If paranoia and hysteria aren’t brother and sister, they’re at least first cousins. A whiff of the former isn’t a bad thing in aviation, but during the past two weeks or so, we seem to have overdosed on both. And now, in attempting the unlikely feat of tying runway incursions to Chinese spy balloons, I’m trying to appeal for calm. But stay with me, I really think there’s a connection.
I almost forgot improbable and that occurred yesterday when Billy Nolen, the FAA’s current acting administrator, told the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee that with regard to the runway dust-up at Austin on Feb. 4, “the system worked as it is designed to avert what you say could have been a horrific outcome.”
Well, yeah, if by “design” he meant the sheer dumb luck of having a crew on approach that had unusually prescient situational awareness and saved the day with a last-second go-around. Somehow, I don’t imagine this was built into “the system” but we flogged this horse to a pulp in a previous blog.
The overarching question raised—fairly by the committee, I’ll admit—was whether the Austin incident, the NOTAMs crater, a runway incursion and United’s 777 e-ticket ride in December are leading indicators of a system unraveling. It’s wholly proper to ask this, in my view, because the answer could just as easily be yes as no. Paranoia’s opposite is denial.
But how would you arrive at an answer to the question? Nolen was right in one regard: Sweep the data and see what you see. What data? My short list would include trends in controller operational errors, pilot deviations, filings to the FAA’s self-reporting safety system called ASAP and trends in runway incursion data. Maybe a look at ASRS, too. If these pointed upward, or some did, perhaps we’ve got a problem.
But inveterate second-guessers like me are being starved because some of this data may not even be kept—the operational error and pilot deviation trends—or if kept, isn’t accessible. The runway incursion data is accessible and a look at the latest numbers available for 2022 reveals little to suggest system safety erosion. Air traffic came roaring back in 2021 and 2022, but reported incursions didn’t reach 2018 and 2019 levels. Such that I could reduce this to a rate, it didn’t rise, either. It was 34/1M operations in 2018 versus 31/1M in 2021. Actual numbers were 1832 incursions in 2018, 1753 in 2019, 1574 in 2021 and 1732 in 2022.
FAA analysts have better data and tools to dig into this in depth and Congress ought to insist that they do so. Bottom line, though, I’ll bet no data supports trends that show degraded safety. I don’t sense that AVweb readers are particularly spun up about this but still like to see one-off reports on these things as a means of perhaps avoiding the same mishaps themselves. Nonetheless, I always urge waiting until there’s good reliable data and information before concluding anything. We’re gonna have to wait awhile for that.
But with the balloons, why not kick paranoia to the curb and jump straight to hysteria? Absent any real data, the country went momentarily bats&^t culminating in about $2.5 million in ordnance to take down one real Chinese balloon and three well-we-really-don’t-know-what-they were … things. Now that the Pentagon has admitted that the three other objects were benign, we await the results of expensive—and hazardous—ground searches that I predict will find nothing because if any of them turn out to be gender reveal balloons, I’d rather it be kept classified. Meanwhile, Aviation Week says the Northern Illinois Bottlecap Balloon Brigade is missing one of its balloons that was, coincidently, in Alaska when the F-22s went on the prowl. I’m not making any of this up.
Meanwhile, NORAD has jacked up the gain on its radars to the point that a flock of Starlings flushing from a tree in Des Moines will move us to Defcon 1. OK, not really. It’s actually a good thing to keep the radar filters off for a while to collect some actual data—there’s that word again—on what’s out there and what we really need to be alert to. After all, we do know the first balloon shot down was Chinese (they admitted it) and we know China is a malign actor. We’re also pretty sure the thing had signals intelligence capability and once fished out of the Atlantic, we’ll know what else it could do. I have no opinion on whether it should have been shot down sooner or later, but knocking it down was the thing to do.
Students of World War II will remember the Battle of Los Angeles, but many will say … the what? Next week marks the 81st anniversary of this bizarre chapter in American history. On Feb. 24 and 25, 1942, two-and-half months after Pearl Harbor, the city erupted in a mad minute of anti-aircraft fire that lasted, sporadically, for several hours. The false air raid scare was ignited by a weather balloon—yes, a balloon—and after the fact, several gunners said they saw the attacking Japanese airplanes, even though none were there. Errant shrapnel damaged buildings and five people died in car accidents or of heart attacks.
Lest you think conspiracy theories are a recent thing, there were claims of a cover-up meant to give coastal defense industries an excuse to move further inland. No less than the Secretary of War said it was believed that 15 commercial planes flown by enemy agents crossed the city that night. None did, although a Japanese submarine did lob some shells into a Santa Barbara refinery on the 24th.
The point of this is that hysteria readily fills the information vacuum if there is one and there always is one. This time it was Chinese balloons dropping bugs into U.S. woodlands to decimate our housing stock. And as with the aviation system collapsing into deadly chaos on the strength of a couple of near accidents, I would argue that as pilots, we should set the example by remaining calm and analytical until something at least resembling fact surfaces. It’s much more satisfying to panic when you really have reason to.