I have written several trip reports about my flying at America West Airlines over the past few years, and even wrote one about Hawaiian Airlines since I returned from furlough last year. But I have been prodded to do one on this specific event by several people here (yes, including you, Scarlet Harlot), and now that some time has passed, and since I will not be returning to America West (OK, USAirways), I thought I should get this down before the details start fading from memory. What I hope to do here is to allow you to understand some of the feelings and thoughts that go through a pilot's mind in the moments leading up to, during, and after a serious event, and how through a lot of intense professional training we handle unexpected (and possibly life-threatening) situations.
There is a very old adage in aviation that a flying career is hours and hours of boredom punctuated by moments of stark terror. I feel fortunate that I haven't really felt the terror part yet, but there have been a few moments where my attention was, shall we say, a little more focused than usual, and the closest I have come to that terror moment was on Thursday, September 22nd, 2005. I had been flying for AWA for over a year, and had been based in Las Vegas since February of that year. I enjoyed the flying, even though it included a lot of red-eye trips across the U.S., and had settled down into a comfortable routine of flying four 4-day trips a month, with a fairly easy commute to and from my home in Seattle. On that hot early-fall day I rode down on my usual commute from SEA
, arriving in LAS
around 7pm. I knew the Captain I would be flying with quite well, as we had gone through our yearly recurrent training together two months earlier, and had flown two trips together since then too. He was a great guy to fly with, and had an easygoing attitude with a down-home Texas sense of humor. He arrived in LAS
on his commute from Dallas about the same time I did and we sat around the crew room telling lies until it was time to check in and get ready for the flight.
Our first day of the trip was a one-leg redeye to Cleveland Ohio. It was flight 539 with a scheduled departure time of 10:53pm. We were flying an Airbus A320, N632AW. It was one of the older aircraft in the fleet, and had the less powerful --A1 version engines on it. We walked to the gate and got onboard to begin our preflight preparations. There was a nice routine feeling to the day, because I had flown with this Captain, and on this route, several times before. The weather was cooperative too, with no storms forecast along our route of flight. It was however quite warm in LAS
, and combined with a full load of passengers meant that we would be using pretty much all of the performance available from the aircraft. If for some reason we ended up with even more weight onboard than expected we did have a few options. The whole point of these preflight calculations is to ensure that the aircraft can meet the required climb performance if one engine quits right a liftoff. If it gets to the point that you can't, your options are to either increase the thrust produced by the engines, or take some weight off of the plane. The second option isn't too popular with the airline because that means less revenue for them. The first option can work sometimes, but it also means more wear and tear on the engines, with reduced time between expensive overhauls. The airline knows in advance roughly how many passengers and how much cargo it will carry so there usually isn't too much work we have to do in the cockpit, but when the margins get slimmed down to the bare minimum, we always double check to ensure that we meet the required performance levels. Compounding the problem that September night was the fact that we were taking off from Las Vegas when the weather was still summer-hot. And combined with the 2000+ foot elevation at LAS
meant that the air wasn't as dense, and the aircraft wouldn't have as much performance available as it would on a cool day at sea level. Under most normal conditions, departing airliners often takeoff with the engines producing less than maximum thrust. The performance required to keep the flight legal is computed, and the autothrottles and/or aircraft computer is programmed to set the appropriate amount of thrust for takeoff. The amount of reduction can go from 0 to 25%, depending on how light the aircraft is. If even full thrust won't be enough, we have a few other tricks up our sleeves too. The older Airbuses (Airbii?) in the fleet with the A-1 engines were known to be somewhat lackluster in performance, especially when taking off heavy on a hot day from Vegas. The newer A320's, as well as all the A319's had newer --A5 engines which had more power and caused fewer headaches in flight planning.
When we computed the final numbers for our flight we found that we could just barely do the takeoff with full thrust, without having to do a 'bleeds-off' takeoff. What that means is that under normal conditions the engines have some of the air vented out (bled off) of the compressor section, even during takeoff, which is used to power the onboard air conditioning and pressurization equipment. Taking that air from the engines saps some of the power it could put out as thrust, but as long as there is enough power to takeoff legally, it isn't a problem. If we had been too heavy for a normal departure however, we could have turned off the bleeds just before takeoff which would let the engine have full available power, and increase the weight we could lift. In our case, we were just a couple hundred pounds under that limit, so officially we could do a normal 'bleeds-on' takeoff. The Captain and I discussed this for a moment, and decided that since LAS
has such a long runway for departure we would go ahead and do the 'bleeds on' takeoff. There is always the option to be a little more conservative if we wish, but we felt comfortable with the numbers we had, and continued with the preflight preparations.
The flight attendants came onboard and we all introduced ourselves. Unlike Hawaiian Airlines, AWA was a big enough company that I rarely flew with the same F/A's more than once. These three were all new to me and the Captain, as they were fairly junior. It was usually the more junior F/A's that got the redeye trips. I went outside to do the walkaround inspection, and was surprised again at how hot it stays in Vegas, even at night. The sun had set a couple hours earlier, but with the Vegas strip just a mile away, there was no way to see the stars above against the glitter and glitz reflecting up from the heart of sin city. The only constant feature in the Vegas sky is the pillar of light coming from the peak of the Luxor Hotel pyramid, spearing up into the stratosphere.
Everything on the exterior of the aircraft looked to be in good shape, if a little dirty and worn. I suppose most passengers would be surprised to see the amount of dirt, grime, grease, and hydraulic fluid on the underside of a typical airliner. It's not dangerous, but it is inevitable when the planes fly so much, and can come in for a wash only when it's time for a maintenance check at the hanger. Most planes have vents on the bottom from the hydraulic system, as well as drains from the sinks in the lavatories. Whenever a flight attendant pours out a pot of coffee into the sink before landing, that coffee goes out the vent, to eventually make a brown stain somewhere aft of the drain mast on the underside of the plane. The acid from that coffee is actually one of the leading causes of the stains, corrosion, and paint peeling on the aircraft fleets of the world.
Half an hour before departure the passengers began to board, and the Captain and I waited while they all got settled. The preflight procedures are setup so that most of our work is done early, and we can relax and be ready to go once the passengers and baggage has been loaded. When they were settled and the gate agent gave us the OK
, we closed the door and called ramp control for clearance to push back.
As a pilot, we sometimes get the feeling that we are more closely related to Pavlov's dog than any other species of animal. The training we accomplish for the job has us go over and over certain areas so often that our procedures and reactions are (and must be) automatic. Those areas are usually in the most critical phases of flight, takeoff, approach, and landing. In other areas we try and stay standard in what we do, but aren't limited to a strict litany of callouts and procedures. Getting ready to leave the gate is one of those areas where we have some latitude in what we do, because the situation is often changing. In LAS
the county controls the ramp area, and they have a separate frequency set up for control there, apart from the normal FAA ground controllers up in the tower. The problem in LAS
was that AWA had scheduled upwards of 25 flights to leave in a 15 minute window each evening. Since each flight has to call for push, then again for taxi, and each one requires a couple of back-and-forth comments from us and the controller, things can get very busy on the radio. And if two people try and call at once, all you get is screech over the radio and the whole thing has to be done again. On one occasion I had to wait nearly 12 minutes before I could get a word in edgewise to get clearance to push. This night however I got through on the first call, and received our clearance to push and start. A check of a few of the overhead switches was accomplished, (another of the long practiced and memorized procedures) and we were ready to go. As long as the APU (auxiliary power unit) in the tail is running and providing compressed air for the start, starting the engines on an Airbus is extremely simple. Merely ensure that adequate air is available, and flip one switch. The computers take care of the rest. A minute later we had both engines running, and with another clearance in hand, began the taxi to runway 25R.
We were about half way into the block of departures, so there were over a dozen aircraft ahead of us on the taxiway heading down toward the end of the runway. Most were AWA planes, heading east for redeyes, plus a few United, Delta, and Northwest planes too. AWA had another block of flights leaving between 11:45pm and midnight which included a few redeyes, plus all the late flights to west coast destinations. Southwest was normally absent from the nighttime rush, as their schedule is very civilized with most of their flying finished by that time of night. The lineup shortened as more aircraft launched into the sweltering night, and we soon found ourselves next in line. Ground control had been talking to us up to that point with a couple of questions about our route of flight, and a possible deviation for weather over the midwest. As we reached the front of the line ground control asked us to switch to tower, and almost immediately we were cleared into position on the runway. The Captain steered us into position and stopped us on the centerline with the toe brakes on the rudder pedals. We had decided earlier that I would fly the first leg, then we'd alternate over the next few days. The Captain turned the controls over to me, and took over the radio duties. I put my right hand on the comfortable sidestick, my left on the throttles, held the brakes with my feet and waited for our turn to go. When it's busy at LAS
, the controllers can give one aircraft clearance to go as soon as the one ahead has lifted off. That was what happened in our case.
"Cactus 539, runway 25 right, cleared for takeoff, keep preceding company in sight."
"Cleared for takeoff, company in sight," the Captain replied.
"Here we go," I said, and advanced the throttles to the 'TOGA' (Takeoff/Go-Around) position. I kept my eyes on the centerline of the runway and steered with the rudder pedals. As we started to move we heard the controller say,
"Cactus 278 position and hold Runway 25 Right." That was the plane directly behind us, one of our 757's going to Baltimore. The 757 needs a few moments without moving before rolling onto the runway in order to align its navigation platform, and with the rapid flow of traffic, they hadn't had enough time yet.
"Cactus 278, we need a few more seconds here," they replied.
"Cactus 278, cancel takeoff clearance," the tower said.
I was of course listening to this exchange on the radio as we accelerated, and for a moment I thought that was a little strange, since they hadn't been cleared for takeoff yet, but merely into position and hold. But I was primarily concentrating on our own takeoff roll, and just after the last call from the tower the Captain said,
"Eighty knots, power set."
The next call I expected from the Captain was 'V1 - rotate', meaning we had reached a speed where we would have to continue the takeoff even if we lost an engine. In this case, the V1 speed and our rotation speed were the same, 151 knots. Because of our heavy weight, the hot day, high altitude, and less powerful engines I knew it would be a long takeoff roll, and it was. We were rumbling along the runway and gathering speed when I heard,
"I don't think he's going to stop!"
I looked ahead and to the left, and saw another aircraft that had apparently landed on the parallel runway, 25L, about to cross our runway. Sure enough, his nose poked past the runway lights and he kept moving into our path. Since it was dark, what I mostly remember seeing was the light from the line of windows along the side of the plane, not the plane itself.
My first thought was, of course, "Oh shit". But at the same time I was trying to figure out how to miss him. We were still below V1, somewhere around 130 to 135 knots, which meant we would normally have enough room to stop, but with this other plane in the way all those calculations go out the window. My next thought was to stomp hard left on the rudder and go behind him, but the areas between the taxiways and runways are mostly desert sand, and have substantial dips in them. I knew that if I veered off the runway we'd bounce a few times, then rip off the landing gear and go barreling across the airport shedding parts of the plane as we went. Without thinking more about it I pulled full aft on the sidestick and watched as we made a slow rotation. We were still probably 10 or 15 knots below our normal rotation speed, and the plane felt sluggish. As I yanked back the Captain was yelling to me,
"Pull! Pull! Pull!", meaning he wanted me to pull on the sidestick, and for us to get airborne, now! I had already beaten him to that conclusion.
The Captain had pulled himself forward to the glareshield and was watching all this unfold from his front row seat. It's to his credit that he trusted me enough that he didn't grab hold of his own sidestick too. Instead he watched, helpless, as the plane tried to struggle into the air. Keep in mind that from the time he pointed out the intruding aircraft until I pulled back was probably less than three or four seconds. I didn't feel panic, but instead a very close ability to see details as the clock seemed to slow down. I also remember many different options running through my head in those few seconds. However now we were committed to fly, and despite the low airspeed we were airborne. I heard the clunk of the landing gear struts extending as we became airborne, and even as the two aircraft kept closing the gap between them with alarming speed, I could see that we were climbing. From that point on, I kept my eyes on the instruments ahead of me. In the Airbus the controls are fly-by-wire, which means everything is computer controlled. There are limits on how much we can point the nose up, or roll the wings before the computer says 'Uh, no thanks boys', and stops us there. With my sidestick full aft, all I could hope for was that the computer (which didn't know about the danger ahead) would allow us to climb enough before we got too slow and it lowered our nose to ensure we didn't stall. I watched the airspeed tape roll backwards with frightening speed, and the altimeter tape climbing much too slowly. Suddenly I saw a red flash out of the corner of my eye -- the red beacon on the top of the other plane as it passed underneath us, just on my side. I counted one, two, three, didn't hear anything banging or smashing, and gently lowered the nose enough to stop the airspeed decline. We were within a few knots of what Airbus calls 'Alpha-floor', which is part of the fly-by-wire program that prevents stalls by lowering the nose and increasing power. If that had happened, since we were already at full power, all that would have happened would be a lowering of the nose - something I had desperately wanted to avoid up to that point. Slowly, slowly we began to speed up as I lowered the nose a little more, and I saw our vertical speed indicator begin to inch upward too. When I saw we were in a good climb I called for gear up, and took a good, long, deep breath. At a thousand feet we were almost back on profile and I called for power to be reduced to the climb setting. The Captain did that, then we heard,
"Cactus 539, contact departure."
The Captain keyed the mike and said, "Tower, Cactus 539, we nearly hit someone down there on the runway!"
"Roger 539, we are aware and are investigating. Contact departure now on 125.9."
"Going to departure, 539."
From what I remember, the Captain sounded somewhat out of breath, but in control. I haven't heard the tower tapes of that night, but I suspect now that he may have sounded more like Mickey Mouse after a deep slug of helium. But at the time I thought he was fairly well restrained.
I clicked on the autopilot and called for the flaps to be retracted on schedule. Departure control turned us to the south along the planned departure path, then eastward with a direct clearance to Dove Creek VOR in the southwest corner of Colorado. As we climbed out of 10,000 feet we both unclipped our shoulder harnesses, looked at each other, and took a big breath along with showing a couple of very weak smiles.
"Holy shit," the Captain said quietly, "that was way, way too close. Are you all right? What happened?"
I replied that I had no idea what had happened, and hadn't even heard anything on the radio from that plane or the tower before we took off. We both took a moment to ensure we weren't too panic stricken to continue, and that neither of us thought we had hit the other plane. The Captain said that from his viewpoint, we passed directly over the other aircraft's tail, somewhere between 50 and 100 feet above it. That matched what I saw as we passed over the plane, so after another moment to calm down, we quietly discussed what we thought had happened for a few minutes. We both agreed that we had never heard the other airplane being given clearance to cross our runway, and that the tower had never said anything to us about them. With that, the Captain got to work sending an ACARS message to our dispatch office. ACARS is like an airborne e-mail system that allows us to get updated weather information, as well as send and receive text messages to and from our dispatchers and the stations we're about to land at. He put in a brief account of what happened and sent it off. Less than a minute later we got back a message saying that they already knew about it -- the tower had called our operations people right after it happened. They told us that they didn't know any more than we did, but were in contact with the tower and would let us know more later.
After we leveled off, we pulled out some blank event report forms and began to fill them out. Most airlines have similar forms that we are supposed to fill out whenever something unusual happens -- bird strikes, unruly passengers, and of course, accidents and near misses. By the time we had them both filled out (and had compared them to make sure we were both telling roughly the same story) we were half way across the country. When the lead flight attendant came up to let us take a restroom break, we told her what had happened. She hadn't noticed anything different, but after talking to the F/A who had been sitting in the back we discovered that she (in the aft galley) had seen an unusual red light flash by out the window just as we took off, and wondered what it was. That was the same beacon light I had seen out my side window as we passed over the other aircraft. Needless to say, all three of them were fairly shaken up after hearing how close we had come to a major accident.
The rest of the flight proceeded quietly, as dispatch had no more information for us. The descent, approach and landing were quite uneventful. We pulled up to the gate, shut down the engines, and let the passengers go, unaware of how close they had come that evening. We let the F/A's know that they should go on ahead of us to the hotel, because we had a lot of phone calls to make before we left the airport. It was about 5:30 in the morning, and still dark outside, with the cool, humid midwest air wafting in through the quiet and now-empty cabin.
Finally, for the first time since the incident, I had a chance to sit back and really think about what had happened, and make a check on how I was feeling. To my surprise, I didn't feel all that upset of shaky. When I thought about it, I realized that once I started pulling back on the sidestick, I could feel how the aircraft was performing and knew that we would probably clear the plane ahead -- by how much I didn't know, but I guess I had felt sure enough that we'd make it that I didn't have time to look at disaster square in the face. The Captain on the other had had merely been an observer during the incident, and that feeling of helplessness is probably what contributed to his mild case of 'the shakes'.
Once everyone was gone and our postflight chores done, we called our national union office to let them know what had happened, and left another message with our local union office. Both offices were closed due to the early hour, but it was something we had to do. Then we called the dispatch office again, but they didn't have much more to tell us. They only said that the other plane was an Air Canada Airbus A320, just like ours, but that no more information was available. We made sure that our event reports were sealed in the company-mail envelope heading back to Phoenix that morning, and finally left for the hotel as the early light of dawn filtered through the hazy air.
At the hotel near the airport, I was able to fall right asleep, and got a good night's (day's?) rest. The poor Captain however had just dozed off when his phone started ringing. He got calls from the union, the company, the dispatchers, and the FAA. He didn't get more than a few hours sleep total that night, most of it interrupted. After I woke up I went for a walk around the neighborhood and had a whatever-you-call-it-meal-when-you've-been-up-all-night at about 3pm. I met the Captain and F/A's in the lobby at about 6pm to start the next leg. That was where I found out about the Captain's lack of sleep, and that the F/A's were so shaken that they were calling off the trip as soon as we got back to Vegas.
The rest of the trip was uneventful, with an evening flight to LAS
, then on to Oakland CA
. On the third evening we flew back to LAS
, then did another redeye to Philadelphia. Finally, in the late afternoon on Sunday, the fourth day of the trip, the Captain got a call just as we were loading our stuff into the van for the ride to the PHL
airport. It turned out that there had been a meeting in Phoenix that afternoon between the company, the union, and the FAA concerning the incident, and the FAA had said that is was entirely the controllers fault.
It had been a combination of errors that nearly resulted in a tragic accident. The ground controller had kept us on his frequency so long that we never heard the tower clear the Air Canada plane to land, or to cross our runway. All that had been done before we switched to the tower. The tower controller had realized his error shortly after giving us our takeoff clearance, but instead of using our callsign he used that of our company 757 just behind us, who he had been talking to in regard to their need for a few more seconds before departure. After he thought he had told us to stop, he turned away for a moment to try and coordinate where we would go in the lineup once we returned to the taxiway. Of course, since we thought he had been talking to the plane behind us, we kept going. By the time the controller turned back to the view outside, we were already in our panic-stricken attempt to fly over the other plane.
When the Captain hung up, he relayed this information to me, and with the exception of one note from our operations department the next week repeating what we had just learned, that was the very last time I heard anything from the company on the incident. No 'thank you', or even 'good job' from the chief pilot. Just silence. The Captain and I know we did a good job, and I suppose that is enough. The passengers made it through that flight safe, secure, and unaware. We did our job, the one we were trained to do. There is of course no part of our training syllabus that tells us what to do in exactly the situation we saw that evening, but what we do learn is what our aircraft is capable of doing, and what it isn't. And most of all the long hours in the simulator teach us how to think clearly, even when the crap is spreading rapidly though every fan blade in existence. By sheer repetition we learn how to think clearly, quickly, and to use all the resources available to us. We are presented with unusual situations so often in training that our first response is 'what do we have to do to keep us safe', instead of 'Oh my God, we're going to die!' Habit, practice, and repetition are the keys to ensuring that we can do our best, even when there's a wall of aluminum directly in front of us.
A few days later a small article appeared in the local Vegas newspaper about the incident. As usual, they got some parts right, and some wrong. The FAA was apparently telling the press that it wasn't too much of an incident, since the Air Canada plane had already cleared the runway before we crossed over it. Since we were the ones who flew directly over the tail of the other plane, I'd like to differ. However the press never came to talk to us, so our side was never presented. There was also a brief mention in the Drudge report, the New York Times, and a paper in Toronto. Beyond that, nobody else heard much about the incident, and in a short time it all faded into the quiet mass of 'could-have-been' stories. The only thing new we learned from those stories was that the 17-year veteran tower controller had been relieved of duty, and would be going through 'retraining'.
The only unanswered question I have left is regarding the crew of that Air Canada plane. Whenever I have landed on 25L in LAS
and been given clearance to cross 25R, I always looked back up the other runway before crossing it, even though -- because of the angle that the taxiway crosses that runway -- the nose of our plane is pointed at an angle away from the departure end of 25R. My question is, did that AC
crew ever look back and up the runway to where we were barreling toward them from? By seeing that long row of illuminated windows on the right side of the plane in front of us, I'm sure that some of the passengers saw that set of too-close landing lights glaring at them. And I KNOW that everyone on that plane heard us as we flew less than 100 feet right over their heads, our engines screaming at maximum power as we tried to claw our way into the air. Was the crew ever aware of what actually happened? How many sets of underwear had to be changed that evening? Who knows? Ours remained unsoiled, but just barely. I know it probably won't happen, but the one thing I would wish still to happen is to meet the crew of that plane and find out what they heard, saw, and thought.
In the end, everyone was safe, no metal was bent, and I am still enjoying my career. I wouldn't wish an incident like that on anyone, but I will admit that when I got home a few days later, I hugged my wife and son a little bit longer than usual. I've never taken my happiness for granted, but it sure was nice to be able to say hello to them one more time.
One smooth landing is skill. Two in a row is luck. Three in a row and someone is lying.