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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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  • Close calls (Score:4, Interesting)

    by BWJones ( 18351 ) * on Monday October 22, 2007 @03:36PM (#21075937) Homepage Journal
    I fly a reasonable amount as a passenger (used to fly small private aircraft as well) on commercial airlines and I've seen quite a few planes that come by shockingly close. I was prepared early enough one day to get a reasonable pic out of a cheap little point and shoot here [] of another aircraft in reasonably close proximity, but this is by no means the closest I've seen planes fly to one another. One time flying over Columbia on this flight [] we followed *very* close to another large commercial airliner for quite some time. It was hard to get a picture given it was at night with a little point and shoot, but it was close enough for me to see people in windows in-between flashes of lightning. Granted this was in controlled conditions as we were flying almost in formation, but I've also seen planes flash by in close proximity flying in the opposite direction as well. Much closer than the 3-5 mile limit I understood was in place.

    Given the increasing amount of air traffic, I would not be surprised to see incidents (not comforting given upcoming travel), but the shocking thing is that the FAA (and the public) is still dealing with a completely antiquated air traffic control system that like other aspects of our national infrastructure is woefully lacking, particularly around large airports.

  • by richdun ( 672214 ) on Monday October 22, 2007 @03:46PM (#21076075)
    Not to mention that as a matter of jurisdiction, this is much more an FAA area than a NASA one. NASA has been interested in air safety to help with studies into personal air vehicles (the "virtual" lanes in the sky idea, for instance), but if airliners are having near-misses and such, that's FAA-regulated air traffic controllers or airport traffic patterns in question. I could see a certain interagency memo or a call to a higher-up in the administration from the FAA asking that this be kept quiet.
  • Close != close call (Score:5, Interesting)

    by EmbeddedJanitor ( 597831 ) on Monday October 22, 2007 @03:47PM (#21076093)
    If everyone is in their right airspace, even when packed closely, that is not a close call. How far was that jet away? A thousand ft or so? With no landmarks it is very hard to judge how far something is away.

    A few years back I was on a flight from Seattle to LAX and with a very chatty pilot. He said something like "In a minute we'll be having a very close look at a Cessna xxx. You won't have much time to see it because it is going at aaa mph and they're going at bbb mph so the closing speed is... Don't worry folks, they are in their lane and we're in ours" and shortly later this plane came whipping past at what seemed like touching distance. Now that was clearly not a close call, but if the pilot had not talked about it we'd probably have thought it was.

  • legal? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by baudbarf ( 451398 ) on Monday October 22, 2007 @03:51PM (#21076159) Homepage
    I'm often mistaken, so this may be no exception, but isn't NASA's work in the public domain since it is a federal agency? How can they refuse to release to the taxpayers the results of taxpayer funding? At least the military has the excuse of "national security"... what is NASA's explanation for this failure to deliver on a service they billed us for?
  • by moderatorrater ( 1095745 ) on Monday October 22, 2007 @03:52PM (#21076179)
    Agreed. The methodology may be flawed, and there might be *potential* problems coming up, but there certainly aren't any immediate problems in aviation safety right now. As I remember it, the commercial aircraft in the US have less than one crash a year, which is a phenomenal record by any measure. While I appreciate that reports like these are done to make sure that no shits making its way to the fan, there's certainly not a problem right now.
  • by JackMeyhoff ( 1070484 ) on Monday October 22, 2007 @03:56PM (#21076233)
    ... [] Kapton wiring by DuPont is a silent time bomb in most COMMERCIAL aircraft. This wiring is BANNED in MILITARY and NASA equipment but YOU fly surrounded by it not knowing the dangers.
  • by dafradu ( 868234 ) on Monday October 22, 2007 @04:19PM (#21076593)
    Thats true. 1000 feet or 300 meters is the normal distance aircrafts must have between them.

    This video shows two aircrafts 1000 feet apart passing by each other: []
  • crisis in the making (Score:2, Interesting)

    by MM_LONEWOLF ( 994599 ) <> on Monday October 22, 2007 @04:19PM (#21076601)
    add this to the fact that air controllers still use equipment that employs vaccuum tubes, which have an opportunity to break down thousands of time per second, we've got a possible crisis on our hands. I'd to think what would happen if all air traffic control was lost at JFK or any other international airport.
  • by jonadab ( 583620 ) on Monday October 22, 2007 @04:28PM (#21076729) Homepage Journal
    Riding in a motor vehicle on city streets is a good deal more dangerous. For many Americans it's substantially the most dangerous thing they're willing to do EVER, and yet they do it many times a day.

    Of course, there's *some* risk in _anything_ you do. Playing sports and working out, for instance, are likely to get you injured, but sitting at home all the time will buy you poor health twenty or forty years down the line. There's no such thing as a completely safe activity.
  • by bradgoodman ( 964302 ) on Monday October 22, 2007 @04:37PM (#21076871) Homepage
    Hospitals have "postmortem" conferences in which they discuss cases in which patients die. (I am not a doctor, nor do I play one on T.V.) - but from my understanding - the premise is that these discussions are someone "off-the-record", and try to be open and frank - the reason being - they are an important learning tool. I don't know that this "secrecy" (for lack of a better word) works to protect people in cases of extreme negligence or neglect - but that's the basic idea

    The FAA, NTSB, ATC, Military and NASA all have their various "official" reporting systems for accidents, runway incursions, near misses, etc. etc. - but the idea behind this survey was to get a little bit more of a "frank" idea of what's going on - if stuff isn't reported - if incedents don't need to be reported - and to check if there are problems in the system.

    (As a student-pilot) I firmly believe that pilots, if interviewed anonymously, would be more than willing to offer any information, or bend anyone's ear as to what the problems are and how to make things safer. If people are "on-the-record" doing this - everyone jumps into the "CYA" mentality.

    Are you just looking for someone to blame, or do you really want to know the truth??

  • by boethius ( 14423 ) on Monday October 22, 2007 @04:42PM (#21076955)
    I was born and lived in San Diego until I was 13. I vividly recall what was then the worst commercial airline accident, a mid-air collision between PSA Flight 182 that was coming in for a landing to Lindbergh Field, and a Cessna, in September of 1978.

    The Cessna took out the wing of the larger plane, causing it, of course, to burst in flames. 182 crashed in the middle of a residential neighborhood, killing 7 on the ground and creating what is still one of the largest fires in the county.

    Not that any crash is good, but ones created by collisions in the middle of residential neighborhoods have to be among the worst. There was video at the time of flaming bodies that fell out of the plane. Local authorities picked up body parts out of backyards and rooftops for several weeks after the crash. It was a gruesome event.

    The crash was created by two sets of pilots who failed to maintain good visual contact with each other. The PSA pilots knowingly ignored the other plane and the little plane--piloted by a student pilot if it matters--stopped its visual assessment of the larger commercial plane. The PSA plane was basically directly above the Cessna as it ascended and came into its flight path as the big plane descended. I imagine the student pilot simply didn't lean forward far enough to see the big jet directly above it. He probably thought it was out of his vector but instead made a fatal assumption. Likewise, the PSA pilots didn't look down to keep a good eye on the little plane that was heading their way. There is some evidence to suggest that the PSA pilots, however, didn't have good information from the tower on which plane they should be looking for and where it was.

    Lindbergh Field has a reputation for being one of the least desirable airports to land at in the US because of the sharp angle of descent and its close proximity to major urban and residential areas. There's no "easy" approach to land there.
  • by shihonage ( 731699 ) on Monday October 22, 2007 @04:51PM (#21077139)
    I'd like to see the statistics that actually prove that flying is safer than driving. While driving, my fate is always halfway in my hands. It takes two idiots to have an accident. With sufficient awareness and reaction time, I have a chance to avoid the most gruesome accident. Even if an accident does occur, I have a good chance of survival. With a plane crash, my chance of survival is hovering somewhere around 0%. On a plane, my safety is entirely in the hands of other people, who have a "random" combination of awareness and reaction time. They also have a "random" proficiency in checking the equipment (which is likely to be half-assed). With my car, I am the one in control of the vehicle, and I am the one who selects which mechanics are trustworthy. Not to mention that the car is a far simpler vehicle than a plane. So when it comes to my INDIVIDUAL probability of being in a crash, my driving may actually be safer than flying, when you consider the likeliness of a fatal outcome.
  • by gillbates ( 106458 ) on Monday October 22, 2007 @05:23PM (#21077621) Homepage Journal

    As the neocon mantra goes, "if you're not doing anything wrong, what do you have to hide?".

    revealing the findings could damage the public's confidence in airlines and affect airline profits.

    This is why it is bad: because they are putting the profits of the airlines above the safety of the passengers. If it really wasn't that bad, why would they be hiding it from the public?

    The interesting thing is that if NASA had just quietly released this, no one would have bothered to notice. But the fact that they aren't releasing it suggests that the problem really is worse than the report suggests, and that the powers that be don't want the issue investigated any further.

  • by EmbeddedJanitor ( 597831 ) on Monday October 22, 2007 @05:27PM (#21077677)
    With no points of reference in the sky it is very hard to tell where things are. This is particularly true when you are trying to place a big plane (747) and a commuter plane. My drive to town takes me on a road that is just below the appraoch for an international airport. The 747s fill the sky and you'd swear they are going to clip the top of the trees, but in reality they're many hundred feet up.

    I hunch the guys on the ground with radar etc have a far better perspective of what is really going on than any "eye witness".

  • by rpillala ( 583965 ) on Monday October 22, 2007 @05:30PM (#21077707)
    From Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and some journalist (available at Google Books):

    If you are taking a trip and have the choice of driving or flying, you might wish to consider to consider the per-hour death rate of driving versus flying. It is true that many more people die in the United States each year in motor vehicle accidents (roughly forty thousand) than in airplane crashes (fewer than one thousand). But it is also true that most people spend a lot more time in cars than in airplanes. (More people die even in boating accidents each year than in airplane crashes; as we saw with swimming pools versus guns, water is a lot more dangerous than most people think.) The per-hour death rate of driving versus flying, however, is about equal.

    The book contains a lot of that kind of analysis and is worth reading simply for the insight into incentives (which I found in the first chapter.)

  • Pffft...800 hours (Score:2, Interesting)

    by littlerubberfeet ( 453565 ) on Monday October 22, 2007 @05:30PM (#21077715)
    But seriously, thanks for posting. Real information from informed people is nice. I have a couple hours in a Cessna and over 20 in gliders (Grob 103, DG-1000 and 2-33). I felt safer during my first glider solo, towing with a slight crosswind and all, than during any of my driver's ed training.

    ATL also does parallel approach. I was on a CRJ-200 with a 747-400 trailing on approach to the other runway...It made some passengers nervous. Come to think of it, IAD might too...
  • by netsharc ( 195805 ) on Monday October 22, 2007 @06:03PM (#21078073)
    Reminds me of the collision between a private jet an a Jumbo in Brazil, that downed the Jumbo. An author that writes for the NYTimes was in the private jet, he wrote a chilling article [] about it, where he mentioned that they didn't even see the Jumbo, and according to calculations, they passed each other at 500 mph.
  • by Bozdune ( 68800 ) on Monday October 22, 2007 @06:40PM (#21078509)
    Compare the number of plane trips per year and number of plane deaths with the number of car trips per year and the number of car deaths.

    Hold on there a second, Statistics Boy.

    First, let's consider my actual risk factors. What if I'm not under 25 (the age group that dies like flies in auto accidents)? Guess what, I'm an old fart, so I'm way (WAY) safer without lifting a finger. What if I travel mostly on interstate highways (much safer than secondary roads, by a huge margin)? Once again, I win without effort. What happens if I don't drive at night (much more hazardous than daytime driving, (a) because nobody can see, and (b) because every 10th driver is drunk)? Another win. What happens if I drive a big-ass car rather than a tiny-ass POS, so if I hit your tiny-ass POS I live and you die? What if I avoid driving in ridiculous weather? What if I maintain my vehicle well, I have antilock brakes/stability control, I have new tires, and I'm driving a relatively new vehicle instead of some junker? And so on. By the time I eliminate all the risk factors that the airlines INCLUDE in their road statistics, their numbers are meaningless. Let's turn the tables, shall we? OK, airlines, if you're going to include teenage hotrod and dead-drunk idiots in your road statistics, I'm gonna include all the private airplanes that are busy dropping out of the sky on a daily basis. Who wins now?

    Second, the "safety" of airlines is always touted by considering total miles traveled, not TIME IN THE VEHICLE -- and of course they're counting all miles traveled, on all kinds of roadways, in all kinds of weather, in all kinds of vehicles. Hour for hour, trip for trip, you're WAY SAFER in a car than in an airplane.

    And finally, the statistics are presented courtesy of the airline industry, which is highly motivated to make you think that it's perfectly safe to whizz around in some poorly-maintained piece of shit airframe that's been in service for 15 years and only indifferently maintained. Pardon me if I think they're shaving the numbers. They'd be idiots not to.

  • by radish ( 98371 ) on Monday October 22, 2007 @07:24PM (#21078993) Homepage
    I'm not saying you're wrong, but I'd encourage to look at hard numbers rather than pulling guesses out of your ass. Take a look here [].

    What do I see right away? Well your belief that secondary roads are much safer than highways doesn't seem entirely right - for 2005 I see 44.5k deaths on major roads vs 56.5k deaths on smaller roads. A difference sure, but not all that massive.

    The split by vehicle type is also rather interesting, deaths in 4/5 door hatchbacks (the "tiny-ass POS" that I happen to drive) amount to a massive 292, vs almost 28 thousand for your "safe" big-ass car, and no - that difference cannot be explained away by total numbers of vehicles on the road. Small cars are more stable, more agile, and often just better designed with regards to safety. At least that's my belief, and I've yet to see stats to counter that.
  • by reality-bytes ( 119275 ) on Monday October 22, 2007 @07:29PM (#21079037) Homepage

    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.

    It's called a 'go-around' and happens thousands of times a day at airports across the globe. It is no cause for concern, simply a reflection of the imperfect timing of 'scheduled' flights.

    In every case, simple procedure is followed; at controlled fields, the ATC will usually give the command to go around but the pilot has the discretion to do so if he thinks there could be a conflict (or even if he just doesn't feel like landing that approach). At major fields, the local procedures are followed or at other fields, full power is applied, a climb is established and a turn is made to the 'dead-side' (opposite side to the circuit side).

    The only time I've ever seen a remotely 'tense' go-around was a video of a junior controller at London Heathrow with a slow-to-clear Airbus on the runway and a Concorde beating down short-final. Knowing the enormous fuel cost of a Concorde go-around, the controller tried to delay down to safe minimums but the Concorde pilot made the decision for him (probably out of courtesy) and initiated the go-around with a curt radio call "Speedbird One is going around" and moving into 'wet' (afterburner) power for the climb to make sure the Airbus pilot knew his place ;)

  • Re:meh (Score:2, Interesting)

    by skynexus ( 778600 ) on Monday October 22, 2007 @07:33PM (#21079069)

    Air travel is like hot dogs. Ignorance is bliss.

    That reminds of a trip I made from Italy to Denmark with my girlfriend. Taking the opportunity of clear weather in midday, I had watched the beautiful sky and terrain from my window seat for over an hour when the plane suddenly made an abrupt adjustment to its flight path. The maneuver was not too brusque as no one seemed alarmed, but I distinctively remember it as unusual since such adjustments were usually much smoother. Some five seconds later I saw another passenger airplane pass by alarmingly close to ours and flying in the opposite direction in what seemed to be our flight path just moments ago. I looked around with apprehension and nobody seemed to have noticed what had just occurred. Looking at my girlfriend, I contemplated waking her up to tell her what happnned, but decided she would be better off without all the "excitement".

  • by MichaelSmith ( 789609 ) on Monday October 22, 2007 @11:23PM (#21080779) Homepage Journal

    add this to the fact that air controllers still use equipment that employs vaccuum tubes

    If you mean that they use CRT monitors then you are probably right. Most ATC operators are moving to 2k by 2k LCD monitors but the changeover will take time.

    If you mean that they use high power valve radio transmittors then it would only be true if that is the best technology available.

    If you mean that they use valve computers then you are wrong. I work in the industry, though not supplying the FAA. I am sure they have a reliance on some old systems, but no more so than many organisations like the banks.

  • by evilviper ( 135110 ) on Tuesday October 23, 2007 @01:13AM (#21081543) Journal

    The per-hour death rate of driving versus flying, however, is about equal.

    That's a clever analysis. I've always known the standard statistics we're given are crap. However, that conclusion still is not exactly a rebuke of air travel, as airlines travel nearly 10X faster than cars, that suggests air travel is 10X safer.

    The problem I still see with that, is the fact that "driving" is an extremely nebulous term. The billions of 2 mile trips people take every day to go out to eat or shop REALLY shouldn't be compared to interstate travel, which is just about the only trips commercial airlines make. Similarly, international flights shouldn't be included in the comparison either.

    I would love to get some actually fair and accurate comparisons of airline travel vs. automobiles, buses, and trains. However, even if it was done perfectly, it wouldn't be a good source of info to make decisions... The individual driving will have a drastic effect on automobile safety. Different airlines that can be select from, have drastically different safety records as well. The weather conditions, and the route taken, will drastically affect the safety of both, but in very different ways.

    And finally, I have yet to be subjected to a cavity search, before being allowed to drive...
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday October 23, 2007 @04:23AM (#21082373)
    Ignoring all of the obvious points made by previous posters, you're looking at the statistics wrong. Odds are if you're in an airplane, it's being operated by a professional pilot. Odds are, if you in a car, not only is it not likely to be operated by a professional driver, but you're sharing the road with mostly non-professional drivers. Buses, driven by professionals, are about half as safe as airliners, but still 10-20 times safer than cars. Sure, there are tons of amateur pilots flying around their own planes, but it's so extremely unlikely that you or I will end up on one of those planes that they don't belong in the statistics. You might as well add cargo planes, military flights, and airshows also.

    Hell, forget the statistics and just look at the actual numbers. This year there were no jetliner fatalities in the US. Last year there were 49 in the Comair crash. In 2005 the only jet crash fatality was a child in a car that was hit by a plane sliding off its runway. Prior to that the latest jet fatalities were in 2001. That's right. Of the trillions of passenger miles flown in those 5 years, the only fatality was actually in an automobile. Do you still think you're safer in a car?

  • Silly (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Eivind ( 15695 ) <> on Tuesday October 23, 2007 @05:04AM (#21082551) Homepage
    This is completely silly.

    We know pretty accurately how dangerous flying is, on account of having a fairly good record of how many million people fly how many thousand miles a year, and knowing how many end up dead or injuried as a result.

    If *almost* crashes where significantly up, you'd expect *actual* crashes to be similarily up. There's more than enough planes in the air that the law of average work just fine.

"So why don't you make like a tree, and get outta here." -- Biff in "Back to the Future"