Anonymous worker does his job, saves hundreds of lives

The next time you hear someone make one of those cheap lazy-government-worker jokes, remind them of the nameless man (so far) at Midway Airport in Chicago who single-handedly saved a couple of hundred lives this week.

A Southwest Airlines plane had been cleared to take off on one runway, when the pilot of a Delta Airlines jet, ready to roll on another runway, thought it was his turn to take off too.

Both airliners were heading for each other at full power.

The only thing that prevented disaster on Tuesday evening was a guy paying attention.

  1. Listen LiveATC.Net: Midway controller yells ‘stop’ and prevents disaster

    June 16, 2015

After his heroism, the controller went back to work.

The National Transportation Safety Board is expected to investigate the incident, but it won’t take long to figure out what happened.

  • Jeff C.

    I listened to the audio and could barely tell what they were saying. Does that become easier to understand with experience, Bob? And I mean is it easier to understand the words, not understand what the words mean.

    • There’s obviously a fast staccato element to this which is caused the problem. The squeal you hear when he’s giving his takeoff order to the southwest jet is someone trying to get in edgewise in the conversation, which prevented the Delta guy from hearing the controller’s word “Southwest” in the identifier before giving the flight numbers. So the Delta guy only hears the flight number, which is very much like the flight number of the Delta flight. So off he goes…

      You do get used to it; mostly because you anticipate what instructions you’re going to get; but that can also work against you if what you think you hear is what you anticipated hearing, not what actually was said.

      Rod Machado, a pilot and humorist, tells the joke of one incident in which a controller gave a southern pilot a steady and fast stream of information.

      “Son… do… you… hear… how… slow … ahm… talkin’?” the pilot asks the tower.

      “Yes, sir,” the controller responds.

      “Well… that’s .. the… same…pace… ah… listen,” the pilot said.

      The frequencies are heavily congested and the amount of air traffic is increasing and they can’t expand the bandwidth so everyone talks faster, sometimes to near disastrous results.

      I just installed a digital recorder in my plane with a big red button on the instrument panel. If I hear a controller and I don’t understand what he’s saying and the frequency is too congested to get a word in edgewise, I push the button and it replays the instruction.

      In aviation, the biggest point of failure is almost ALWAYS the human.

      • It’s amazing to see first hand how quickly the controllers work (My brother works at MSP by way of Philly and JFK).

  • KTFoley

    I picked up on a comment from both pilots toward the end, to the effect that they needed to call the company. Is that shorthand for reporting an incident / near miss?

    • Pretty much. I imagine the companies have policies toward these things but if there’s any chance a pilot violated the FARs (federal air regulations), that invites a disciplinary action not only from the company, but also the FAA and I think the pilots need to get some guidance and protection (and possible, representation) as quickly as possible.

      The airline, itself, is also exposed to action.

    • pleppik

      It literally means they need to call the company, i.e. check in with their airline.

      The airlines probably have a post-incident reporting procedure the pilots need to follow. Now that everyone is safe, the investigators will do their thing, and then lawyers may get involved. Everyone wants to make sure they have everything carefully documented.

      The pilots will probably also file an ASRS report, which gives a certain amount of legal immunity for inadvertent mistakes in exchange for voluntarily reporting safety incidents.