: WHY DOES SHE NOT TRAVEL COACH? The automobile CEOs had to give up their business jets on her husband's instigation, and this unelected person flies around in a full fledged heavy? And all without the groping experience? She can get her 737 experience with Southwest, including applause (or NOT!!!) when she boards.

Posted by: ROBERT ZIEGLER | April 25, 2011 8:28 AM    Report this comment got your facts wrong. Laura Bush rode around in the same C-40 type aircraft and I don't recall any complaints from you. It was Congress, reacting to public opinion, which criticezed the automaker execs. Leave our political-slants out of these public "discussions" will avoid the same sort of "hype" being criticized.
Paul wrote: "I have about six minutes a day to do a blog, ... (Which we give to you for free, by the way.)" Paul, I was taught "If you can't take the time to do it right...then don't do it." I believe it is YOU/AvWeb who gets to choose the topies and judge the work-product quality before publication. I also was taught nothing is "free"...AvWeb profits by this activity or it wouldn't be done...and it is us the readers, who ulitimately pay for it. I'm only encouraging you to do the kind of job of which we know you're capable. Six-mins-day devoted to "stir the pot" doesn't equate to good journalism. IMO

Posted by: George Horn | April 25, 2011 10:06 AM    Report this comment

The one thing that drives this sort of story to become such a sensational event is simply, most people are scared sh__less about flying, or riding in an airplane. What else could cause someone landing a Taylorcraft in a field in Washington state to be news in New York City? The news media is eat-up with the sensationalization of any event concerning aviation. That the "first lady's" airplane was 3 miles behind a C-17 and "should" have been 5 miles is NOT and I repeat NOT some big hairy deal that stops the presses...somebody actually a lot of somebodys need to get a life and report what is really "news" ... crap like this is just that...crap.

Posted by: william laatsch | April 25, 2011 10:59 AM    Report this comment

Has anyone checked out the roll of the C-17 pilots in all of this? I spend most of my time flying at a high density GA airport where we frequently end up with separation issues. Very many times, it is the pilot of the airplane in front that causes the problem. Student pilots, pilots in training, etc. can make a contoller's life miserable by poor airspeed management that either decreases separation in the pattern or causes a long landing and missed turns off of the runway.

Posted by: David Chaffee | April 25, 2011 11:07 AM    Report this comment

I fly the 737 for a living. We operate safely every day with minimum spacing between landings. You rely on the aircraft in front of you to exit on the most frequently used taxiways. When an aircraft misses a regularly used taxiway (because it's full of cargo or fuel, or a crew is unfamiliar with the airfield) sometimes the equation changes. I go around several times a year, it's just the cost of doing business - safely. All of this mess is so hot because most of the media that covered this story were so utterly uninformed and misguided. We realize it only when the topic is something in which we are an expert. There is nothing wrong with the way the controllers or the pilots handled this situation. They were not perfect, but they were perfectly safe.

Posted by: John Bond | April 25, 2011 11:35 AM    Report this comment

Hey Paul B:

Find a moment and look into the fire bombers grounded by FAA while Texas burns up. Don't let the government smoke get into your eyes.

Posted by: Frank Strickler | April 25, 2011 11:47 AM    Report this comment

David C... The big iron fly pretty much set speeds in various points in the pattern and are not held accountable for what happens behind them.

ATC would be expected to issue instructions to either aircraft if they say a trend that could lead to a loss of separation. Of course the C-40 could have been on a visual approach following the C-17 which puts the burden on the C-40.

Just not enough information as yet.

Ray ATC Retired.

Posted by: Ray Laughinghouse | April 25, 2011 3:35 PM    Report this comment

I hate to sound totally cynical however someone here pointed out the media gets most aviation stories wrong. I submit based on most of the stories I know something about no matter the subject they get the story wrong. Modern journalism is just not very competent period.

Posted by: Stuart Baxter | April 25, 2011 3:51 PM    Report this comment

Paul B.--

Great Point of View. Just a few fine points--the comment that mentioned this being a "non-event" had the 737 reported the airport in sight wasn't quite correct--a later comment was closer. As was said, had the A/C reported the C-17 in sight, a visual approach clearance would have been issued, along with instructions to follow the A/C and a wake turbulence cautionary advisory would be issued. At that point, 5 (or even 3) miles are no longer required, as visual separation is being applied (and that trumps all).

As far as separation required on final goes, even without visual, two like types (i.e. 2 737's) can compress to 2.5 miles within 10 miles of the threshold at most major airports ( there are some airfield and equipment requirements). This is always trumped by any wake turbulence separation. In VMC, the tower can also provide visual separation between A/C, again, as long as wake turbulence isn't a factor (and they do so many, many times a day, every day).

Absent that, (keeping in mind that I have no first hand knowledge of this particular incident), the 5 mile violation (if that's what happened) is still classified as an operational error--in fact, any error that involves wake turbulence is assigned the most severe category (as Mr. Laughinghouse noted) regardless of the actual percentage of separation loss.

Hope this helps.

Posted by: Scott Deeter | April 25, 2011 9:47 PM    Report this comment

Scott, thanks for the detail. What about that training document I found that said visual separation can't be used when the leading aircraft is a heavy?

I don't see anything in the 7110.65, but the training piece was clear. Here's the language: "The tower controller shall not provide visual separation between aircraft when wake-tur- bulence separation is required or when the lead aircraft is a B-757."

I posted the link in the blog above. Find the reference on page
2.19. Is this not active guidance?

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | April 26, 2011 5:32 AM    Report this comment

George Horn, for your edification, a note on what blogs are supposed to do, at least as we construe them. They are meant to be observations and thoughts on current events, mostly opinion. Second, they provide a forum for others to discuss those opinions.

They are not news columns, nor are they in-depth articles. As I am, at the moment, knee deep in the economics of propellor replacements, I think I still know how to do those. If blogs required the same depth, we wouldn't bother. No time.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | April 26, 2011 6:03 AM    Report this comment

"Actually, what seems to be going on is that the supervisors are plugged in and monitoring. We're told that a lot of them aren't qualified on position, so they can't control airplanes."

Well, isn't that special? Believe I'd rather have the folks who do it ALL THE TIME working the positions than have the supervisors grab a mic for a high-profile target. Yes, supervisors are good and experienced, but are they proficient? Besides, unless they hold an Airman's Certificate with a category and class rating, ATC personnel DON'T CONTROL AIRPLANES - they direct traffic.

Posted by: MICHAEL MUETZEL | April 26, 2011 8:17 AM    Report this comment

Paul, I believe the training document you are referencing applies to visual separation provided by the controller not visual separation provided by the pilots such as the number two seeing number one and agreeing to "maintain visual separation."

In the case of the controller providing the visual separation the second aircraft may never see the first, at least theoretically. In my day we seldom used controller provided visual separation, just too much liability.


Posted by: Ray Laughinghouse | April 26, 2011 9:27 AM    Report this comment

Got it. Key word is "provide" not offer. I'd forgotten towers used to do that. Not so much anymore.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | April 26, 2011 10:27 AM    Report this comment

Paul--you got it. A/C #1 can separate himself from A/C #2, wake turbulence or not. Tower controllers can also provide visual separation if wake turbulence is not a factor, and they are talking to at least 1 of the A/C.

Ray, I don't know where or when you worked, but today this is common practice. It is used every day, between 2 arrivals, an arrival and a departure, or 2 departures.

Paul, one more thing--in an earlier comment you mentioned the same-runway/6000' requirement. For arrivals, this does not apply to turbojet a/c--the preceding A/C has to be clear of the RWY before the next one crosses the threshold.

Posted by: Scott Deeter | April 28, 2011 7:43 AM    Report this comment

Sorry Scott... I was thinking only of two arrivals, we did use visual often between an arrival and departure and between two departures.

I am having a problem with the statement that some of the supervisors were not or are not qualified to work the traffic on some positions they are supervising, this has to be a misunderstanding. A supervisor has to be qualified to sign-on or supervise any position...Ray

Posted by: Ray Laughinghouse | April 28, 2011 9:20 AM    Report this comment

"having a problem with the statement that some of the supervisors were not or are not qualified to work the traffic on some positions they are supervising, this has to be a misunderstanding"

Agreed. Of course they are qualified. But. As I have learned to my embarassment, even if I'm qualified I may not be proficient. High-vis, no-margin ops? I'd like a big heaping helping of proficient, please!

Posted by: MICHAEL MUETZEL | April 28, 2011 9:32 AM    Report this comment

"I am having a problem with the statement that some of the supervisors were not or are not qualified to work the traffic"

This comes from a current center controller describing the policy in his facility. He said supes may not be checked out to work traffic in all of the sectors they supervise.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | April 28, 2011 10:12 AM    Report this comment

Interesting, in my region, Southwest, a supervisor could not perform his/her supervisory duties until he/she was checked out in the facility.

We considered most supervisors to be qualified to work light to moderate traffic but only a few were capable of working heavy traffic and a few were not capable of handling any traffic, fortunately only a few... Ray

Posted by: Ray Laughinghouse | April 28, 2011 12:15 PM    Report this comment

In many facilities the supervisor only needs to be checked out on 1 or 2 positions to supervise an entire area/TRACON/tower. This is definitely a change from your days, which largely overlap mine. It is nation-wide. Proficiency is minimal to a joke in many cases.
I will have to double-check the next time I work, but the guidance we received last week on this was that, when AF1/2/1F/2F or the equivalent were on, there is to be a supervisor PLUGGED IN. This is not the same as the supervisor WORKING the aircraft. It expands existing procedure for handling AF1/2 to the families of same. The supervisor is monitoring from the overhead, watching the operation, possibly doing necessary coordination, but rarely if ever vectoring the aircraft.
Scott gave the right info on vis sep by pilots vs. by controller for the pilots.
And the C17 needed to be clear of runway; thus the go-around.
Secret Service procedures require 1F to be flown by military transport in nearly all cases. Regardless of political party.

Posted by: Barbara Walton | May 3, 2011 5:35 PM    Report this comment

Thank you Barbara, I am glad I have Ret. after my name today.

Posted by: Ray Laughinghouse | May 3, 2011 6:32 PM    Report this comment

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