Austin Revisited: The Quest For Heroes


Accident investigation, by its very nature, requires second guessing. In fact, it’s defined by second guessing based on disclosed factual information. Sometimes the findings are as black and white as these things can get—say a fuel exhaustion accident, a stall spin incident or landing gear up. The nut behind the wheel catches the blame because no other culprits are in evidence.

The recent loss of separation incident at Austin—loss of separation being the more clinical term than near disaster—will probably be a lot murkier. In that context, an airline pilot friend of mine is grinding me about giving the FedEx pilots too much credit for saving the day.

To spare you the slog through the video, the executive summary is that in RVR weather where the tower controller couldn’t see the runway, he cleared a Southwest 737 for takeoff with the FedEx 767 on a 3-mile final. The gap was apparently too tight and although the Southwest flight acknowledged the inbound traffic, the tape appears to show Southwest took 63 seconds to get on the runway and rolling.

The tape also suggests that the FedEx pilots figured out the sequence was too close and executed a go-around. In the process, they ordered the Southwest jet to abort its takeoff roll, evidently worried that it could climb into them as they flew the missed. (The geometry suggests that wouldn’t have happened.) My friend believes FedEx will get dinged for both what may have been a late go-around and for issuing an utterly non-standard command to another airplane. He’s probably right on both counts, although the go-around point remains to be documented, as does how the go-around was flown with regard to climb rate.

This is the classic no good deed goes unpunished. His argument is that if FedEx may have saved the day by exercising good judgment on the go-around, they should have done better by exercising it earlier, in which case there would have been no loss of separation and no evening news stories. Judgment. And rendered after the fact, it’s always easier than doing it on the fly with seconds to decide.

To me, this illuminates a level of expectation that most of us don’t think about. And it’s this: If someone else screws up, as pilot in command, are you on the hook to see it and figure out how to fix it? In a way, that’s what the Austin incident is about.

Here’s a simple example. In visual conditions, you’re on short final and an airplane crosses the runway just as you approach the flare. In your judgment—judgment repeated for emphasis—there’s not enough margin so you go around. Whether the controller cleared the airplane to cross is immaterial. You judged it too tight. Are you right? Of course you are. I can’t think of many—really any—circumstances where a go-around is wrong, even though another pilot in the same circumstance might continue because he or she judges it acceptable. And yes, this includes the insanely busy pattern at Oshkosh. And yes, controllers have been surprised by unexpected go-arounds but they’re not supposed to build sequences that don’t allow for same.

Now freight the same situation with low IMC barely at minimums. You’re on final and you hear the controller clear a departure in front of you. There’s an expectation that the controller has allowed enough time for the runway separation ATC is required to provide. But, absent the ability to see through the clag, are you expected to somehow sense the separation won’t be adequate and act immediately by going around? Is that part of your PIC requirements? Would that be a reasonable judgment you are expected to make? I’d say no, although survival instinct has to figure into it to, human error being ever present. Separation is based on trust and it’s reasonable to depend on it. Most of us know enough about ATC to realize the scenario I painted above would never happen, but at Austin, it apparently did.

What the NTSB and FAA will have to determine was whether it was reasonable to expect the FedEx pilots to surmise that the controller appeared to have messed up the sequencing with a too-tight gap and that they were in the best position to resolve the conflict. My friend thinks this is true, but I’m not so sure. There were multiple responsibilities. The controller still retained authority to order a go-around to fix the egregious error it appears that he made. Southwest had the option of declining the takeoff had they paused to calculate the 767 would cover 2.4 miles in a minute. Neither of those strike me as unreasonable.

Regardless of where they began the go-around and based on the tape, FedEx still seems to be the only one of three actors with anything like situational awareness. There could be more going on the background. We’ll see. One interesting twist here is that FedEx aircraft are equipped with FLIR, which may or may not have been a factor. A FedEx pilot I know says it’s unlikely that it would have provided a clear picture in the conditions at Austin.

The whole thing puts me in mind of that classic 1995 submarine thriller, Crimson Tide. Remember Jason Robards’ line at the review board after Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman got into a bloody brawl over destroying the earth? “You both created one hell of a mess.” Just make it three instead of two and you’ve got the immediate takeaway from this incident.

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  1. I’m with you, Paul. I don’t think it’s unreasonable for the FedEx crew on short final to expect the SW crew to EXPEDITE their takeoff after being notified of an aircraft on 3-mile final. How long does it take the average 737 crew to taxi into position and throttle up? 63 seconds seems like an eternity, and in this case it almost was.

    As far as the “non-standard” radio call, this entire situation was non-standard. The FARs permit the PIC to take whatever action deemed necessary in an emergency, and if this wasn’t an emergency I’ve never seen one.

    • Bingo. FAR 91.3 applies here before anything else. And if either the NTSB or FAA faults the FedEx crew, then Sully needs to be faulted for violating FAR 91,119. I’m sure the controller will get off scott free.

    • Absolutely agree – Paul, you friend is an airline pilot and I’m not but, I’m sorry, there’s just no basis or justification for “dinging” the FedEx pilot for his actions.

      The FedEx pilot should have “done better” by performing the go around sooner?? And just how was he supposed to arrive at that decision?

      The tower controller had cleared him for the Cat III approach and he had no visual contact with the runway threshold or touchdown zone due to the fog. As I understand it, TCAS is inhibited during this phase of flight, so someone please tell me what other information did the FedEx pilot have about the location of the departing Southwest jet?

      All he had was what said on the radio and, luckily, that was just enough to provide him the SA to make right call and go missed.

      According to the tower tape, there is about 18 seconds between when the the Southwest jet stated to the tower they were “rolling” (indicating they were still on the runway and alerting FedEx to same) and when the FedEx called “Southwest abort” followed by “FedEx is on the go.”

      The last two FedEx calls were made due to one of two reasons: Either the FedEx pilot had a visual of the Southwest jet moving down the runway, or that the sheer timing of the last Southwest radio call told him that things were just too tight.

      To suggest that the FedEx crew could have done better is nothing more than Monday morning armchair quarterbacking and it’s clear to me that the tower controller bears the responsibility for the incident. That controller should thank his lucky stars that the FedEx pilot had brought his A game that day.

      • In fact… I believe the FedEx crew used their query to ATC “are we cleared to land?” as an attempt to verify that separation still existed… and they likely decided to go-around instead of land behind SWA who was STILL ON THE RUNWAY… very CORRECTLY…because they had no assurance that SWA would continue (not abort) OR if FedEx JUDGEMENT had decided to land anyway…that SWA MIGHT ABORT. FedEx had no idea what SWAs’ V-speeds were OR any way to determine their readiness for flight when FedEx had visual on them.
        ATC FURTHER ERR’D when ATC issued LEFT TURNS to BOTH aircraft…which served to keep them in closer proximity than if ATC had instructed SWA to “maintain runway heading”…which would have added separation.
        ATC at Bergstrom has a history of F*** Ups.

  2. I’ll offer another view. The controller had minimal experience with low vis operations. On a clear day, pilots move quicker and this would have worked. On clear day, as long as SW 737 is airborne and 6,000 down the runway when FDX crosses the threshold, things are good. That is not the standard when the controller can not see the aircraft involved. ATC has to be able to determine the distance down the runway with suitable landmarks. That ain’t happening RVR 1800.

    The most troubling aspect is the controller did not comprehend that it was not going to work as the situation deteriorated. ATC needed to issue go around instructions and a turn to FDX to diverge from LUV. ATC became an observer instead of taking control and minimize the loss of separation. That is his job and responsibility.

  3. AIM Page 595 Pilot/Controller Glossary

    ABORT− To terminate a preplanned aircraft maneuver; e.g., an aborted takeoff.

    A pilot cannot directly recommend that another aircraft abort a takeoff. Air Traffic Control (ATC) is responsible for coordinating and controlling the movement of aircraft in the airspace, and it is the role of ATC to issue takeoff clearances and abort takeoff recommendations to aircraft.

    HOWEVER, ATC could not see the aircraft on the ground, and ATC and the Southwest 737 seem to have lost Situational Awareness. 63 seconds? I say it was a good call by FedEx.

    • “Regardless of where they began the go-around and based on the tape, FedEx still seems to be the only one of three actors with anything like situational awareness. ” Best summation.

    • @Raf S.: You have that wrong. FedEx had every right to suggest an “abort” to SWA… but SWA had no obligation to obey an instruction from another aircraft in lieu of ATC.

      • In Vietnam, as an infantryman, when someone would yell out “duck” I had no obligation to “duck”. I ducked anyway.

  4. I agree that the FedEx crew did the right thing. I’d back them all day long.
    They found themselves in a situation of uncertainty, and when no clarity or solution came, they took action.
    Arguing that they should have gone around earlier is like arguing that Sully should have turned toward LaGuardia sooner. While that would have been ideal, it is not reasonable in reality.
    Sometimes aircraft take longer than you expect to line-up and roll. Best not to take your chances in poor visibility conditions, IMHO.
    A marginal call by ATC at best, marginal for Southwest to accept given the limited distance and their apparent lack of readiness to immediately depart.

  5. I am, also, in your camp here…

    OK pilots… Ever, in flight, get that feeling.. “something isn’t right”/ “not adding up/ “does not feel good” / “what ?”. You have no idea WHAT, only that the hair on the back of your neck is standing… ? The FedEx CVR may reveal… maybe not.. But it MAY be a situation where the FedEx crew suddenly looked at each other, and without a word, hit “GO” …

    Instinct, gut feeling… call it what you like.. But something in the radio traffic, situation, or whatever… was not working for them, and they ACTED on their instincts and got out of there to try again… From my (unprofessional ) estimation it appears that they acted with NO seconds to spare. In the ballet of ATC traffic, unseen, someone slipped.. and the Fed Ex crew caught the nuance, and did the right thing..

    As for a “non standard” radio call? WHAT??? They sensed something really bad, called it CORRECTLY and alerted others… Having the mental presence to alert the other aircraft in those busy few seconds? Amazing professionalism..

    More to come I am sure… but for now… Kudos to this professional, alert FedEx crew..

  6. Too much credit given? Except for the great god Chance, who always plays a leading role in accidents avoided, who else in the mess could we give credit to?

  7. I listened to the ATC conversation recording and found it to be incredibly sloppy. Good communication with NO ambiguity is the name of the game here.

    In such a situation I would have expected the controller to interrogate the SW aircraft with a simple question – ” are you ready for immediate takeoff?” before giving clearance.

    At the VERY least he sould have issued the clearance with the caveat – “cleared for IMMEDIATE takeoff” thereby giving the SW the option to decline and remain at the holding position if they were not 100% ready.

    From the tracking data SW was exceedingly slow in moving out so it seems they had not grasped the urgency of the situation.

    • Yes. If there ever was a situation for which “cleared for immediate takeoff” was invented, this was it. Even on a CAVU day it would be appropriate.

      I wonder if the wait time for wake turbulence after the 767 lands was part of what drove trying to shoehorn the 737 departure in ahead of the heavy.

      • Speaking of wake turbulence, I’ve been wondering about the flight paths of the departing 737 and the overflying 767. Some of the reporting says there was only 100′ vertical separation. Was there any lateral separation or was the 737 going to be flying into the 767 wake? Granted, the 767 wasn’t CLEAN but it was still HEAVY and SLOW…

  8. I’m with Paul as well. Pretty clear I think. The controller screwed up big time. The Southwest pilots where asleep at the wheel and might have finally woken up when FedEx was passing them overhead. The FedEx pilots saved the day. Could they have gone around earlier? Maybe. But given the situation I think they reacted excellent. Even Sully took several seconds to decide that landing on the Hudson was the best option…

  9. I’m with the FedEx crew, would be interesting to know their background, different “cultures” expect more of PICs than others.

    Sometimes fate (or incompetence on one or more parties) serves you up the proverbial s$&@ sandwich…regardless of whether regulatory/supervisory bodies eventually deem your action in compliance or not, the FedEx crew (and many SW occupants) survive to sit at the long green table. “Correct” and dead is another outcome. Regulators should tread very carefully on which behavior they reward.

  10. 91.3 (a) and (b) all the way. I can’t speak for the actual state of mind of the Fed-Ex pilot’s judgement. But it sure sounds like they thought it was turning pear shaped – you do what it takes.

    Remember this one from years ago in crappy vis when the US Air pilots declined a take-off in poor vis (pre-ground radar) to save the day.

  11. 1. The controller was wrong giving the takeoff clearance
    2. The SWA pilot should never have accepted the clearance. They certainly should have done the mental math on the closure rate while trying to find the runway for a low vis takeoff.
    3. The Fedex crew should not have made the abort call (they were desperate won’t you agree). Plus they should have turned 30 degrees left (or right) on the go if they thought a collision was imminent.

    I can say with total certainty that I would never have accepted the takeoff clearance, in those weather conditions, knowing traffic was on a 3 mile final. What if the Fedex crew didn’t execute the fly-by and the Southwest crew aborted the takeoff for a mechanical? Now who ya gonna blame………..

    The controller issued a bad clearance, the SWA crew accepted a bad clearance…..

    …………and the Chief’s won!

    God bless.

  12. Monday morning QB all we want, but there are NO heroes in this scenario just some lucky crews and 143 very lucky passengers. You can’t clear a guy for takeoff when you have someone on short final for a Cat III approach, period. Southwest should not have been cleared into the ILS critical zone, much less cleared for takeoff. You can’t expect anyone to expedite anything when you can barely see the centerline and have to do a HUD departure. Were they asleep at the wheel or task saturated with the HUD takeoff checklist added on to all the other checklists? Every time that controller gave the RVR, the Captain had to be thinking — are we still legal? If he was Sky King, he would’ve refused the takeoff clearance because he would’ve known FedEx was required to go around because of the Cat III conditions.

    FedEx’s first radio call after Southwest acknowledged the takeoff clearance should have been “FedEx is going around.” And it should have been in that pissed off tone of voice that lets the controller know immediately that he screwed up.

    Probably a career ending mistake for the controller.

    • Yes to everything. Out of general principal. I’d fly with anyone named Billy Bob, but this one in particular.

    • BillyBob…if FedEx had immediately gone-around as you suggested…they would be IN THE SOUP WITH SWA with less than good separation. There is NOTHING wrong with FedEx telling SWA to “abort”. The fact that SWA was at a point beyond a safe-abort likely prevented them from doing so…(along with their eagerness to get everyone to the Cozumel cocktail lounge.)
      Think about it: If Cat II approaches are in-progress and you’re cleared to land and someone else is cleared to takeoff…. you are relying on ATC for separation. Only after breakout (or some other indication such as ADSB, etc.) would you have sufficient viz to see SWA still sitting on the concrete which has been approved for YOUR landing and which should be UN-occupied!

      • Actually, if you look at the plate, they probably would have have had legal vertical separation. At 3 miles, they were at 1500 feet, if the missed commenced there. Wouldn’t a 767 get to 3000 during the time it took the 737 to get to rotation? Then the approach controller would have time to pry them apart laterally.

    • Career ending mistake depends upon whether it affects diversity counts or not. Some will get remedial training.

  13. Three miles out on final in a narrow body is going to vary from 120/160 kts ground speed. So let’s average out to an average approach speed of 140 kts for the vast majority of narrow bodies. On a three degree approach path at 900 ft AGL that’s less than three minutes to touchdown.

    Heck, if there’s weather on the departure, I like to have a brief discussion with my FO about it and alternate departure plans, while the radar does a couple extra sweeps.

    When a tower clears an aircraft “for an immediate” takeoff, traffic three miles out”, even on a CAVU day, the pucker factor for the landing traffic immediately skyrockets, if there’s any experienced crewmember up front. We all know there are less of those.

    “Regulations are written in blood”, I can’t wrap my head around the fact we don’t have a five NM separation required even in in VMC for large aircraft.

    Of course we can’t forget fuel is heavy and the smart underpaid guys in the various dispatch rooms figure out having an airplane successfully land at bingo fuel, might prove how smart they are and deserve a pay raise, which adds to the anxiety of burning up go around fuel.

    The elephant in the room for me here is for years due to pay structure and (perhaps) crew culture, Brand X was known for taxiing at V1, never pass up an offer for an intersection departure, and go arounds are for are only appropriate if instructed or you couldn’t do enough S-turns on final for it to work out.

    That culture only exists in airports I don’t fly to these days if it was ever true. However, ATC over the years couldn’t help but pick up on the “Brand -X” will be off the ground in 15 seconds, and if landing, they can make Bravo taxiway if I ask them to, even though that culture doesn’t exist anymore, if in reality it ever did.

    The older I get the less chances I take to prove my airmanship.

  14. Which model 737? Someone can correct me but I’ve read that, when there are icing conditions, the “leap” engines on the latest 737s require a runup at 70% power for 30 seconds before they can set takeoff power and roll. I believe the weather at AUS was icing conditions as to jet engines.

    • Good point Wally. Our outfits NEO’s AOM uses the phrase “Momentarily” for engine run-up in cold weather operations. My wife’s definition of “momentarily” is significantly different than mine.

      Perhaps the Southwest guys RTFM. The Air Florida 90 guys sure didn’t.

  15. In the temp & vis conditions, once the SWA 737 was lined up for takeoff, they were likely supposed to set the brakes and do 70% run up for around 30 seconds to prevent ice ingestion from the nose cowl. Don’t know if they did this or not. Regardless, they shouldn’t have accepted the take off clearance.

    The engine run procedure by the way, is what bit the DTW tower controller squarely in the sox when the NWA 727 collided with the NWA DC-9 on runway 3C on 12/3/1990. Visibility was well below 600 RVR (another story) so of course the tower couldn’t see either airplane. When the DC-9 called & said he thought he had wandered onto an active runway, the controller thought that the 727 had all ready taken off. No such luck. (Hint – willing the airplane into the air doesn’t work). The DTW accident is the mother of Low Visibility Taxi Procedures & SMGS.

    It’s possible that along with having neglected their computer software, SWA’s ACO has not required that they provide a chapter in their ops manual covering low vis taxi, takeoff, approach, & landing procedures – but I doubt it. If the NTSB is smart enough to make the comparison between the printed procedures & what happened, we will probably find out that accepting the takeoff clearance wasn’t the SWA crew’s only mistake.

    The KAUS tower controller was likely there all by himself. He was probably tired or inexperienced or both. I also expect that clearing an airplane for a low vis takeoff to the same runway with another airplane on a Cat 3 ILS is a violation of TERPS.

    The Fedex crew is the hero. They were able to see what was going on via TCAS. I would like to think I would have broken this approach earlier but having flown freight myself, I know how the collective exhaustion makes you not want to believe your eyes & ears. Good job Fedex!

  16. At what point did the Fedex pilots decide to go around? Did they see the SWA airplane and then decide or was it before that? They must have seen it as they told the SWA pilots to abort. If they were that low, then this was much closer than a lot of people thought.

  17. Could we review IFR and VFR separation requirements in a separate article? It may be described above, but … have to go to work. These kinds of events are move likely given climate change and increasing humidity/IFR conditions. Another question—would ADSB given any relevant information to either crew? Please educate us. Thank you.

    • Uhh…this was weather, Art. Not climate change. Pilots have been dealing with low vis and fog since the cows left the barn, and they’ll be dealing with fog til the cows come home…

  18. Agree with Paul 100%. As for the ‘order’ that came from FedEx. The argument is immaterial as to whether it has legs or not. To me, it’s additional information for the SWA crew. And we have to use all available information to ensure the safe outcome of the flight. Whether it was ‘abort your takeoff’ or ‘I’m about to land on you if you don’t abort’ makes no difference- something is up and I’m letting you know. Clearly pilots can’t play ATC in a controlled environment but that’s not the point here.

  19. A few points I see, separation was already lost once Fedex reached 2 miles and SWA wasn’t rolling. The rule is 2 increasing to 3 within 1 minute of departure.

    ATC should be 100% held accountable. The controller didn’t do anything to insure the 2 to 3 rule. He didn’t confirm SWA was rolling soon enough and didn’t issue an immediate takeoff. The most disturbing thing to me is that he did nothing at all to correct the situation. There is remedial training, but this one may be a find another career moment.

    The SWA crew should get hit also. They were told Fedex was on a 3 mile final and took their sweet time rolling. If they were in a B737 that requires any delay at all on the runway, they should be dinged big time for not refusing the clearance and/or at least telling the tower of their requirements. They had to know in the wx conditions that things were going to get hairy.

    As for Fedex, their miss may not have been text book (I’m not familiar with Cat 3 ops from the pilot side), but as mentioned, they seem to be the only one paying attention. As far as them telling SWA to abort, I don’t see that as something the FAA will look at as anything more than a PIC trying to help the situation.

    If the controller was paying attention, he should have confirmed SWA was rolling before Fedex hit 2 miles and then made Fedex go miss, since SWA wasn’t rolling.

  20. The NTSB and FAA will have months to Monday morning Quarter back the situation that the FedEx pilot had seconds in which to make a decision.

    Bottom line the FedEx pilot made two decisions that GUARANTEED separation between both aircraft, going around and telling the SW to abort.

    I am OK with that.

  21. The FedEx 767 has the IS&S avionics modification (which I retired on) and has a huge PFD and MFD screens WITH traffic displayed. They had better SA than the tower. They saw SWA release brakes late (63 seconds is insane) and they obviously knew there would be a loss of separation. Likewise, the MFD in the SWA 737 must have seen the 767 on final approach with their TCAS system.

    I suspect the 737 wasn’t really ready for departure when they called the tower. SWA is famous for pushing the limits on departure to get off the ground ASAP. There is no other logical explanation why they took 63 seconds to release brakes.

    But according to a highly experienced ATC tower controller, KAUS doesn’t even have a ground radar repeater in the tower, and he said most towers don’t. I’m amazed that the FAA with an $18 BILLION budget doesn’t have this technology in most if not all Federal control towers.

  22. 🤔Arguably, FedEx opting for the missed approach would have deconflicted.

    The KAUS ILS RWY 18L (CAT II & III) MAP starts at the threshold: Climb to 1000, then climbing left turn to 3000 on hdg 040, int CWK R-088 to HOOK int/CWK 17 DME and hold.

    • *early and high MAP would have deconflicted. As it happened, there was an ADS-B vertical separation of 77 ft, before the climb started.

  23. The Fed Ex pilots deserve an air medal. The tower controller never should have issued a takeoff clearance to SWA given the reduced visibility and it’s a mystery why the Southwest pilots took so long to start their takeoff roll. Fed Ex saved the day on this one.

  24. “If someone else screws up, as pilot in command, are you on the hook to see it and figure out how to fix it?”

    Great summary of this entire event. Heck YES! The PIC is on the hot seat. I agree wth the multiple suggestions to award the FedEx pilots air medals. As for SWA (And Congress for living the delusion that death by schedule deviation is a rational requirement…) — YOU and the ATC guy in the tower cab have REALY and truely earned your Darwin badges.

  25. Several comments were about the controller not doing anything to resolve the situation. That brings up the question: Was he totally oblivious to what was happening, or did he realize he was about to put two planes in the same space and panic/freeze?