Trust but Verify

The details of the near disaster are chilling. A Cessna 172 and an Embraer Regional Jet at Biloxi-Gulfport International Airport in Mississippi were cleared to take off on runways with intersecting departure paths only moments apart. On departure they missed each other, thank goodness, but only by a couple of hundred feet horizontally and by “0” feet vertically. It was pure luck that there are no fatalities instead of 55, the number of occupants of both airplanes.

Why did the airplanes come so close to each other? It was, the NTSB has concluded, simply an error. The controller, who has a history of employment problems according to several reports, cleared the ERJ to take off on Runway 14 shortly after he’d cleared the 172 to go on Runway 18. It never should have happened. But it did. Why it happened is a complicated question. The controller has said he thought it would take longer, between 3 and 5 minutes, for the Cessna to get airborne, which flies in the face of experience. I don’t know about you, but when I’m cleared for takeoff, it takes about 3 to 5 seconds for me to take the active and maybe 20 or 30 seconds to accelerate, rotate, and get to 300 feet. So, again, based on my experience, the controller’s estimate was off by a factor of 10. Not only that, but since when do controllers clear airplanes to take off on intersecting runways based on assumptions about how long it will take a pilot to get his act together? Actually, the controllers’ manual mandates that the second airplane can’t be cleared until the first one has passed the intersecting point. That didn’t happen. Not even close. Such errors are scary stuff. But, again, they happen.

If either crew were concerned about their takeoff clearance, the NTSB report does not indicate that. They should have been, especially the ERJ crew. If they had been on the tower frequency when the Cessna was issued the takeoff clearance and if they had been aware of the layout of the runways at KGPT, they should have known they were being cleared to take off directly toward the departing Cessna, even if they didn't see the piston single on the roll. And it's clear from their later discussion that they didn't, when they asked the controller what was up with the Cessna they'd just barely missed. Was it an airplane that had gone around and wasn't called out to them? The controller, clearly hoping the incident would just go away, told that it was. Then again, had they heard the Cessna's takeoff clearance they would have known where the airplane came from and wouldn't have had to ask. Any way you look at it, the pilots of the ERJ seemed to be assuming that the controller wouldn't put them in harm's way.

It’s a bad assumption. This controller did just that, and if you’ve been flying for very long, you’ve likely had controllers do the same thing to you. The vast majority of controllers are first rate professional, and I’m not just saying that to provide cover for myself. I’m a huge fan of the skill and professionalism of the controllers I regularly meet on the airwaves. Still, on three or four occasions in my years of flying, they’ve let me down.

In one case early in my flying career, I didn’t catch the error when the tower controller gave me erroneous pattern instructions. They were confusing, but I followed them anyway instead of questioning them, a decision that resulted in a close call. Had I been better able to visualize the scenario and told the controller where I was and how his instruction assumed that I was somewhere I was not, the incident never would have happened. It was bad controlling and bad piloting. Luckily, nobody got hurt.

If you’re not vigilant, flying at a controlled field can lead to complacency (because the controller would never tell you to do something dangerous) leading us to do things we would never, ever do if we were flying out of an uncontrolled field.

One great hedge against complacency, in fact, is to simply make believe you’re at a non-towered airport even when you are. Look for traffic, listen for traffic, and question any instructions or clearances that you wouldn’t “issue” to yourself if you were the one issuing instructions, just as you do when a common frequency is all you have. After all, as pilot in command, you are the one who makes the final call, and why would you choose to do something that would make no sense when it’s your life, and the lives of your passengers, on the line?

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