If the men who bring the planes in
at Philadelphia International
say it’s unsafe,
maybe we should listen.
[Author’s note: The city of Philadelphia didn’t want me to do this story. I had to go undercover as an air traffic controller trainee to get access. The story cost the city many millions of dollars in new systems. And it won some awards. And, oh yes, it made the airport safe.]
LUCKY FOR US the sky is big. A few Saturdays ago, at that airport they call Philadelphia International, the radar went out. Not just the radar for one plane, the radar for the whole airport. Of course, those things happen at other airports. That’s why most major terminals —and Philadelphia is considered a very major terminal—have backup radar systems to kick on in an emergency like this. But a few Saturdays ago, at Philadelphia International, the emergency system didn’t kick on. It was dead.
Up in the sky, for a period of almost 15 minutes, there were 15 major aircraft, by official count, with maybe around a hundred people on each one, with maybe a couple of million people underneath them. The pilots of these planes have their instructions for situations like this. They are to keep their eyes open. And their fingers crossed.
There was that day, if you work it out with the complicated mathematics of vectors, the possibility of a number of different mid-air collisions. The people who keep track of these things, the people who watch the radar scopes at Philadelphia International, the people who are responsible for bringing these planes down and getting them back up again, are called air traffic controllers. And the air traffic controllers at Philadelphia International are not too happy a crew right now.
One of them, one of the guys who was in the radar room when the radar went out, had given up cigarettes over a year ago. He is now smoking two packs a day. We spoke to him and we managed to speak to a couple dozen of his co-workers—from fresh trainees to guys who’ve been there close to 20 years. They were all disgruntled, not just over the day the radar went out, but over conditions in general. The descriptions in this story of what goes on at Philadelphia International, of what the public never sees or knows about, are theirs. They agreed to let us put them on tape. And we agreed to keep most of their names out of this story. These guys are afraid for more than just the safety of the airport. They are afraid for their jobs.
“WHEN THE RADAR WENT OUT,” one of them says, “I’d just spotted two planes on converging courses at the same altitude. I couldn’t get in touch with those planes. I called the Wilmington airport and asked them to try to do it, but they were busy. And all the time I could picture that last vision of the scope, with 100 people on each airplane. And I could see the two planes coming together, and there wasn’t a thing I could do about it.”
Luckily, and it was pure luck, the two planes just missed each other because, as the air controllers say, the sky is big.
“All we had,” another controller says, “were two radios on battery power. Only one frequency was usable. There are 20 or Read the rest of this entry »