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I just watched the Mayday episode Cleared for Disaster, a dramatization of USAir Flight 1493. The episode covered how the controller lost situational awareness and gave a landing clearance to 1493 while SkyWest 5569 was still on the runway, as well as how the runway lights obscured 5569's lights. They did not, however, talk much about 5569. This was at least partly because 5569 was not carrying a CVR.

The tower would have given 1493 the clearance to land on runway 24L on the same frequency that 5569 should have been on. In other words, 5569 would have been sitting on 24L and hearing tower give landing clearance for 24L, which would be a big red flag. Are they expected to be listening and thinking about landing clearances given to other aircraft? If they noticed, would they be expected to speak up, or to shut up and trust the controller?

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The short answer is yes, they are definitely expected to listen and act accordingly. This is one example of situational awareness in aviation, and pilots are expected to use all useful information sources to maintain awareness of what's going on around them.

A nice example is this one where the crew of a US Airways aircraft avoided an accident. There was heavy fog at the airport, and while the US Airways flight was waiting for takeoff clearance a United aircraft ended up on a runway instead of a taxiway. The controller couldn't see the runways because of the fog and she believed the United aircraft was on a taxiway, so she gave the US Airways flight clearance to take off even though the United pilot said several times that they were on a runway.

The US Airways pilot had heard the discussion (actually, almost a debate) between the controller and the United pilot, and he refused the takeoff clearance because he wasn't confident that the situation was under control. It's well worth watching the whole thing, but the key exchange is this:

ATC: [...] USAir 2998, runway 5R, fly runway heading, cleared for takeoff

US2998: Uh, tower, USAir 2998, 'til we figure out what's going on down there, we're just gonna stay clear of all runways

This level of awareness is expected of all pilots, including light aircraft pilots at uncontrolled fields. Although in that situation there's the additional complication that there may be aircraft around that don't even have radios!

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Short answer, never trust the controller. If the worst happens all the controller will have is paperwork to do and lots of meetings. But your family will have your funeral to tend to. As PIC you are the sole authority as to the safety of your flight. As for listening, IMHO, it's more important to listen carefully at takeoff and landings.

We train ourselves, while in the air to listen for the 1st word which is the call-sign of the aircraft and if it's ours then it has our attention and if there are other passengers on my plane my hand goes up for them to keep quiet.

But during landing, approaches, etc, we must familiarize ourselves not with just the approach or runway we are landing on but we should know the configuration of the airport in general. In single runway airports, it's not as hard. You just have to know which runway is landing and taking off and if you hear other wise then you speak up. In multiple runway airports, especially with low visibility if you are still high enough, do not be afraid to key up and ask a question. Just as you would key up even without a call-sign and ask 'Wind Check'. The controllers then broadcast the current winds in the blind.

But if you are on short final and are still unsure, there is only one thing that is the safest. Abort the landing, and do a go-around as you are informing the tower you are going around because of unclear instructions.

If they give you a number to call because you messed up their nice string of pearls they were setting up, giving them more workload, or messed with their approaches and departures, that's fine. Like I said above, I'd rather be on the ground talking to, explaining to or writing up documents (especially a NASA form) than having someone crawling over the mangled mess of my airplane trying to figure out which part was part of me or someone else.

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    $\begingroup$ " If the worst happens all the controller will have is paperwork to do and lots of meetings." That seems harsh and inaccurate. In this case, the crash had a major psychological effect on the controller and she never returned to air traffic control. Also, note that 5569 is the plane on the ground, not the one in the air. $\endgroup$ – raptortech97 Apr 19 '15 at 23:55
  • $\begingroup$ Sorry for understating the grief all around. It was not my intention. $\endgroup$ – TB Flyer Apr 20 '15 at 0:11
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    $\begingroup$ Unless the plane crashes into the control tower or facility. $\endgroup$ – Keegan Apr 20 '15 at 6:24
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    $\begingroup$ This post seems very arrogant and dismissive to me. If the worst happens all the controller will have is paperwork to do and lots of meetings. - really? If they give you a number to call because you messed up their nice string of pearls they were setting up, giving them more workload, or messed with their approaches and departures, that's fine. - really? $\endgroup$ – Simon Apr 20 '15 at 7:15

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