NOTAM – NOtice To AirMen – is ment to present important news to pilots during preflight planning. In paper-form it is a multipage document stating all changes in navigational aids, things out of order, military exercises and whatever might be interesting when it comes to planning the flight. One night, the NOTAMS presented to a, possibly tired, AirCanada crew stated that Runway 28L, (the left one of two parallell runways) was closed at San Francisco airport. That fact went unnoticed by the crew, and arriving at SFO they were cleared to land on 28R. What they saw from a distance was 28R and a parallell taxiway to the right of that runway. Since they did not know 28L was closed (and not illuminated), they figured they saw two runways, were cleared to land on the one to the right, and consequently lined themselves up for a landing on the taxiway, where four aircraft were waiting to take-off.
What could easily have become by far the worst catastrophe in the history of airline aviation, was averted by by a late go-around (an interrupted approach and a clim-out), prompted by the Air Traffic Controller, prompted in turn by a pilot in one of the waiting aircraft, not happy seeing a big jetliner aiming straight at him. The AirCanada aircraft passed over the four fully packed aircraft with 27 feet to spare.
If there HAD been an accident, there would have been a crash investigation. Let’s do one anyway. There are always more than one reason for an accident to happen. The reason for that is in turn thanks to the many safeguards in the industry as a whole. (Two pilots is one such safeguard that is under attack by failing economy. Will be discussed later, and did not influence the goings-on described above.) Two major reasons for this incident was the closed runway and the fact that the crew did not grasp that information during pre-flight planning. Another factor was possible fatigue.
To really describe the NOTAM document you need visual aids. It is written in the same way telex came out years ago in uppercase letters only, filling page after page with a maze of text, where every little detail, like a little unserviceable beacon 200 miles away from planned route, maximum wingspan on a taxiway at an airport you are not going to, birds in the vicinity of another airport you are not going to, is included to make it legal, i.e. untouchable by any legal action, and making it more or less unreadable in the process. The fact that one runway was closed at the destination, easily the most interesting news to any pilot, was presented on page 8 of a 27 page document.
Pilots have for decades ruled out NOTAMS in the current form as not useful in any major way. You would need 15-30 minutes extra, not available it todays strained economy, to fully digest all information. NTSB chairman Robert Sumwalt called the Notam system in the U.S. ”messed up” during a hearing on the July 7, 2017. ”That’s what Notams are: they’re a bunch of garbage that no one pays any attention to,” adding that they’re often written in a language that only computer programmers would understand.
Suddenly someone agreed.
Blood money (investment made to avoid another crash after it happened – but not before) didn’t have to be involved this time. The incident was serious enough to warrant a directive to make flight operation information more effectively presented to pilots. The fact that the crew in question might have been fatigued, is just one more indication that strained economy, affecting most airlines by low-cost airlines ‘race to the bottom’, is forcing regular airlines as well to increase productivity by increasing duty hours.
Other flaws in the industry will be discussed in more detail in coming articles.