Close Calls In Our Skies

How often do commercial airplanes come close to colliding?

By Stephen Stock, Kevin Nious, Liz Wagner and Jeremy Carroll
|  Thursday, Apr 26, 2012  |  Updated 2:31 PM PDT
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Stephen Stock collects and parses the data around near mid-air collisions -- and what critics think the FAA ought to do about them.
<i>This story was published Feb. 21, 2012, at 9:12 a.m.</i>

Stephen Stock collects and parses the data around near mid-air collisions -- and what critics think the FAA ought to do about them. This story was published Feb. 21, 2012, at 9:12 a.m.

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Millions of us fly every year, but do you know just how often commercial airplanes come to colliding in mid-air or on the runway?

The NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit dug through 30 years of records to discover that close calls in our skies happen a lot more often than you might imagine.

Airlines log millions of miles every year, so these near collisions only make up a small percentage of the flights here and around the country. But with these high speeds, all it takes is one, and you have disaster.

Forty-five hundred airplanes take off and land every single day at San Francisco International, Oakland International and San Jose International airports. That adds up to nearly one and a half million planes every year. Thousands of other flights go in and out of two dozen smaller Bay Area airports annually.

And we found that sometimes things get too close.

We obtained reports chronicling everything from near mid-air collisions or NMACs, to airspace violations, from conflicts in the air to incursions on the ground. They include instances from the Federal Aviation Administration’s accident and incident database and NASA’s Anonymous Safety Reporting System (ASRS). We found 1,032 incidents in the Bay Area since 2000.

“There are a number of complexities that you have at San Francisco that you don’t have at, say, a Los Angeles International,” said Doug Rice, senior vice president of the California Pilots Association.

A 34-year veteran pilot, Rice grew up learning to fly in San Jose. He flies weekly into the Bay Area as a captain of a commercial airline.

“I’ve come to judge who I should watch out for on the other runways,” Rice said.

We found that intersecting runways at SFO sometimes pose a problem for pilots. The NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit obtained a radar recording at San Francisco International, which shows a passenger jet beginning to land at the same instant two different aircraft take off right in front of it on crossing runways.

“The intersecting runways are a challenge,” said SFO spokesman Mike McCarron, “but they can be worked as far as people following procedures, being properly marked, and that risk can be mitigated as long as people follow procedures and do the things as planned in all the aviation safety plans.”

Using NASA’s ASRS, we also discovered a close call in the skies above SFO. In November 2011, a 757 took off from the airport as another commercial jet was getting ready to land on a parallel runway. Misunderstanding instructions, the 757 turned into the path of the incoming jet. Only last-second intervention by air traffic controllers prompted the 757 pilots to turn right and avoid disaster.

“There are going to be a lot of close calls,” said pilot Ken Edwards. “Most of them you never hear about. But there are a lot.”

Edwards has nearly a decade of commercial flying experience with various airlines around the country.

He told us about one close call in Florida that he never saw coming.

“There were a few seconds there where I almost expected to feel impact,” Edwards told us. “When we pulled up, we were blocked by the sun, and we could see the other airplane going underneath us very clearly.”

He said it was so close that he could see the face of the other pilot, whom Edwards believes was oblivious to the situation.

“He was, I’m assuming, on a different frequency,” he said. “He, I’m guessing, never saw us.”

Retired FAA manager turned whistleblower, Gabe Bruno, told us close calls in the air usually happen because of operational errors. He believes anonymous NASA reports of close calls actually understate the problem. 

“You always hope for the best, and most of the time it is the best,” Bruno said. “But when you are setting up a series of events happening that the FAA could actually have some positive effect on, and they’re not, you are just waiting for things to happen.”

Our analysis of three decades of FAA accidents and incidents, plus 20 years of NASA’s reports of airborne conflicts and mid-air collisions, show that the number of close calls climbs around the year 2000, then drops off through 2007. We found that during the last three tears, the trend line starts to climb again.

In 2010 the National Transportation Safety Board changed the rules governing what constitutes a near mid-air collision. But, the numbers started creeping back up before the NTSB implemented that change.

“What the FAA relies on is saying we didn’t have a crash,” Bruno said. “What they want is to have a body count before they take corrective action.”

The FAA points out that these incidents make up less than one percent of all air operations over the course of a year. In a statement, FAA spokesman Ian Gregor told us, “We have transitioned from a safety system that did forensic analysis of past accidents to a system that seeks to identify precursors to possible future accidents.”

According to aviation experts in Washington D.C., the number of close calls nationwide is trending downward in recent months. 

Rice told us that the public should not be worried because pilots and air traffic controllers are professionals.

“It gets tight, but it looks tighter than it actually is,” Rice said. “The key is this is what we train for.”

Training is why Edwards believes he is still alive today after his close call.

“It was scary,” Edwards said. “There’s a few seconds where if you blink, you miss it. It happens that quickly.”

In part two of our series we investigate what the FAA is doing to prevent disaster in our skies. And we discovered that the agency seems to be missing an opportunity. We dug up an Inspector General’s report released about a month ago that calls the FAA to task for failing to provide proper oversight to train and monitor pilot performance. 

If you have a tip for The NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit, email us: theunit@nbcbayarea.com.

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