Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Air Disaster That Didn't Happen

South Burlington, VT

This morning at the airport, I heard the tower close the main runway, citing "repairs to the arrester cable" as the reason.  Soon after, I saw a F16 fighter plane being towed by a tow truck.  It seems as if something happened that I didn't hear about.

You see, runways 15 and 33 have arrester cables that they can lift.  I supect that the F16s have tail hooks to catch the cables like in aircraft carrier landings.

It reminds me of an incident from the past.  My son David and I went to an airshow at the Burlington Airport (BTV) sometime in the early 1990s.  (I forget the exact year.)  We both love airshows.  In addition, at the time I was learning to fly at BTV, so I was extra familiar with, and interested in, BTV facilities and operations.

Anyhow, the show ended as always with the Blue Angels (or Thunderbirds), and the crowd was leaving.  Dave and I stood near the 33 end of the runway.  I noticed that four airliners were lined up to take off from runway 15, the far end.  They had been sitting there for quite a while.  I suspect that the air show didn't end on schedule.

Then I noticed something else significant.  Just at that moment, the wind shifted direction abruptly from S to N.  Wind speed was about 15 knots.  Typically, that wind shift requires a shift in active runway from 15 to 33.  

But they didn't shift the active runways.  No doubt the waiting airliners were impatient after the delay.   The first airliner started its take off down runway 15.   I watched.

The plane came zooming down the runway.   It did not rotate or lift off at the usual spot because of the tailwind.   Just then I noticed that the arrester cable at the 33 end was still raised!!!  I watched in horror as that plane finally took off and achieved only 15 feet of altitude before the wheels passed above that cable.  If those wheels had caught the cable, the result would have been a terrible crash.

Most disasters happen because of chains of errors, not just a single error.  In this case, it was the combination of a delayed end of the air show, a downwind take off, plus the failure to lower the cable, that nearly caused a disaster.  Seen in proper perspective, it should stand as a reminder that commercial aviation can tolerate lots of errors while avoiding catastrophe most of the time.


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