air safety

Shocking air safety breaches emerge nationwide in data analysis

See related content: NASA fields growing number of air-safety reports with limited staff

By Brant Houston, Investigative News Network; Robert McClure, InvestigateWest; and Kevin Crowe, The Watchdog Institute

A commercial airline pilot en route to San Diego International Airport looks out a window at 10,800 feet and sees a Lockheed S-3 Viking Navy jet coming right at him. 

“The captain quickly pulled up on the control column to avoid hitting the S3,” the co-pilot wrote in a report filed with federal officials. “He turned his head to the right, which made me look out of my window on the right. And the window was full of the S3.” 

The two planes passed within about 100 feet of each other. 

This is just one of thousands of examples of near-misses, bad communications, equipment failures, wildlife hits and sometimes just silly but dangerous errors contained in an aviation safety database collected and analyzed by NASA. 

A six-month examination of more than 150,000 reports filed by pilots and others in the aviation industry over the past 20 years reveals surprising and sometimes shocking safety breaches and close calls at local, regional and major airports throughout the country. 

A consortium of journalists working at six nonprofit investigative centers across the U.S. reviewed the records with Investigative News Network, of which they are members, and National Public Radio. To put the confidential reports into context, the journalists did extensive data analysis of the reports and conducted scores of interviews with pilots, air traffic controllers and aviation safety experts. 

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NASA fields growing number of air-safety reports with limited staff

See related content: Aviation safety reports reveal frequent safety problems at airports, in sky

The number of reports filed with the Aviation Safety Reporting System is soaring, but the funding for the staff handling the reports is grounded.

“We’re hitting records every day in terms of volume,” said Linda Connell of NASA, director of the system. “We could do more if we had more. … We’ve been flat-funded since 1997.”

Connell said all reports are reviewed within three days by a team of about 10 part-time air-safety experts with decades of combined experience as pilots, controllers and other related jobs.

But only 20 percent of the reports are processed fully – which means contacting the person who filed the report, summarizing it and then posting it in the database available to the public. The rest of the reports are not revealed.

The database amassed by NASA is valuable, air-safety experts say, because it allows air-safety professionals to quickly and confidentially report problems that often are the result of systemic flaws – flaws the system seeks to illuminate.

Connell said pilots, controllers and others are comfortable confessing their flubs to NASA because the agency has no power to punish them, yet is knowledgeable about aeronautics and air safety.                                     

In exchange, the system usually allows a pilot or controller who makes such a report to escape punitive action by the Federal Aviation Administration, the agency that licenses pilots and controllers.

 Encouraging frank disclosures is a good trade for the lack of prosecution, Connell said.

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Rita Hibbard's picture

New partnerships for InvestigateWest

InvestigateWest teamed up with KING 5 TV, producing an in-depth look at air safety in the skies over Washington state.

The story might open your eyes next time you drag that carry-on aboard the plane. On average, more than 150 close calls are happening every day, KING's Jim Forman reported. 

A pilot and co-pilot operating on three hours’ sleep start taking a wrong turn – right into the path of another aircraft – after lifting off from Boeing Field in Seattle, InvestigateWest's Robert McClure reported.  Quick work by an air traffic controller averts disaster over the state’s largest population center.

Reporting by both Forman and McClure found that NASA's reporting system, designed to identify and prevent problems, also serves as a sort of "get out of jail free card" for reporting pilots and controllers.

"If you cause a car crash, drivers can’t get off the hook simply for admitting fault. But in the case of pilots or other air safety professionals, if they are willing to admit they were in the wrong, the FAA won’t hold the report against them," Foreman reported. "It also waives fines and penalties including the most serious -- revoking a pilot’s license."

Part one of Forman's report includes a video presentation with special graphics highlighting the risks posed by near-miss collisions. Part two of the report focuses on the most congested airspace over Washington state.

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