On May 15, 1997, Channel 7 News (ABC affiliate) in Denver gave a report by John Ferrugia, that revealed an Emery DC-10 airfreighter almost collided with a United 737, over DIA on January 7th, of this year. The controller involved was required to report it, but he didn't. No one would have known, if John Ferrugia had not made a timely Freedom of Information Act (FOI) request. He got the tapes just one day before they were scheduled to be destroyed.
Larry Parrent, head of the Denver ATC facility, was interviewed by John Ferrugia. He claimed the ATC controller, who was responsible for the near collision, actually saved the day by directing the Emery plane to turn away from the United 737. But that was not true, according to the final FAA report. To the contrary, the controller (only 5 months on the job) was not aware they were on a collision course and did not take any corrective action. The Emery pilot saved the day when she turned her plane away from the United 737. Parrent went on to say "I don't think we should judge the whole system based on one employee's not reporting a [sic] incident."
But Ferrguia found it was only one of ten incidents that had occurred at DIA this year and controllers had tried to cover-up several of those too.
During February, 1995, the residents below the approach path to the Los Angles Airport (LAX), came very close to having two airliners collide above their heads. Had that collision not been avoided, it is likely at least 200 souls on those two aircraft, along with numerous others on the ground, would have died a terrible death. The carnage would have been far worse than the midair collision of the Aeronaves de Mexico DC-9 and the Piper aircraft on August 31, 1986, over Cerritos, California (82 fatalities), or the LAX runway collision of the USAir 737 and the Skywest Metroliner on February 1, 1991, (35 fatalities).
I was flying one of those two airliners. We were cleared to fly the ILS 25L approach to LAX. In the vicinity of the Limma marker beacon, our TCAS warned of imminent collision with another converging airliner -- so close it filled up my entire left cockpit window. We were forced to roll to the right and abandon the approach.
During taxi-in, the tower requested a telephone call. I called and informed the tower chief we almost collided with a 727 and that I would be filing a near collision/TCAS report. He replied "Oh (expletive deleted)!"
My two telephone reports (company and FAA) and my written report, put everyone on notice that a major disaster had been narrowly averted and an investigation was required.
Despite several inquiries, I heard nothing more for over 6 months. Eventually, I received a letter which claimed my report was received too late to conduct an investigation because the FAA only keeps the tapes for 15 days. Yet, my written report was date-stamped as received SIX DAYS after that near disaster!
The tower chief knew the near collision was likely the direct result of LAX controller error. It was his duty to immediately preserve the radar and audio tapes and begin an investigation. Yet, he didn't and, apparently, those in the private sector who knew about it, were not willing to risk the publicity that might flow from such an investigation. Thus, all they had to do was quietly sit on it until those tapes were automatically shredded.
The question, then, is why do these cover-ups occur? The answer: Because there is much to be gained (airlines avoid negative publicity that may scare potential passengers and those responsible avoid the embarrassment of having their incompetence exposed) and nothing to lose. They all know there is no penalty for failing to make the required reports or investigation. The controllers who were exposed by Ferrugia's report at DIA, simply received additional training. They were not punished for failing to report. It is a classic case of the fox guarding the hen house.
Although it is charged with ensuring the safety of the flying public, the FAA seems to be continually involved in scandals that detract from that mandate:
The news reports about repeated attempts to obstruct justice and cover-up the millions of dollars wasted on a cult leader who was hired to indoctrinate FAA officials about sensitivity; about outdated computer (tube set) systems that continually fail and endanger the flying public; about the old-boy regulatory system that often looks the other way at some airline's shortcomings (until a fatal accident exposes those deficiencies as happened with Valujet); or the kind of situation I am reporting where FAA personnel have the power to prevent an investigation into a near mass tragedy because they were the probable cause of that close call.
The NTSB investigates all airline accidents because it hopes, by finding out what went wrong, to prevent future accidents. The same potential exists for investigating the almost accidents. If it can be discovered why two airliners nearly collided, steps can be taken to prevent the same thing from happening again. Massive loss of life and property can be prevented by learning from the near accidents. Conversely, failure to report and investigate close calls may result in the needless loss of planes and lives.
Thus, it should be as criminal to fail to report and investigate near collisions as it is to fail to report taxable income. It is a felony to lie to any Federal Official, but it is no crime for FAA personnel to lie about their own wrong doing, even if it could cost the lives of innocent passengers. It is a felony to falsify any airline record, but it is no crime for FAA personnel to block an investigation that would expose records revealing their own incompetence. That has to change.
Pilots can now call an 800 number, connected to the FAA, when they have observed maintenance improprieties. Such reports can lead to criminal and/or civil action against those responsible. Why shouldn't pilots also be able to call an 800 number, connected to the NTSB, to report dangerous ATC control situations, so immediate investigations could be launched, preserving the audio and radar tape evidence? Shouldn't faulty ATC procedures be considered just as threatening to the public safety as faulty maintenance? Only in that way can we efficiently utilize our negative experiences to prevent great tragedies.
The Los Angeles area is still one of the most dangerous in the FAA ATC system, despite the findings in the USAir/Skywest accident. Hopefully, it will not take a collision of airliners before some real changes are made.
For a good example of how a near mid-air collision investigation should go (when they aren't able to cover it up), see My Big Deal
Also, see the Letter challenging the facts of this editorial.
Robert J. Boser
The Editor of this Web Page, now retired, was an airline pilot for 33 years and holds 6 specific Captain's type-ratings on Boeing Jet Airliners.