On December 1,1974, TWA Flight 514 approached Dulles International Airport outside Washington. D.C. Although it was morning, stormy weather conditions required an instrument approach. At 11:01 the FAA’s enroute controller cleared the flight to descend to 7,000 feet and contact Dulles approach control The captain complied, making contact with the FAA center that handles takeoff and landings. After the captain reported being level at 7,000 feet, the controller said, “TWA 514.you’re cleared for VOR/DME approach to runway 12.” Acknowledging the clearance, the captain let down the landing gear and told his first officer, “1,800 is the bottom.” The first officer began the descent to 1,800 feet, as indicated on the approach profile chart.Studying his charts while the 727 descended, the captain pointed out that on his plan view chart, 3,400 feet—not 1,800—was specified as the minimum altitude.
But then, in response to the first officer’s query, he affirmed “When he [the controller] clears you, that means you can go to your initial approach altitude,” which was 1,800 feet. “Right,” agreed the flight engineer. Sudden the altitude alert horn sounded—once, then again. A glimpse of the ground appeared through the rain. The first officer shoved the throttles forward The altimeter warning horn gave a sharp blast. “Get some power on ” shouted the captain. The horn sounded again. At 11:09:22 Flight 514 plowed into 1,700-foot-high Mount Weather, 25 nautical miles northwest of Dulles. All 85 passengers and seven crew members were killed and the Boeing 727 was destroyed. The National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation of the crash raised serious questions about the adequacy of the nation’s air traffic control system, operated by the Federal Aviation Administration. To begin with, the altitude restriction due to Mount Weather was shown only one of the pilot’s two charts. And the controller had cleared the pilot to descend without mentioning any altitude restriction. In defending its controller, the FAA maintained that, because the flight was not considered a “radar arrival,” the controller was not required to warn the pilot of any altitude restrictions. Thus, the controller’s instruction of “cleared for the approach” meant, to the controller,“Take care of yourself.” Yet, as the NTSB pointed out, “It has become commonplace to clear pilots to descend below the altitudes published on the terminal area...and instrument approach charts.” A pilot will therefore tend to disregard a charted minimum if he has received an approach clearance without an altitude minimum.
Further, such key terms as "cleared for approach” and “radar arrival,” according to the NTSB’s findings, “have no established definitions and mean different things to controllers and pilots . “ A number of pilots, including the chief of the AirForce instrument flight center, testified that if they had received Flight 514’s clearance, they would have descended to 1,800 feet as well. (Ironically, six weeks before the TWA crash. another fight approaching the same runway had received the same clearance and had made the same response—fortunately, close enough in to have missed Mount Weather. The crew reported the incident to their airline management as a safely problem, but the FAA itself had no procedure or system for reporting such unsafe conditions or incidents.) The NTSB concluded—39 years after the federal government took over responsibility for air traffic control—that “it is essential that a lexicon of air traffic control words and phrases be developed and made available to all controllers and pilots.”
Earlier in 1974, on March 3, a Turkish Airlines DC-10 operating as Flight 981 took off from Orly Airport in Paris. As it reached 13,000 feet an improperly fastened rear cargo door blew off, leading to explosive depressurization of the fuselage. The force of the rapidly exiting air caused the cabin floor to collapse, severing all control cables to the vertical and horizontal tail surfaces. Hopelessly out of control the plane dived for the ground, crashing at nearly 500 miles per hour into the pines of Ermenonville Forest, 23 miles northeast of Paris. All 334 passengers and 12 crew members lost their lives. The McDonnell Douglas DC-10 design had been certificated as “airworthy” by the FAA on July 29, 1971. This official governmental seal of approval meant that the giant plane complied with Part 25 of the Federal Air Regulations,which imposes minimum design standards for transport category aircraft. As such, it could legal & be used in commercial service—and be insured.Yet unbeknownst to aviation insurers—or to DC-10 passengers—even before the plane was certificated, a battle over the cargo door had been raging behind the scenes. On May 29, 1970, 93 days before the DC-10’s first flight, a fuselage pressure test failed when the aft cargo door blew out. The manufacturer’s “fix"—a small vent door within the cargo door, designed to prevent pressurization if the door were improperly latched—was approved by the FM.(The agency’s certification board misunderstood how the vent door operated, however, erroneously believing it to be a pressure-relief mechanism, which it clearly was not.)
Once the DC-10 entered airline service, operators began experiencing trouble closing the door properly. McDonnell Douglas issued a series of Service Bulletins to all DC-10 operators recommending various modifications aimed at making sure the door would be properly closed. But the initial “fixes” were not fail-safe. The cargo door could be forced closed without being properly latched and the cabin could still be pressurized. This is what had happened to American Airlines Flight 96, a DC-10 that departed Detroit on June 12, 1972. Climbing out at 11,700 feet over Windsor, Ontario the improperly latched cargo door blew out, collapsing the rear floor and cutting the vital control cables. Miraculously, the flight crew was able to regain control using only engine thrust and ailerons, bringing in the crippled plane into an emergency landing. When a life threatening safety defect is discovered, the FAA has the power to issue an Airworthiness Directive(AD), an order requiring all operators to make the necessary fix. After the Windsor incident, the FM’s western regional office prepared an AD mandating design changes to make the door fail-safe. But by order of FAA Administrator John Shaffer, the AD was never issued. To spare McDonnell Douglas and the airlines bad publicity, a “gentleman’s agreement” was worked out whereby the company would issue an Alert Service Bulletin recommending various fixes. Nearly two years later, the DC-10 that crashed in Paris was found to lack a key part called for by the Service Bulletin—a part that would have prevented the door from being forced closed, as it was the day of the crash.
THE CRASHES just described—as well as the recent San Diego collision of a 727 and a private plane—illustrate serious FAA failures in carrying out its two principal functions: operating the air traffic control system and ensuring the safety of aircraft design, maintenance, and operation. How well these tasks are carried out is, literally, a matter of life and death. It is generally taken for granted that unless the government. looked after these aspects of aviation, there would be chaos and carnage in the skies. Yet many aviation observers maintain that we have chaos and carnage in the skies today, not in spite of the FAA’s efforts, but because of its incompetence. Once we see, however, what the FAA is responsible for and how it operates, it becomes clear that there are other ways to get the job done. How did the federal government get the job of trying to guarantee safety and order in the skies? After World War I there was a glut of surplus biplanes, and everyone who could scrape together a few dollars and some gasoline wanted to get into aviation.
The general public and the insurance industry could hardly be blamed for considering the whole field rather frivolous. Indeed, aviation’s image problem was the major concern of serious enthusiasts of the 1920s and 1930s—and led ultimately to federal involvement. Aviation’s first trade group, the Aeronautical Chamber of Commerce (later to become the Aircraft Industries Association), asserted in its 1921 Aircraft Year Book the need for “proper legislation” to “assure capital that it is entering a business project instead of a romantic adventure.” Further, the group noted that “rates of insurance are likely to remain unsatisfactory so long as no competent federal agency exists to determine the airworthiness of craft or the competency of pilots.”Aviation enthusiast Herbert Hoover, then secretary of Commerce, became the industry’s chief advocate within the government, drafting a bill that year to set up in his department a bureau to regulate the new industry. The proposed bill made the Commerce Department responsible for designating and maintaining all public and commercial air routes, inspecting and licensing aircraft and pilots, and establishing and administering rules of the air. But the bill languished in Congress for five years. During this time the Army Air Service set up an Airways Section that attempted to fill the vacuum. Its involvement was justified, in part, by the federal government’s airmail operations—first in government planes, and from 1925 onward via private operators under contract to the Post Office. The Air Commerce Act of 1926, Hoover’s long-tended bill, finally established “federal sovereignty” in the airspace of the United States, laying the basis for today’s FAA.
From 1926 until 1938 the Bureau of Air Commerce established by the act laid out airways between various cities, installing lighted beacons and emergency landing fields along each one, publishing maps, and setting up radio and telegraph stations to make weather information available at airports. By the early 1930s airborne radios were being added to planes, and the first radio-based “blind landing” system was tested by the bureau in 1934-35. By 1935 several airlines had begun developing a means of traffic control at the Newark, Cleveland, and Chicago airports; the next year, this function was taken over by the bureau. In 1938, after several years of depression-era lobbying, the federal government provided an economic bail-out for the struggling airlines: the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938. This law converted the Bureau of Air Commerce into the Civil Aeronautics Authority, with greatly expanded powers. Besides the traffic control and safety functions, the new agency was given vast economic powers—to assign specific airlines to specific routes so as to minimize “destructive” competition, to limit entry to the industry, to regulate fares, etc. Two years later these economic regulatory powers were split off into a separate Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) while the air traffic and safety functions remained in what was renamed the Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA). The CAA was kept within the Commerce Department until 1958 when, in the wake of a spectacular mid air collision over the Grand Canyon, it was reorganized as the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) and made independent. In 1967 it was incorporated into the new Department of Transportation and its name changed to the Federal Aviation Administration.
AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL and air safety certification are the FAA’s two main functions. Nearly half of its 60,000 employees are involved directly in air traffic control (ATC) operations. They staff some 423 airport control towers, 25 air route traffic control centers, and 347 flight service stations. Another 10,000 technicians and engineers install and maintain the various radars, instrument landing systems, and navigation aids (such as VOR radio navigation beacons). Nearly all airline flights and some general aviation (private) flights operate under instrument flight rules (IFR) at all times. This means they must file a flight plan with the FAA and are kept track of from takeoff to landing by the ATC system-although, as the crash of TWA 514 demonstrates, this “positive control” is sometimes less positive than the FAA would have us believe. All airspace around airline airports and above 18,000 feet is under FAA control and must be flown IFR. Outside of this airspace, general aviation aircraft may fly by visual flight rules (VFR)—essentially, on a “see and be seen” basis: VFR pilots receive flight briefings and weather reports from the FAA’s flight service stations but are otherwise on their own. Since many IFR flights operate below 18,000 feet, there is an obvious potential for conflict between VFR and IFR traffic—a conflict the FAA has not been able to resolve.
Besides operating the ATC system in an attempt to avoid collisions and crashes, the FAA carries out the remainder of its safety functions by means of licensing and certification. All civil aircraft operated in the United States must be certificated as airworthy by the FAA. The agency maintains several detailed books of minimum design standards—such as Part 25 for commercial transports—against which each new aircraft is measured. Theoretically, FAA inspectors are involved at all stages of aircraft design and testing; in practice, however, the major manufacturers carry out most such inspections themselves on a kind of honor system. Under the system known as delegation option authority (DOA), “the manufacturer makes a finding of compliance with the applicable regulations without full participation of the FAA.” Critics charge that the DOA system builds in an unacceptable conflict of interest. Once an aircraft is certificated, the FAA is also concerned with its safe operation. All commercial airlines must operate FAA-approved maintenance programs, in which all work must be signed off by an FAA-licensed mechanic. Everyone else involved in operating the aircraft-pilots, flight engineers, navigators, dispatchers—must also be licensed by the FAA. Various volumes of the Federal Air Regulations (FARs) set forth the requirements for different types of licenses—for example, the basic pilot categories of student, private, commercial, and airline transport.
The FAA also licenses pilot and mechanic schools and instructors. Pilots must pass periodic medical exams to keep their licenses, and airline pilots must fly with an FAA check pilot once each year. In 1970 the FAA received a new certification mandate—airports. Under the Airport and Airway Development Act of 1970, it was authorized to issue operating certificates to aircarrier airports; 500 larger airports were certificated in 1973 and 400 smaller ones in 1975. Those airports receiving federal funds under the act are supposed to comply with FAA issued safety standards, but half of the 500 large airports “had to be given temporary exemptions from some of the requirements, mostly for firefighting and rescue equipment,” in order that airline operations could continue past the certification deadline set by Congress. The act established a system of user taxes to build a trust fund for modernizing airports and the ATC system. The FAA now administers the trust fund, parceling out grants to airports and purchasing new air navigation equipment. Besides these major functions, the FAA has responsibility (shared with the Environmental Protection Agency) for regulating aircraft noise and engine emissions and supervises the anti-hijacking efforts of the airlines. In addition, it operates two airports serving Washington, D.C.— Dulles International and Washington National.
READING THE FAA’s brochures, one gets the impression that the ATC system is a smoothly functioning technological marvel. Talking to pilots, controllers, and others in aviation produces quite a different picture. What emerges is a description of a classic bureaucracy, unable to keep up with technological change, wasting resources, stumbling along from crisis to crisis, pressured by lobbyists, harassed by politicians, seeking protection in the bowels of the civil service system. “Even the other federal agencies look down their noses at the FAA,” says one longtime air safety expert, “because it’s filled with incompetents who don’t know how to manage.” Apparently, this has been typical of the FAA/CAA throughout its history, and especially so since World War II. The war produced major technological advances in communications and electronics—most notably, radar. Keeping modern jet aircraft safely separated and operating in all weather conditions would be unthinkable without radar. Yet the CAA resisted the implementation of radar until the mid-1950s. Even today (as the case of Flight 514 brought out) radar is not the primary control device in the ATC system; even at jet speeds and with today’s high levels of traffic, the pilot in all cases is still supposed to look out for himself. Bureaucratic safety rhetoric aside, the agency’s primary spur to action has been crashes, not a desire to take advantage of new technology as it becomes available. Radar technology in the early 1950s made it possible to keep aircraft under “positive control” in busy airspace. Yet it took the spectacular mid air collision of a TWA Constellation and a United DC-7 over the Grand Canyon in 1956 to get the CM to institute positive control above 24,000 feet—and then only during restricted visibility.
Several midair collisions later, in 1958, the CAA stiffened the rules to require all traffic between 17,000 and 30,000 feet, on certain routes, to file IFR flight plans, regardless of the weather. Yet gaps in the system remained. In 1960 a TWA Constellation and a United DC-8 collided over Staten Island while one was approaching La Guardia and the other Idlewild (now JFK). Inadequate communication between the airport approach controllers was blamed for the crash, leading (finally) to a system of positive radar transition between en route and approach control centers, and later to a common approach control center for all three New York area airports. It was not until a 1965 midair collision over Carmel, New York, that positive control of all airspace over 18,000 feet altitude was instituted by the FAA. This lurching from crisis to crisis would have been quite unnecessary had the CAA/FAA followed the high-caliber technical advice made available to it by a succession of industry/government technical advisory committees.
Beginning with the Radio Technical Committee for Aeronautics, in 1948, and continuing with the Huff Committee in the 1950’s and the Alexander Committee in the late 1960’s, these high powered have laid out an evolutionary plan for making full use of the state of the art in communications and electronics to produce an ATC system adequate to the task. The CAA/FAA has paid lip service to these reports and adopted portions of their recommendations,but its overall response has been too little, too late.
In 1962 the FAA came up with a 10-year plan for automation of the ATC system. With a congressional mandate to accomplish the task within 10 years, the FAA plowed ahead, basing the system on IBM 7090 computers—which even IBM protested would be obsolete by the time they were installed and—Raytheon radar displays of a relatively unproven design. Rushed into service under severe time pressure, the system’s many hair-raising failures were soon legendary. It became standard procedure to shut down the system entirely whenever the president’s Air Force One was flying, relying instead on the obsolete (but more reliable) manual system. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s air traffic volume grew by leaps and bounds.The number of airports receiving commercial service rose substantially. Yet many of them remained unequipped with such essential safety features as Instrument Landing Systems (ILS) and radar. During the decade from 1962 to 1971 there were 20 fatal accidents involviing non precision landings (those without proper instruments) at air carrier airports; nearly 700 people died in those accidents.