The Human Connection

I’d meant to get to this when it happened, but got sidetracked.  Here’s a news article about a gear-up landing in the northeast in August.  If you head here on, you can hear the recording if you have an account.  (Note:  the audio clip link will not show up unless you’re logged into the site.)

What made this particular gear up landing catch my interest?  Let’s see.  First, Nashua (ASH), last I heard, was a contract tower.  By today’s definitions, that implies a lower traffic volume tower.  If we were already well into Industry’s and the FAA’s version of NextGen, that definition might not hold true.

Second, the pilot initially lined up for the wrong airport and the controller talked him back to where he needed to be.

Third, the aircraft (rightly) made a low approach so that the tower, the mechanic(s), the airport authority and/or probably the emergency response equipment could get a good look at what was going on with the landing gear from different angles.

Fourth, the mechanic came up into the tower after the pilot made his first low approach and coordinated directly with the controller about the safest course(s) of actions to maximize the pilot’s chances of a good emergency landing.

On average, it seems the smaller the control tower, the more people on the airport a controller knows.  Maybe it’s only a name and a voice on the telephone, or maybe it’s someone whose wife is good friend’s with the controller’s wife.  Maybe the tower is on a military base and the controllers knows some of the pilots and mechanics from the gym.  Even at a large control tower, controllers know some airport management, electricians, certain pilots, etc.  The better you know someone, the better determination you can make on what level of assistance you can expect from them.

Staffed NextGen Towers (SNTs) or Automated NextGen Towers (ANTs) will lose that human connection.  We all know the Agency, if they continue on their path to combine and contract out most ATC services, will start with the lower density towers (to prove that it’s “safe”), before moving up the traffic-density food chain.

The same emergency situation under the auspices of SNTs and ANTs will not necessarily work as smoothly.  The controller will be XXX miles away never having even seen the airport in person.  Today a controller has the ability to maneuver (left, right, up, down, sideways) with a set of binoculars from different angles within the tower to see the landing gear.  In a SNT in the future, wherever the cameras point, that’s what the controller will see.

And I can say with a certainty that the ability to have a mechanic or a pilot of a similiar aircraft come up to the tower DURING the emergency and coordinate will be lost forever.  Some will say, there are still telephones and frequencies, but the more technology between the PEOPLE, the more chances for error and technological difficulties.  From a controller’s standpoint, it is significantly easier to listen to a person standing next to you and a frequency than it is to listen to a frequency, a telephone and someone else talking to you.  Listen to the background noise near the end of the recording.  All of that was various coordinations occurring and people speaking in the control tower while the controller was talking to the pilot. Remember this from the NextGen ConOps?

Staffed NextGen Towers (SNT) allow ANSP personnel to service multiple airfields from a single physical location.

The human connection is extremely important in ATC; more important than most people realize.  Certainly more than Industry cares about.  The next time you’re trying to connect to a live person at some customer service in India, you’ll probably have the time to think more on the subject.

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