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NASA Space Government Politics

What NASA Won't Tell You About Air Safety 411

rabble writes "According to a report out of Washington, NASA wants to avoid telling you about how unsafe you are when you fly. According to the article, when an $8.5M safety study of about 24,000 pilots indicated an alarming number of near collisions and runway incidents, NASA refused to release the results. The article quotes one congressman as saying 'There is a faint odor about it all.' A friend of mine who is a general aviation pilot responded to the article by saying 'It's scary but no surprise to those of us who fly.'"
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What NASA Won't Tell You About Air Safety

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  • Watch the Sky (Score:2, Informative)

    by lamarguy91 ( 1101967 ) on Monday October 22, 2007 @03:44PM (#21076053)
    I live within 10 miles of a major airport, and within 3 miles of a smaller "business" airport. Three nights ago I was outside on my balcony watching the sky and saw two planes coming from opposite directions converging towards one another. At first I was thinking, "Hmmm, those look like they're at relatively close altitude.". This quickly turned into "Are they really supposed to be flying like that?".

    Very quickly thereafter, the planes are close enough that I realize one of them is a jumbo jet and the other is a small business commuter plane.

    From what I could see on the ground, the planes passed through what appeared to be the same spot in the sky within about 4 seconds of one another. I was utterly astounded. Could it be that they really weren't communicating because they were from different airports? The biggest surprise is that there weren't any other planes in the area that I could see, so what was the need for their paths to converge like that?
  • For The Non-Pilots (Score:5, Informative)

    by ryanisflyboy ( 202507 ) * on Monday October 22, 2007 @03:50PM (#21076141) Homepage Journal
    NASA keeps a voluntary database of incidents/accidents and safety concerns from pilots. The idea is that it can be totally anonymous. They want pilots to feel free to report safety concerns without fear of being fired or discriminated against by their current airline. The database is fully on-line and you can search it. Look at the facts: The American airline industry completes thousands of flights every day without a single issue. That is friggen AMAZING! The ATC has a very hard job, and they do it well. A big part of why things are so safe is the over-zealous approach pilots (most pilots) take to safety. There are several different ways to report problems. If you are at a major airport and break the rules (in a small plane for example) you can usually expect an FAA inspector to meet you at the tarmac to pull your ticket on the spot. If you don't take safety seriously word gets around fast. Your fellow pilots don't appreciate it. []

    This program has been going for years and years. It helps make the skies above you safer. If there is an increase it is likely due to one of the major trends affecting aviation today. Fewer airports, more airplanes with smaller passenger sizes, more flights, younger pilots, etc. I highly doubt NASA is trying to deep-six some scary fact, they probably just didn't want to pay to deal with the fallout from a service that costs them dollars. They do it for free in the interest of safety. They should be applauded for their years of service to the aviation industry.

    Keep in mind that the ASRS is in ADDITION to the NTSB and FAA programs for saftey (which also has searchable online-database).
  • Re:Close calls (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday October 22, 2007 @03:51PM (#21076149)
    There is really no need for this alarmism.

    I am a general aviation pilot with about 800 hours and nothing you saw is the slightest bit out of the ordinary. The "3-5 miles" is the lateral separation for two aircraft in cruise flight at the same altitude. As long as you're separated vertically by at least 1,000' (which the first aircraft pic clearly was - probably 3000' above you, in fact), there is no lateral separation requirement at all. Many times, I'll fly directly under or over a commercial jet, which is fine since the controller knows we're at different altitudes.

    Your second picture pretty clearly shows you on approach to an airport - SLC. Salt Lake City has parallel runways (see []) and under certain conditions, to improve airport capacity, simultaneous parallel approaches are allowed. That is, two aircraft simultaneously landing on parallel runways. This is perfectly safe because the aircraft aren't just randomly cruising around; they're being held to extremely tight lateral guidance by the runways' Instrument Landing Systems (ILS) so they don't conflict.

    And, finally, at any time, during any phase of flight -- as long as you're not in a cloud -- a controller can always have the following conversation with a pilot:

    ATC: You have traffic, 11 o'clock, 4 miles, 8,000 feet, moving northbound. Report him in sight.
    Pilot: Traffic in sight.
    ATC: Roger, maintain visual separation with that traffic.

    Now the two airplanes can get closer than the 5 mile limit; the pilot has reported the other airplane is in sight and is doing "see and avoid" -- basically, the same way you avoid hitting other cars when you're driving.

    I hope this has been informative enough for you to, please, stop posting alarmist blog entries saying "Oh my god, look at that plane, it's way too close!" Really, these are all quite normal operations.
  • Re:Close calls (Score:4, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday October 22, 2007 @03:56PM (#21076231)
    I believe the limit is usually 3 miles horizontally OR 1,000 feet vertically, presumably because a pressure-based altimeter is less prone to failure than an electronic lateral navigation system.
  • Re:My question is (Score:3, Informative)

    by Alotau ( 714890 ) on Monday October 22, 2007 @03:58PM (#21076259)
    The second 'A' in NASA is Aeronautics. There is a lot of original research in all facets of aeronautics going on at NASA including air traffic control/management. To oversimplify: the FAA is generally more concerned with near term Air Traffic Control and NASA is generally more interested in the long term (2020+).
  • by A Unique Nick Name ( 921046 ) on Monday October 22, 2007 @04:00PM (#21076277)
    I suspect the info is coming from the NASA reports we pilots fill out when there is a near-collision or runway incursion which when filed guarantees we won't be subject to any legal action from the FAA. Because of that protection they probably can only release the statistics and no more info than that. The theory is that if pilots and controllers report these incidents as much as possible, more can be done to make sure they don't happen in the future. Otherwise everyone would be worried about possible suspension of their license and wouldn't tell anyone about it.
  • Completely right (Score:3, Informative)

    by Lanoitarus ( 732808 ) on Monday October 22, 2007 @04:02PM (#21076329)
    Our AC friend above is 100% spot on-- vertical seperation allows much closer distances, both because altimeters are far more accurate and because vertical position doesnt change as quickly (think about it-- A jet can cover several miles within a pilots reaction time since it is traveling at ~600 mph-- Even if the engines failed completely, it would take longer to lose altitude.)
  • by iamlucky13 ( 795185 ) on Monday October 22, 2007 @04:12PM (#21076495)

    I was under the impression that the FAA had minimum distances defined between any similarly performing aircraft as approximately 3-5 miles, and I'll tell you that some of these aircraft were significantly closer than that.

    The airliner in that picture on your blog is not violating any recommended practices. The 3-5 miles is typical following distance for airliners on the same path, which allows time for potentially dangerous wake turbulence to dissipate. For planes whose paths do not intersect (in the 3-D environment, not merely 2-D), much, much closer passes can safely occur. The plane you show was at least 1000 feet higher than your own, a standard separation for planes awaiting landing clearance, and not on the same flight path.

    Whatever may be in NASA's report (I suspect it's mostly the collisions it refers to are mostly taxiway and tarmac incidents), does not change the fact that the airlines are still the safest way to travel by a large margin. Over the past 20 years, your odds of dying in a commerical airline accident were about 1 in 5 million per flight (multiply by number of flights you take in life for net risk). Your odds of dying on the road are about 1 in 50 (net risk).

  • Runway incursions (Score:2, Informative)

    by CPNABEND ( 742114 ) on Monday October 22, 2007 @04:15PM (#21076527) Homepage
    There was an article in Air & Space magazine in the last month or so about runway incursions (being in the wrong taxiway, or worse on the wrong active runway, or crossing when you shouldn't. It was a pretty scary article, and it discussed the things they are trying to do to make sure the pilots turn when they should, and do not when they shouldn't. Bottom line, is the FAA has spent a lot of money and time, but hasn't got a good solution yet...
  • by operagost ( 62405 ) on Monday October 22, 2007 @04:30PM (#21076753) Homepage Journal
    I've never heard of this. What is this "kid"'s name?
  • by GooberToo ( 74388 ) on Monday October 22, 2007 @04:39PM (#21076923)
    Because the pilot cared to talk about it, that was clearly a close call.

    The fact the pilot knew to discuss it with passengers before it happened meant it was not a close call. Likely, the pilot was being pro-active to avoid ignorance among his passengers, exactly like what you're spewing now.

    Planes fly by each other all the time. People fail to realize there are both horizontal and vertical rules of separation. People fail to realize pilots are not forced to blindly fly a course. In fact, pilots are required by regulation to "see and avoid." I have seen a near miss; with collision avoided only by my radio call. I have also seen lots of normal traffic which from overhead appears to intercept in space yet was safely separated by 1000 - 2000 feet. It's common and not dangerous. On the other hand, I have almost been hit by a reckless pilot before; requiring significant maneuvering. ATC was kind enough to alert me before I had even spotted the traffic. Yet despite being too close for comfort, it did not meet the FAA's definition of a "near miss".

    Planes, like cars, have specific altitudes they must fly based on their compass heading and nature of their flight. ATC can override this, but they will only do so when they can aid with traffic separation. In other words, just because you see two cars pass by each other, each in their own lane, in no way, shape, or form, means they almost collided. Planes, like cars, pass each other on a daily basis, only with an extra dimension added.
  • by Irvu ( 248207 ) on Monday October 22, 2007 @04:45PM (#21077003)
    George Deutch is his name, here [] is a brief comment on his resignation.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday October 22, 2007 @05:18PM (#21077545)
    You obviously didn't pick up the George Carlin [] reference.

  • by moderatorrater ( 1095745 ) on Monday October 22, 2007 @05:22PM (#21077613)
    NASA maintains a database where pilots can anonymously report anything they want to about the airways, and it's a publicly searchable database. NASA's numbers look like they're very different, and more accurate, than the numbers that the FAA gets that aren't anonymous. If pilots feel more comfortable reporting unsafe conditions anonymously and to a third party, then they should protect that anonymity for the sake of getting accurate numbers and fixing more.
  • by Obfuscant ( 592200 ) on Monday October 22, 2007 @05:59PM (#21078045)
    If you are referring to ASRS, then no, the reports are not anonymous. In fact, it is better than that. Pilots are encouraged to report problems, even ones involving the violation of the rules, using their identities, because the report, under normal circumstances, is a "get out of jail free" card.

    The report will not protect you from deliberate violations of the rules, but if you accidentally or due to the safety issue involved had to break a rule, it will limit FAA's ability to punish you. As I recall, if there is an accident involved (defined by FAA terms), it's also not usable. You can use this protection once in five years, I think, but I'm not certain of the dates. (I've filed reports but never needed the protection.)

    The identifying data is removed from the report before it goes into the database. The pilot gets a reciept with a number and date so he can invoke the protections.

    You are spot on about feeling comfortable doing the reporting.

  • Re:Close calls (Score:2, Informative)

    by BWJones ( 18351 ) * on Monday October 22, 2007 @06:14PM (#21078203) Homepage Journal
    There is really no need for this alarmism.

    I would not call it alarmism per se. However, I have a couple of friends who are pilots for major airlines and they tell stories that would make you squirm, principally because of general aviation traffic that is increasingly crowding the skies that have to occupy the same "parking space" as a full size commercial airliner.

    I am a general aviation pilot with about 800 hours and nothing you saw is the slightest bit out of the ordinary. The "3-5 miles" is the lateral separation for two aircraft in cruise flight at the same altitude.

    Actually, those were the episodes where I've been able to have a camera in hand, thus the comments. There have been a couple of other episodes where we've had to spool up an engine and abort a landing due to traffic on the runway. Those I don't have pics for, but have been common enough that they are concerning. As a general aviation pilot, you must realize that the skies are becoming more crowded and ATC is becoming increasingly burdened without any required increase in resources. Just pilot a small aircraft out of crowded airspace to see what I am talking about and you'd have to acknowledge that management for GA that fly at much slower airspeeds on approach or departure from major airports can be problematic.

    Your second picture pretty clearly shows you on approach to an airport - SLC. Salt Lake City has parallel runways

    But the episode was *over Columbia* and we were flying for some time at approximately the same altitude with nowhere near 1000 ft altitude sep. Now, I was not really alarmed over this episode as we were flying through storms and this was a clear corridor where the pilots were likely in visual and radio communication. What I am concerned about are the statistics behind this NASA report which apparently does have some folks worried. Also, if you note from that entry, there was not alarm in anything that I wrote about with respect to that incident.

  • by AJWM ( 19027 ) on Monday October 22, 2007 @06:25PM (#21078329) Homepage
    The per-hour death rate of driving versus flying, however, is about equal.

    Even assuming this to be true (which, not having looked at the analysis, I reserve judgement on), if I'm planning a trip from A to B that are, say, 20 hours driving time or 2 hours flying time apart, flying is going to be 10 times safer for me than driving.
  • by StikyPad ( 445176 ) on Monday October 22, 2007 @08:47PM (#21079673) Homepage
    With a plane crash, my chance of survival is hovering somewhere around 0%.

    Not true. The survival rate in fatal crashes (in which at least 1 person dies) is around 35% (Orange chart, ~1/3 down the page). That includes crashes where everyone dies, but does not includes crashes where nobody dies, so it's "worst case," if you will. Moreover, your risk of dying in a plane crash is *gasp* proportional to the frequency of flights you take. Of course 0 flights = 0 risk, planes falling on you aside, but several flights over a lifetime introduces much less risk than simply walking up and down stairs. []

    Additionally, the illusion of total control in a vehicle is just that. There are many circumstances, beyond your control, which can cause you to lose control. You mention not driving in inclimate weather in your reply below, but you can't control the weather, and if you're already on the highway there's nothing you can do. I was in a near fatal crash when my tires lost traction on a wet road after it had started sprinkling. If my car had hit the phone pole head on or sideways, I'd probably be dead or disabled. (And yes, it was a late model car with TCS). Fortunately it did a 180 and hit backwards, which I may or may not have helped intentionally. I honestly can't remember the 5-10 seconds or so before impact when I blacked out. Additionally, there's the person behind and next to you, and, on freeways without dividers (and in some cases, even with dividers) there's the person coming in the opposite direction. There's mechanical failures, there's dumbasses throwing shit from overpasses (and dumbass is a considerable understatement), there's maniacs shooting at other drivers, there's crazy people driving tanks, there's road debris, truck tires going through windshields, falling cargo, driver fatigue (if you tell me you've never driven fatigued, then you've never had a long or hard day at work or taken a road trip), blind spots, excessive speeders (the lane may have been clear when you started to merge..), there's collapsing bridges, collapsing tunnels, potholes, sink holes, open/broken manholes, shifting steel plates, earthquakes, landslides, standing water, black ice, oil slicks, cars with headlights off, cars with high beams on, truck headlights in the mirrors, burned out stoplights, knocked-over stop signs, car jackers, suicide jumpers, falling construction, falling trees and poles, falling power lines, lightning strikes, alien abductions, and, of course, planes falling out of the sky.

    We didn't start the fire...
  • by LynnwoodRooster ( 966895 ) on Monday October 22, 2007 @10:53PM (#21080607) Journal
    Kapton is near perfect for wiring; it's a very high temperature material that will bubble and smoke but not flash over. Having designed and built speakers for over a decade, and used literally miles of Kapton to make formers, and seeing what happens when you completely smoke a driver, I can tell you Kapton is not the concern.

    Usually when a Kapton-former voice coil in a speaker dies, the wire will literally fuse itself, melt the varnish, melt the glues and even the wire itself - copper - melt down before the Kapton significantly degrades.

    Kapton is a great high-temp, high resistance, ultra-lightweight material. Perfect for aircraft assemblies where you want isolation without weight. It's also used in transformers everywhere for the same reason.

    Why the military doesn't use it? Well, I was told (back when I did mil/aero work) Kapton nicks too easily, so for regularly serviced assemblies they prefer silicone or rubber jackets. With buried assemblies like you have in commercial aircraft, though, it's a non-issue.

  • Re:Close calls (Score:2, Informative)

    by scatters ( 864681 ) <> on Monday October 22, 2007 @11:05PM (#21080669)
    Qualified pilot here...

    Wake turbulence scares the pants off of me. It's quite possible that a light aircraft entering the wake turbelence of a heavy aircraft (both the propulsion wake and the vortices from the wing tips) would exceed it's g-loading limits and experience in-flight seperation (I've pulled many more Gs than the load rating allows for in a C-150 as the result of a botched spin-entry, so they're pretty tough) , but it's more likely that it will end up in an unusual attitude and (as these situations invariably seem to happen either on approach or take-off) too close to the ground to recover.
    There are procedures in place like landing beyond the touchdown point of the heavier aircraft and rotating on take-off prior to the rotation point of the other plane that ensure that you don't inadvertantly fly through its wake. It's always worth remembering that "Cleared to take-off" and "Cleared to land" both mean "Proceed with prudence..."

    It's thought that this guy was the victim of wake turbulence: []

  • by wertarbyte ( 811674 ) on Tuesday October 23, 2007 @04:04AM (#21082301) Homepage
    A few years ago, a passenger jet an a freight plane collided over southern germany. []

If you think nobody cares if you're alive, try missing a couple of car payments. -- Earl Wilson