The lurking DEATH on our crowded skyways
Almost every week there’s a calamitous mid-air crash and dozens of near misses. Thousands more planes are now joining the fatal traffic jams above and on the airports.
By 1959 there will be about one hundred men in Canada who do nothing but hunt for airplanes, day and night. Every airliner that takes to the air will be under their constant surveillance. They will note and chart the course of every small plane —and perhaps quite a few large birds. These men, radar operators at fit teen new stations now being built, will see two hundred miles in all directions with eyes that cost the taxpayers of Canada more than five million dollars.
They will be part of an attempt by the Department of Transport, which controls
But it’s not too late to check
aviation in Canada, to avoid gigantic aerial traffic jams like those that periodically cripple aviation in the United States. They will also try to prevent mid-air collisions. which are increasing in North America as new planes crowd into the air. The stations, located at Moncton. Seven Islands. Quebec. Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto. London, North Bay, Fort William. Winnipeg, Regina, Saskatoon, Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver, will work independently of Canada’s three defense radar lines already in operation — Pinetree, Mid-Canada and Dew.
In 1956 almost two hundred people died in the U. S. as a result of mid-air collisions, many of which could have been prevented by radar. A hundred and twenty-eight of them died last summer when two airliners collided over the Grand Canyon. Early this year Los Angeles traffic-control operators heard a four-engined transport pilot calling on his radio, “My God. we're going to hit!" At that moment a jet fighter and the transport collided at twenty-five thousand feet. Four aboard the transport died, and one man in the jet. continued on page 40
The lurking death in our crowded skyways continued from page 25
“Only a tenth of the near misses are reported — they prove pilots have cause to be scared”
the jet. Flaming wreckage fell on a school playground in the San Fernando Valley, killing two pupils and injuring dozens of others.
Canada had no mid-air collisions between airliners in 1956, but a handful of
RCAF pilots met death in such accidents. Hardly a week passes in North America without a mid-air crash between military planes. In 1954 near Moose Jaw thirty-seven persons died when an RCAF trainer rammed an airliner.
Airline pilots in Canada and the U. S. claim there are now so many planes in the air that collision risks are appallingly high. U. S. pilots report about four near misses daily and Canadian pilots about one a week.
Near misses are frequently near tragedies of terrible dimensions. Two fully loaded DC6s, carrying a hundred and seventy passengers, recently brushed wings over Manhattan. A Viscount came close to hitting a DC6 over Cleveland’s Hopkins Airport. The problem isn’t confined to North America. Twelve passengers were injured in an Elizabethan over England recently when they were thrown against the roof of the plane during a violent manoeuvre to avoid a jet fighter.
The Canadian Air Line Pilots Association estimates that only ten percent of the near misses are reported. When they are reported in detail, they prove pilots have good cause to be terrified of them. The pilot of a Trans-Canada Air Lines plane carrying fifty-seven people narrowly missed crashing head-on into an airforce North Star over Montreal’s Dorval Airport last summer. From the U. S., pilots report misses so close that radio aerial masts have been snapped off and rudders damaged by propellers. Some pilots try to see humor in the situation. “I was so close to a transport plane last spring,” cracked one U. S. pilot, “1 was bitten by a dog traveling air freight.”
At Washington last summer air-traffic control fell behind in frantic efforts to handle a large number of incoming planes in normal weather. Planes were forced to find other airfields. Some returned to their take-off points. One airline took three days to regroup its scattered planes. More than thirty thousand passengers were forced to cancel flight plans.
Although the risk of air collision is deadly serious, there are other effects of air congestion—delays, cancellations, reroutings and general confusion that waste millions of dollars a year in Canada alone.
Such air congestion isn't helped by the arrival of the business airplane. More than twenty thousand planes, ranging in size from Piper Cubs to Constellations, are flown by businessmen in the U. S. In Canada more than two hundred planes are registered for business use. “There’s a limit to the number of planes you can pack into that apparently empty sky,” says Gordon Grant, chief of tower control at Toronto’s Malton Airport, “and with present equipment we won’t be long reaching that limit.”
One reason for the congestion in the air is that we’re using 1936 traffic-control methods on 1956 planes. I he postwar period brought thousands of new airliners, many as fast as World War II fighters. Control methods didn’t keep pace.
What exactly is air-traffic control anyway?
In Canada it consists of seven area traffic-control centres operated by the Department of Transport through an Air Traffic Control Division run by a staff of more than seven hundred. These centres, or stations, are usually located at or near airfields, and are equipped with a wide range of communicating equipment, from high-frequency two-way radiotelephones to ordinary ground telephones that have direct lines to other centres. A controller in Toronto may have instant connections with Winnipeg, Montreal, Buffalo and Cleveland. Each station “controls” an area of several thousand square miles.
The function of a control station is to receive from a pilot a flight plan on which are listed his requested take-off time, altitude, speed and destination. Control gives him permission to take off, then feeds
him instructions on how to fly safely to his destination: A Super Constellation leaving Toronto’s Malton Airport for Winnipeg could be instructed to climb to fifteen thousand feet and to fly northwest at three hundred and ten knots. Toronto would control the plane until it reached the halfway mark, when Winnipeg would take over. Radio contact with the plane would be maintained through intermediate stations, which would feed flight information back to the main control station by land telephone.
But the control system is cumbersome. An air-traffic controller—holding a radiotelephone handset in one hand, a pencil in the other—must write down the plane’s altitude, direction, speed, and other details, on a strip of paper fitted into an aluminum holder. He then places the holder in a suitable position on a flightprogress board (divided into “bays" that represent compulsory reporting points for pilots in various parts of the sky); on the board are flight strips of other aircraft in the control area. Six different slips of paper might be needed for one plane flying between Toronto and Kapuskasing, a distance of five hundred miles.
As the controller puts the flight strip up, he quickly glances over the nearby slips to make sure that no other aircraft is on a collision course with the one he has just recorded. While all this is taking place, the pilot of the reporting plane may have traveled twenty or thirty miles.
The speed of aircraft breaks down control, and so does the number of aircraft. Recently a TCA airliner flying from New York to Toronto found itself heading for an enormous thundercloud. It failed to get permission from a nearby control station to either climb, descend or turn back—there were planes on all sides— and so it had to fly through the storm.
U. S. experts want to copy us
Theoretically, every plane that takes to the air should be controlled by ground stations. But this is not possible. Few of Canada’s six thousand registered aircraft have enough radio equipment— which is expensive and needs skillful operation—to accept control.
To get around this, the Department of Transport last year created what it calls “the block air-space plan." This is a gigantic slab of restricted air space stretching over all of Canada between the altitudes of ninety-five hundred and twenty-three thousand feet above sea level. This Canadian plan has been so successful that some U. S. experts would like to have it copied in their country.
Any plane can fly in this space as long as it has suitable radio equipment to keep in touch with air-traffic control. Since many smaller planes don’t have such equipment and cannot comfortably fly above 9500 feet, the block air-space plan creates an aerial freeway for the exclusive use of big, fast planes. But out of the block air space (below 9500 feet), all planes are still permitted to fly without restriction as long as visibility is three miles or more. Pilots aren't sure that this is safe, in view of the high volume of traffic that does not use the controlled air space.
With a visibility minimum of three miles—which is also the U. S. minimum on commercial air lanes—free flight is still dangerous and becoming more so every day, they say. “It should not be forgotten,” says Captain Robert A. Stone, of the Chicago Flight Safety Foundation, “that we’re operating planes today with closing speeds faster than a bullet fired from a Colt .45.”
Two Douglas DC7s approaching one another at four hundred and ten miles an hour each are converging at one mile
every four seconds—or twelve seconds of time at the minimum visibility. The surviving pilot of a mid-air crash between two U.S. Air Force jet bombers said he saw the other plane two or three miles away but didn't have time to alter course before the crash. A Canadian Pacific Airlines pilot said recently, “You see a fly speck on the window. You look again and it’s a Super Constellation."
But if the problems of control on the airways are big. the difficulties of control and safety at airports are gargantuan. When bad weather or volume of traffic
causes traffic control to break down, there is an immediate crisis at the airport. There may be fifty planes in the air at a big field all wanting to get down.
The only solution traffic control has devised for this emergency is to “queue up" the planes in stacks. The first plane in line is told to circle at a certain point —maybe over a radio beacon—and then plane after plane is piled on top of this aircraft at one-thousand-foot intervals.
As control can handle the traffic, a plane is peeled off the bottom of the stack and landed, and all the other planes are
instructed to drop one thousand feet, whereupon the procedure is repeated. This means control must be ingenious and close. But it doesn't impress some pilots who know how human it is to err. “They expect those guys (traffic controllers) to be perfect," said a TCA pilot recently. “1 wish I could be that confident." Many pilots have seen and distrusted the bedlam that occurs at air-traffic-control stations during aerial crises—such as a traffic jam in bad weather at a big airport. Controllers grab telephones, bark instructions, trip over one another, compute speeds,
distances, heights, and flip flight slips from place to place on the flight board.
The traffic controller must be something of a dedicated man. His starting pay is a little more than two hundred dollars a month. When his twenty-one-month training period is finished, he qualifies for more money, but with few prospects of advancement beyond the position of senior ATC officer at sixty-one hundred dollars. Similar positions in the U. S. pay up to twelve thousand dollars.
A controller needs special qualities. Not only must he be able to make lightning-fast calculations in his head, but he must also be able to visualize, in three dimensions, the exact location of all planes in his area, merely by glancing at a flight board jammed with flight strips. All these qualifications, plus low pay, mean that the shortage of competent controllers at big Canadian airports is serious.
Airline pilots are aware of these conditions. They remember them when descending through a pitch-black night, through snow and sleet, to an airfield five thousand feet below with only a crackling voice from control guiding them down. Pilots are much happier about radar traffic control. They prefer to be a “blip" on a radar screen than a piece of paper on a flight-control board. "At Cleveland," says Doug Alexander, of Toronto, a TCA Viscount captain, “I’ve seen flight control bringing the planes in practically nose-totail with the use of radar. It’s tremendously efficient and much safer.”
The efficiency of radar in traffic control—exploited fully by the British during the Battle of Britain fifteen years ago—is today only barely enough to deal with high-speed, high-density flying conditions. In some parts of the U. S.. radar is only a stopgap. At airports like Idlewild and LaGuardia in New York, swarms of controllers (forty-five at Idlewild alone) with radar sets and radiotelephones can hardly bring the planes down fast enough to prevent gigantic traffic jams that might tie up air schedules from coast to coast.
Two solutions to this situation are known, both of them tremendously expensive. They are:
• More airports, and more double runways, enabling several planes to take off and land simultaneously.
• Automatic flight control.
Automatic flight control is being developed in the U. S. It will probably work this way: all airliners will continuously broadcast their positions and speeds to automatically operated ground stations, which will digest this mass of flight information and, if two airplanes seem likely to collide, automatically warn the pilots, perhaps through a system of flashing lights on their instrument panels.
Capt. Alexander, who is also a safety expert with the Canadian Air Line Pilots Association, foresees an interim development. All airliners, he believes, will soon carry electronic equipment that will “see” other aircraft and cause automatic evasion if necessary. “But this will only be a stopgap,” says Alexander. “Soon the air will be so filled with planes that such evasive action might merely swing the plane into nearby aircraft.”
An American control expert predicted recently, “We will develop a ground station that will automatically steer airborne airliners safely past each other at extremely close distances. And we may even eventually fly the plane entirely from the ground. The pilot will be replaced by a (light engineer.”
As flight control and aircraft operation get more and more complicated and expensive, they become an increasing headache to politicians who have to spend money to keep them working safely. Often it needs a dramatic smashup to convince politicians — and safety experts —
that extra money must be spent on air safety. When a hundred and twenty-eight people died last summer in a mid-air crash over the Grand Canyon, the U. S. Congress suddenly found an extra one hundred and twenty-eight million dollars for air safety, after cutting safety appropriations earlier in the year. When, after repeated warnings by pilots about dangerous conditions, a hundred and nineteen people died in three crashes at the Newark, N.J., airport, nine million dollars was spent to modernize the facilities there.
The Canadian Air Line Pilots Association feels that the Department of Transport is overanxious to play down the dangers of crowded airways and airports. It charges that the department “wants to please everybody,” and often does nothing merely because that is the only course of action that won't seriously annoy anybody.
When the TCA airliner narrowly avoided a mid-air smash with a military plane at Dorval last summer, the Pilots Association demanded an official enquiry. They claimed that the airliner, a North Star, had received permission to land and that there should not have been another airplane flying on a converging course at the same time. In a subsequent
investigation, a Department of Transport inspector refuted much of the evidence of the airline pilot involved and ended his report by mildly rebuking both pilots.
It is extremely difficult for the Department of Transport to steer a good middle course between caution and progressiveness as long as Canadian aviation continues to double the size of its operations every ten years. The department spends about fifteen million dollars a year modernizing airports, a task that is always behind schedule because of the speed of growth.
In 1949, after some major new construction, Toronto’s Malton Airport was hailed “the most modern airport in the British Commonwealth.” Five years later it was called “a black hole of Calcutta” by W. B. Nesbitt, MP for the Ontario constituency of Oxford. In that time, traffic had jumped nearly a hundred and twenty percent and had become a confusing potpourri of jet fighters, helicopters, airliners, small planes and heavy bombers—six hundred of them taking off and landing every day. Now Toronto is to get a new terminal building at Malton. “But by the time we get it finished five years hence,” predicts a Department of Transport airport expert, “the increase in traffic will mean it will be overcrowded and out of date.”
As more and faster airliners crowd into Canada’s already overcrowded airports, they cause yet another headache to the Department of Transport. The airliners must share the air with hordes of light planes, which by comparison are like buzzing gnats in the path of a bird. The airline pilots call them “motorists with wings.” The light-plane operators retort that the airline pilots want the whole sky to themselves.
With an estimated forty thousand small
You can’t talk jets out of danger — they’re too fast. Could machines do it?
planes registered in North America— more than four thousand in Canada— there is growing conflict between big and small planes. The Canadian Owner Pilots Association is active and vociferous and the Department of Transport pays careful attention to light-plane interests before framing regulations.
The main restriction on light planes that can’t accept air-traffic control is the Ottawa ban on flight in the block air space. In addition, small planes must keep out of civil air lanes, must not fly in clouds where they cannot be seen, and are banned from flying at all when visibility gets below one mile.
Airline pilots in both Canada and the U. S. would like to see all light planes banned from the air when visibility is less than five miles, but the light-plane men object strenuously.
Max Karant, spokesman for the Association of Owner Pilots in the U. S., recently pointed out that there are only about fifteen hundred airline planes in
the U. S., but there are fifty thousand business and pleasure aircraft. A new visibility minimum of five miles, he said, would sweep most private fliers from the air forty-seven percent of the time at Los Angeles, thirty-nine percent at Chicago and twenty-four percent at Washington. The same would happen in Canada. The light-plane men argue that the chances of collision are slight anyway, because of the comparative rarity of big planes at their low flying altitudes.
Such arguments don’t impress the airline pilots. They point out that the latest propeller-driven airliners can belt along at more than four hundred miles an hour and could run down a light plane three miles away in less than thirty seconds. This fact, among others, led A. de Niverville, in charge of Department of Transport air services, to warn the Canadian
Owner Pilots Association recently that the small plane has no future at big airports in Canada. Already, small planes without radios are banned at all big Canadian airfields.
Yet the small plane is not such a worry to airline pilots as military aircraft. Due to a shortage of airfields, civil and fighting planes share runways at many points across Canada. The civil pilots are apprehensive about hot-blooded young jet pilots who can climb vertically and fly faster than the speed of sound. Pilots landing at Ottawa complain that jet fighters come barreling down to land from high altitudes and cut directly across civilaircraft landing lanes. They complain that as long as military aircraft share airfields with airliners, there is constant danger of mid-air smashes such as that at Moose Jaw in 1954 when an air-force trainer
plowed into a TCA airliner, or when a Brazilian fighter once knocked an airliner into a river when it was trying to land at Washington.
The twelfth annual general meeting of the International Air Transport Association, held at Quebec last year, debated how the problem of air-traffic control might be solved. “Unfortunately,” commented C. T. Travers, Department of Transport controller of civil air regulations, “most of the solutions entailed more expensive facilities and closer regulation of traffic.”
But more expense and restrictions seem inevitable. Jet airliners are due in Canada in 1959. Jets will be too fast for present methods. “The cumbersome voice communication (between aircraft and ground control) must be replaced by instantaneous automatic indication in cockpit and control tower,” says Grant McConachie, president of Canadian Pacific Airlines.
A jet airliner isn’t economical at anything but top speed at top altitude with a top payload. Therefore, delays of any sort can quickly make a jet uneconomic. McConachie, who recently bought twenty hundred-seat Bristol Britannia turboprops, says that although jet-powered Douglas DC8s and Boeing 707s can produce more passenger miles a year than the liner Queen Mary, they can also lose money on the same fantastic scale if grounded or trapped in air stacks. A jet airliner costs five million dollars to buy and costs as much as five thousand dollars a day in insurance, carrying charges and depreciation—without even leaving the ground.
Frank Young, regional operations manager for TCA at Toronto, tells how even the arrival of the turboprop Vickers Viscount upset routine control methods. The Viscount, designed to fly high and fast, uses the jet principle in its engines and at low altitudes such engines gulp enormous amounts of fuel. But at LaGuardia Airport in New York, TCA Viscounts often had to wait with their engines ticking over in long lines of planes waiting to take off. TCA had to get permission to skip the take-off line-up, so Viscounts now wait at the terminal building until their turn arrives, whereupon they taxi past the other waiting planes and take off.
With the jet-powered airliner seemingly destined to streak farther and farther ahead of the rest of the industry that produced it, air-traffic control and the air-congestion hazards seem likely to remain bitter and frustrating problems.
Fifteen years ago TCA put two fourteen-seat planes on the Toronto-New York run but there wasn’t enough traffic to support both of them. “Today,” says Frank Young, “we have seven flights a day—six hundred passengers both ways.
I defy anybody to predict what will happen in Canadian aviation in the next ten years.”
But the Department of Transport must try to predict. It must simultaneously try to modernize traffic control, revamp airports, decide what to do with the thousands of light planes crowding the air and the airports, and disentangle civil and military aviation. It must do this, hoping that one desk-bound safety expert doesn’t make a wrong calculation that sends the airliners piling up at airports in hopeless confusion. It must make sure that the situation is never so bad that one harassed traffic controller makes one mistake to send a hundred people plunging to their deaths.
The stakes in air-traffic control are high—and each year they get higher. ★