Number of near mid-air collisions may be triple what is reported

The number of near mid-air collisions in Colorado since 2000 may be as much as three times higher than the Federal Aviation Administration has publicly reported.

An I-News comparison of two federal aviation safety databases found many more incidents in Colorado classified as near mid-air collisions than the FAA lists in its public database.

The FAA lists 26 reports from Colorado in its Near Midair Collision System between 2000 and November 2010.

A separate database maintained by NASA, called the Aviation Safety Reporting System, includes 58 near misses during the same time period. The NASA data includes only the most serious reports it receives, or about 20 percent of all reports by pilots, air traffic controllers and other airport personnel.

Nasa-LogoU-T-82757-1Only four of the near misses are listed by both agencies. That means the total number of near mid-air collisions in Colorado during the last decade could be as high as 80.

The two agencies use different ways to identify near misses. Terry von Thaden, an air-safety researcher at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, said both agencies’ reports are subjective, but that the FAA is more stringent on what it considers a near miss.

“A lot of times databases don’t match up,” she said.

Among the near misses not included in the FAA database are:

A near miss in September at Weld County Airport in Greeley. While practicing landings, an instructor had to grab control of the plane from the student and veer sharply to avoid a departing private plane. “Today was a little close and we are counting our blessings,” the instructor wrote in a report. It was the third near miss with the same plane and pilot in the last year, the instructor reported.

During bad weather at Aspen’s airport in February 2010, an inbound private plane got a warning of an immediate threat of collision with a departing plane. The pilot climbed and diverted to another airport.

A pilot of a commuter commercial plane reported a near collision with a plane towing a glider over Denver airspace in January 2010. The commuter pilot got warning of possible collision and saw a small plane ahead at the same altitude. The small plane veered sharply, but the commercial pilot saw a glider behind it that appeared to be within 10 seconds of impact. The captain of the commercial plane grabbed control from the first officer and “pulled the plane into an abrupt steep climb,” the pilot wrote. “I feel that a midair collision, or at least a VERY near miss would have occurred had we not taken immediate and aggressive measures within 4 or 5 seconds…”

Another near miss with a glider over Centennial Airport in April 2008. The NASA report said a Lear jet arriving at Centennial saw a glider about 200-300 feet above it. The pilot reported that no warnings were issued by the control tower. The pilot reported the near mid-air collision to the air traffic controller, the report said.

Number of serious safety reports by air traffic controllers in Colorado.

 

Year Number of Reports by Controllers
2000 11
2001 7
2002 14
2003 2
2004 8
2005 7
2006 11
2007 7
2008 1
2009 5
2010* 32
*Through November

Source: Rocky Mountain Investigative News Network analysis of NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System.

 

Years of warnings from federal auditors
Timeline
June 2004 – A second GAO report on retirements found the FAA still had not come up with a plan and had hired only one new controller since the beginning of the year, despite losing 400 controllers from the workforce. GAO repeated its warning about a high number of pending retirements in Denver.

Summer 2008 – A U.S. Senate appropriations report found that 35 percent of the controllers at Denver’s TRACON approach facility guiding planes into Denver International Airport were trainees who had yet to be certified.

February 2009 – A memo from Kevin Stark, acting air traffic manager in Denver, described how the TRAC0N facility would have to handle fewer landing and departing planes at a time due to controller shortages. “The TRACON has indicated that the loss of a large number of their experienced employees, the relative inexperience of many of their current controllers and the increase in volume has created a situation they can no longer accept,” Stark wrote.

April 2010 – A U.S. Department of Transportation inspector general report found that too many newly trained controllers were being assigned to the nation’s busiest facilities.

July 2010 – The U.S. House Appropriations Committee, alarmed by the April report, directed the inspector general to audit whether the FAA has adequate controller staffing and training at its most “critical facilities.” The report is due in May of this year.

September 2010 – A U.S. Department of Transportation inspector general report found the FAA and its contractor did not have enough instructors to handle training at several facilities, including Denver, which “compromised training programs.”


MORE SAFETY REPORTS, BUT NOT MORE PERSONNEL
Funding flat for NASA safety review system

The number of reports filed with the Aviation Safety Reporting System is soaring, but the funding for the staff handling the reports is grounded.

“We’re hitting records every day in terms of volume,” said Linda Connell of NASA, director of the system. “We could do more if we had more. … We’ve been flat-funded since 1997.”
Connell said all reports are reviewed within three days by a team of about 10 part-time air-safety experts with decades of combined experience as pilots, controllers and other related jobs.

But only 20 percent of the reports are processed fully – which means contacting the person who filed the report, summarizing it and then posting it in the database available to the public. The rest of the reports are not revealed.

The database amassed by NASA is valuable, air-safety experts say, because it allows air-safety professionals to quickly and confidentially report problems that often are the result of systemic flaws – flaws the system seeks to illuminate.

The NASA system “is really the backbone of our system now,” said Bill Voss, president and CEO of the Flight Safety Foundation. “It’s a reason the system’s gotten safer in the last decade.”

Denver International Airport on Feb. 16, 2011 in Denver.

Joe Mahoney / I-News

Denver International Airport on Feb. 16, 2011 in Denver.News

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