Aviation Bests and Worsts: New Orleans, New York

In honor of retired air traffic maestro Don Brown's recent stint as a guest in this space, here are two real-world recordings of pilot-controller interactions in the past week, illustrating the best and worst of professionalism and demeanor.

9462324-large.jpgBest: the sang-froid, competence, smooth multi-tasking, and immediate triage-style attention to fundamentals shown by everyone on the ground and in the air during United 497's emergency landing in New Orleans. On the flight crew's part, the challenge was dealing with: an apparent in-flight fire, perhaps the most frightening of emergencies; the loss of all navigational instruments as they circled back to the airport for landing*; and the need to land on the shorter of the airport's runways with their heavy, still brimming-with-fuel plane, because the longer one was blocked by repair equipment that couldn't scramble off in time (and the plane couldn't circle to buy time, because smoke in the cabin suggested it might be on fire).

On the controllers' part, this meant: guiding the plane for its emergency return; managing other planes headed to and away from the airport; determining whether the equipment could be moved; and making a situation of life-and-death consequence easier rather than harder for the flight crew.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune has a great, informative feature about the "save" on its Nola.com site, here, which includes the illustration above plus an absolutely riveting audio (from LiveATC.net, no separate link) of the discussion among the flight crew, the controllers, and ground crews. Note the unbroken calm of all involved, including about a minute in when the tower controller asks the pilots the freighted question, "Say souls onboard." (That is something I have heard from a controller only once; story another time.) These people, on the ground and in the air, deserve acclaim similar to that for Chesley "Miracle on the Hudson" Sullenberger.

Worst: I recommend listening to this extended audio (via AVweb) of Jason Maloney, the young pilot who cavalierly decided to land on the Long Island beach very close to Kennedy Airport, only after hearing the New Orleans exchange above. Rather, do that only if you're ready to be built up to at least a moderate sense of outrage. The New Orleans exchanges show what members of this system are capable of. Those in New York show how their patience and calm can be abused. The New York Times link here includes two audio highlights from the end of the flight, worth hearing in order. First "Are We Allowed to Land on the Beach?" and then "I'm Going to Make a Precautionary Landing." Bear in mind that the controller being imposed on in this breezy way is responsible for airline traffic at a major airport in the most congested airspace in the world. I am glad that Maloney and his passengers are safe, because beach landings take some skill.** But now that they are safe, throw the book at him.

* In the New Orleans tape, you'll hear the pilot say that all his instruments have failed and he "needs a PAR." This stands for "Precision Approach Radar" and it means that the controller, watching the plane on radar, takes responsibility for guiding it in to a landing -- turn left, turn right, descend, level off. I mentioned recently that airliners can land just fine even if a controller falls asleep. This is the exception illustrating the rule, a case in which normal navigation systems are gone and the controller has to talk the airplane down.

** The "emergency" that allegedly forced the landing is that one of the passengers in the plane was going to throw up. Not to be indelicate, but this is why you carry little bags in the plane.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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