February 06, 2008

Other Than That…

I sit there in the mid-evening darkness in the runup area just off Oakland's 27R thinking it's good to be back in the left seat again. As John points out, the Bay Area weather has been pretty dreadful for flying lately, IFR or VFR, and although I've been scheduled to fly since early January, this evening's the first time everything's come together well enough that I could actually fly without encountering ice or major winds or snow or whatever. In fact it's a perfect clear VMC California winter evening, meaning almost unlimited visibility, relative warmth (10C), an essentially cloudless sky, and no real wind.

The plan's simple: a short night IFR hop up to Napa (KAPC) and a few approaches and holds there to maintain currency, then a short VFR skip back for light relief. I've dragged my usual safety pilot Boyan along with me, and he's sitting in the right seat idly watching a Pilatus PC12 being towed across the ramp a hundred metres to our right. Tower clears me to depart on 27R and I start moving forward up to the flashing hold short line. Simultaneously as I look to my left I see the dark shape of (what I immediately recognise as) a Justice Department MD-80 bearing down on us as it crosses 27R inbound from runway 29, exiting at our location, and I hear tower's rushed "051! hold short of 27R!" (or something similar — I don't remember the actual words). I stop dead where I am just short of the hold-short line (if I remember correctly) and off to one side (the taxiway / runway interaction here is a little complicated), and the MD-80, now stopped on the threshold of 27R, has all its lights blazing away at us, and it's going to be a close thing. At this point I'm also worried about being blown back across Airport Drive if the MD-80 turns onto taxiway Charlie just in front of us. I don't (of course) hear the MD-80's side of the whole saga, but I call tower and tell him that the MD-80 can get around us — just — if he's careful as we're somewhat off to the side of the main runway entrance. My call isn't acknowledged. I don't move, because at this point any movement by us will bring us closer to the now-stopped MD-80, and might just confuse things. A few moments later the MD-80 gingerly lumbers past us, its wingtips only a few metres from us, and turns onto Charlie. We get rocked a little by the jet blast as it slowly taxis away from us, but basically nothing much else happens, and a short while later we're cleared (again) to depart 27R. This time it's all uneventful, and a few seconds later we're airborne and being vectored by NorCal towards Napa's LOC 36L approach. In all this time, there's been no apology, no real acknowledgment (to us, at least), nothing from tower at all. Just another night in Oakland, I guess. At least I didn't get shot (sorry, Oakland in-joke).

A few observations and Wednesday-morning quarterbacking from the next day:

  • I'd switched from ground only a short time earlier, but I hadn't heard any exchange with the MD-80 before switching, so I wasn't aware of its existence at all. I pride myself on positional awareness through listening on-frequency, but this time either I completely missed a crucial exchange on-frequency (or at least half on-frequency), or any exchange happened solely on South Field ground. I don't know, but I suspect it all had something to do with the next point…
  • North Field tower (the usual tower for these runways in Oakland's split-field / two-tower setup) was temporarily closed, and there was a confusing set of frequencies and associated instructions in use. I was first on combined clearance, then North Field ground, and then South Field tower frequencies; I suspect the MD-80 was on South Field ground as a convenience to either the controller or the MD-80's crew.
  • When North Field tower's closed, South Field tower takes over, but it can't see parts of the North Field, and if I remember correctly, it's precisely the North Field runup area off 27R that it can't see. That's no excuse for losing situational awareness, of course.
  • I suspect the MD-80 was taxiing without its main lights on, presumably (and ironically) because the MD-80 crew saw us in the runup area from some distance away and didn't want to blind us with its main lights. Throughout this incident I'd guess that the MD-80 crew were at least as surprised as we were, and I'd also guess it was a call from the MD-80 that alerted the South Field controller to the situation (a call that we wouldn't have heard, of course).
  • Ironically, one of the reasons I didn't notice the MD-80 earlier was the brightness of the flashing hold short lights embedded in the taxiway just in front of us, which combined with the usual crappy Cessna windshield optics and the busy visual environment of that part of the airport (runways, taxiways, hangars, off-airport lighting, etc.), can make it difficult to see aircraft on the runways or the connecting taxiway Bravo.
  • A few minutes earlier ground had instructed us to taxi to 27R normally, but had omitted to mention that it would be immediately behind an Airborne Express 767 freighter that had just crossed in front of us (ground didn't call out that traffic at all; it's very unusual for Oakland ground controllers not to caution you about other taxiing traffic or to at least mention other aircraft in the area). Not a real safety issue in that I could easily see it, but just a foretaste of what was to come, I guess.
  • Yes, I should have done a much better job of looking before I started moving, but, again, while I glanced that way, I didn't see anything I didn't expect to see, and while it's no excuse, the visual environment at that point at that time of day can be rather confusing. And this is my home-town airport we're talking about, an environment and place I learned to fly in, and that's as familiar to me as large parts of the rest of my neighbourhood….

Of such things are NASA reports made, I guess.

* * *

Other than that little incident? A very pleasant and productive flight: alternating hand-flown with automated (G1000-driven) approaches is a lot of fun (I'm still amazed by just how well the new G1000 software drives the autopilot around holds, course reversals, etc.); the Oakland center controller's laid back, competent, and anticipatory ways work nicely with me on the Napa approaches; and the VFR flight back over San Pablo Bay and down along the line of the hills over Berkeley and Oakland back home is the usual wonderland of light and landscape.

All in all, an Interesting flight, at least in parts.

* * *

[Postscript (later the same day): prompted by John I called Oakland tower and spoke to a quality assurance guy there and gave him my side of what happened (and a small piece of my mind). He called back later after listening to the tapes, and while his version is a little different from mine (and he seemed to treat it a little less seriously with a sort of "shit happens" attitude by my reading), and his understanding of the relevant transmissions is slightly different), the agreed-to bottom line is that while no actual incursion occurred, I was wrongly cleared onto a runway that was already occupied, and that the relevant controller will be, ummm, re-educated. He noted that if I hadn't called they wouldn't have known any such incident had happened. He stated that North Tower was closed due to a leaking roof and associated problems, and that (sort of off the record…), yes, staffing issues were probably a contributory factor, especially given the South Tower blind spot. He didn't seem to take my wild complaints about the flashing hold short lights terribly seriously, but hell, I don't expect anyone to really (unless they have a lot of experience with crappy Cessna windshields :-)). I'm not really pleased with the outcome — the situation's inherently unsafe there — but I'm hoping that at least the NASA ASRS report will add some weight to any internal enquiry. Or not. I dunno…].


Avimentor said...

I think that some of the controllers, or their managers, or both are in serious denial. Having one controller working multiple frequencies from the south tower and then having a near collision in the approach areas of 27R and 27L (which are not visible from the south tower) involving two aircraft on different frequencies is a serious safety concern.

I've never liked it when a single controller works two different frequencies (whether on the ground or in the air) because it 1) screws up everyone's pacing - you never know when you can transmit without interrupting something happening on the other frequency - 2) it prevents the other pilots on the frequency from developing an accurate picture of what's going on and 3) it increases the controller's and the pilots' workload.

I was nearly t-boned by a bizjet while taxiing a twin at Oakland one night. One controller was working both ground and tower, the North Field was basically deserted, and I got my clearance to taxi. As I started, I noted a Lear rolling out on 27R. As he cleared the runway, I couldn't hear what he said, but I heard the single controller say "You can take either route" and I immediately realized a conflict would occur if the Lear went straight instead of taking a right on a parallel taxiway. The Lear chose to go straight, at a high rate of speed I might add. I turned on my strobes and poured on the coals - the Lear missed me by 5 feet or less and I don't think they ever saw me. This was the classic "two cars in Kansas" situation - plenty of space and we still managed to nearly collide.

When I asked the tower controller if he realized that the Lear had nearly hit me, his response was simply "roger."

These sorts of messes are an accident waiting to happen.

Anonymous said...

I don't care for a single controller working two frequencies, either. At SNA (John Wayne Airport -- Orange County, CA), a single controller often works both runways. This is a Class C airport that almost qualifies for Class B airspace, and one of the top 3 airports in the country for runway incursions.

Oh, and did I add that most of the controllers working the tower are, as far as I know, trainees? And the airport is under MAJOR construction, too.

At SNA, all the taxiways on the airport (except Charlie) are bi-directional. That, plus the other factors, often lead to interesting situations, as controllers don't think anything of having two taxiing airplanes headed right toward one another.

I once was taxiing southbound on the east side of the airport at night after being told to do so by a controller, and an airliner turned off 19R at Echo right into me. I was head-to-head with a 757 who had all his lights blazing. I'm not sure how many million candlepower that thing put out, but I was completely blinded even after he turned them off. The controller asked me to turn off the taxiway and I had to tell him there was no way I'd be able to move for a minute or two until my eyesight came back.

Good times.

Hamish said...

John: I definitely agree there's a lot of denial in the FAA over the situation at Oakland, regardless of the specific details of this particular incident. I've submitted the ASRS form; we'll see what happens....

Ron: not surprisingly, we've got a lot of trainee controllers at KOAK as well (as John has noted elsewhere, I think). It's sure noticeable in the quality of recent ATC interactions, at least to me. And while we have a lot more space than you do at KSNA, our taxiways are bidirectional as well, one of the causes of this particular little incident. Oh well....

Mark said...

You almost had a replay of the Tenerife disaster albeit involving a smaller plane and bigger plane. True, I agree with John here that having one controller work two frequencies can result to interference which can cause inaudible transmissions to involved aircraft. This had been one of the factors in the aforementioned disaster, after all.