‘Radar contact lost’: Former air traffic controller recounts the time he had a hair-raisingly bad day at work – losing five planes in a giant thunderstorm over Arizona

‘Radar contact lost’: Former air traffic controller recounts the time he had a hair-raisingly bad day at work – losing five planes in a giant thunderstorm over Arizona

“Loss of radar contact”In his autobiography, former air traffic controller Robin A. Smith admits that he, too, has had to say those dreadful words.The compelling tome details the chain of events that led up to that statement.

How he briefly feared a catastrophe involving a commercial flight and four military planes.It’s a reminder that a poor day at work for an air traffic controller can be terrifying.

When Smith was working at the Tucson terminal radar approach control (Tracon) on Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona, he oversaw the flight paths of planes traveling to and from the base as well as the international airport located 4.5 miles to the southwest of the city. This is where the ‘radar contact lost’ drama unfolded in August 1992. Smith recalls that the day had started out well; he had driven to his 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift under clear blue sky.But by 10 a.m., warning indications of a major storm had begun to surface. The temperature had risen above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, which “drives an elevator that lifts moisture into the sky” in the shape of puffy clouds.

“Like the fast food rush, we anticipated the adverse effects of the monsoon and were prepared to adjust accordingly,” Smith says in Life With A View – Memoir of an Air Traffic Controller.Growing storms on the radar made it look like an adolescent suffering from acne. I watched the storm morph like an amoeba in a high school zoology film as all five planes soared into the clouds above the thunderstorm. Robin A. Smith is a former air traffic controller.

SmithSmith’s final shift on the departure sector began at 2 p.m.After taking a 20-minute break, he checks the radar and is shocked by how much the storms have developed in that time. Thunderstorm cells that had been scattered earlier had coalesced, moving to the west of both airports.Smith recounts that the dramatic events were sparked by the words “Northwest 551, Boeing 727, taking the runway for departure” coming from Tucson tower.Smith couldn’t believe the captain had agreed to fly through such dangerous conditions.

Imagine a commercial airliner flying straight into a major storm. What would happen? In an interview with MailOnline Travel, an unnamed Boeing Dreamliner pilot expressed concern that a jet could become “unflyable” in a severe weather event.Saying, “[There would be] horrendous turbulence, likely leading to lots of injuries to passengers and crew at a bare minimum,” he elaborated on the severity of the situation. The worst-case situation is that the pilot loses control of the plane or that the plane’s structural components collapse, rendering the plane unflyable.Advertisement

Air traffic controllers cannot refuse takeoff permission “because the weather looks bad,” but they can “put an airport on hold,” as he reveals.Since Smith could “issue an immediate right turn” for the Northwest [which merged with Delta Air Lines in 2008] plane, he saw no reason to halt airport operations and allow the plane to fly around the storm.There was, however, a catch.

No takeoffs from Davis-Monthan airport are required for this strategy to succeed.He expresses his hope that the air force pilots at Davis-Monthan took a glance outside their window before deciding to grab another Coke from the ready room.The tower at Davis-Monthan announced the departure of “Simon 22,” the codename for four naval A-7s, as the worst-case scenario began to play out.While Davis-Monthan and the departing A-7s were in Smith’s sights, he reasoned that he could turn the Northwest B727 over their heads.His assurance stemmed from the fact that he knew commercial flights were usually announced as they turned onto the runway, but military jets typically ran through a checklist before taking off.

‘For a flight of four, as in Simon 22’s case, the taxi onto the runway and run-up process would easily take three to four minutes, and by that time, Northwest 551 would be… 20 miles northeast of Tucson and going through 10,000 feet,’ he says.’At least, that’s what would have happened on an ideal day,’ he continues.In the following transmission, Northwest reported that it was “climbing out of 3,700ft…”Simon 22 then made an announcement that it was “climbing out of 3,600ft…” a few seconds later.According to Smith, “I watched the storm change size and shape like an amoeba in a high school science movie as all five aircraft climbed into the thunderstorm.”With each radar sweep, the inevitability was emphasized, and time seemed to slow.

I was very uneasy. A right turn for weather was requested by Northwest 551, and it came as no surprise.According to Smith: “I had just committed the cardinal sin of air traffic control, and my worst nightmare was about to become a reality.”

There was no way out for me.Having no choice but to keep Simon 22 at 6,000 feet, the minimum altitude to clear the mountains in front of them, he adds that he sent the B727 over the top of the A-7s after it reached 7,000 feet, “thereby ensuring the minimum one thousand feet of vertical separation required by ATC.” It seemed more likely that they would lose a wing or an engine in the black cloud than one of the A-7s, therefore they made the decision to turn right. What’s wrong? Because of their forward momentum, all five planes would be in the eye of the storm by the time Northwest 551 had enough altitude to make the turn, as Smith puts it.Rapidly increasing turbulence would soon befall Northwest 551, causing the crew to struggle with the controls in the coming seconds. Hail, which would sound like pebbles hitting the cockpit windshield, would further exacerbate the loss of control.

The problems would be exacerbated by microbursts, the intense downdrafts of air that occur in fully developed thunderstorms.After that, Smith did what?He responded, “Northwest 551, no room for an immediate right turn, traffic on your right side for the next four miles, and four A-7s taking off from Davis-Monthan. At 6,000 feet they will be held; when they depart at 7,000 feet, have them veer right toward zero four five.In his words:

The next reply from Northwest 551 made me shiver. “Northwest 551 is starting a right turn, northeast bound,” they announced.In the event of an emergency, the pilot in command is authorized to “do whatever is necessary to ensure the safety of the aircraft, crew, and passengers,” as Smith puts it, and “the book and all its rules go out the window.”Moreover, Smith says

If we were going to lose a wing or an engine in the black cloud, turning right was the safer bet than taking a risk on colliding with one of the A-7s, so that’s what we did. Simon 22 announced that they had lost visual contact with Smith, thus the worst case scenario wasn’t over with him yet.While approaching downtown Tucson and passing directly over the University of Arizona, Smith says, “I now had five aircraft in the middle of a severe thunderstorm who were unable to see each other and unwilling to accept my instructions.”

‘The storm had grown so thick that the ATC radar couldn’t see through it to pick up the planes.Smith had no choice but to raise his hand and ask for help from his manager.There was silence on his radar for several seconds, and he notes that “no news was not good news” in this situation.On the radar’s fifth pass, we finally get some encouraging data. Smith adds that after picking up a jet traveling northeast, the 727 responded to a request for a radio check.After another radar sweep detected two A-7s, and then the third, the flight leader reported that he had established radio contact with the fourth A-7.’The fourth Simon 22 member was radar-identified, and I issued instructions to join them as a flight again,’ Smith explains.

It was over as swiftly as it had started. Additionally, all planes were split up.The weather had moved north of both airports, leaving behind shaken aircrews, a confused controller, and a city full of people who would not read in the morning paper that an incident in southern Arizona had claimed a bunch of lives. I issued headings commensurate with the aircraft’s original flight plans and sent them on their way.Smith acknowledges he could have avoided the problem by putting both airports on hold for a short period of time.

But that was an answer that could be seen only in retrospect.After being reprimanded for not starting the “radar contact lost” procedures, Smith said he “didn’t have time” to do so.His last musing? With no planes suffering from “scraped paint,” it was a “perfect day” for air traffic controllers.You can purchase Robin A. Smith’s Life With A View: Memoir of an Air Traffic Controller from Amazon for £9.95 ($9.20). Smith worked in aviation for nearly 38 years, first as a qualified radar approach control instructor in Oklahoma City and then as a domestic and international controller at two FAA towers in the United States.

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