First the good news. According to a recent report by the National Transportation Safety Board, last year was the safest since 1980 for air travelers. According to the NTSB, no one died in an accident involving a major U.S. carrier.
However, the NTSB report ignored one frightening and growing figure: the number of near collisions in the air.
In fact, the number of near midair collisions reported by pilots reached a record 828 in 1986, a substantial increase over 1985. "We are continuing a very dangerous slide in air safety," said Rep. Guy V. Molinari (R-N.Y.).
The statistics are indeed scary. 141 of 671 "fully investigated incidents to date," the congressman reported, "were classified as critical, meaning that the planes were so close that collision avoidance was due to chance rather than any action taken by either pilot."
Luck Ran Out
On Jan. 16 luck ran out for a Skywest commuter plane over Salt Lake City. It was hit by a small private plane, killing 10 people.
Another fatal accident, the Aug. 31 midair collision of an Aeromexico DC-9 and a small plane over Cerritos that killed 82, wasn't included in the NTSB report because the agency doesn't include foreign carriers.
In the Cerritos tragedy the air traffic control system didn't see the planes until it was too late; in the Salt Lake City collision, the controllers never saw the small plane.
On Dec. 11 another tragedy was narrowly averted in the skies over Long Beach. It is a case that warrants further study. It is, unfortunately, indicative of a growing number of incidents. Luckily, everyone survived the near-miss.
Alaska Airlines flight 107, carrying 38 passengers and a crew of six, heading from Long Beach to Portland, roared down the runway at 12:53 p.m. that afternoon. Controllers cleared the DC-9, piloted by Capt. Ed Jenkins, to 3,000 feet.
"It was a normal takeoff and climb," he reports. For the next two minutes Jenkins and co-pilot Larry Cripe continued climbing to their assigned altitude.
Nearing 2,500 Feet
Just as the DC-9 was nearing 2,500 feet, about three miles west of the airport, co-pilot Cripe, looking out the left side of the cockpit window, saw it first. "Traffic! Ten o'clock!" he yelled.
Jenkins turned and immediately saw the other aircraft. "At first," he says, "I couldn't tell which way he was headed. But one second later I knew. He was headed straight for us.
"Max power to the stops," Jenkins announced. He quickly grabbed the throttles of the twin-engine jet with his right hand and pushed them as far forward as they would go. With his left hand he grabbed the control yoke and pulled it up as high as it would go.
With the jet engines screaming at maximum thrust, the DC-9 lurched up and to the right in a fast and jarring climb. Two seconds later the small propeller plane zipped past and under the jet only 100 feet away.
"The guy was so close, I could see the pilot," Jenkins says. "I could also tell you the color of the plane. It was a red and orange Beechcraft A model Bonanza."
Less than 10 seconds later Jenkins was advised by controllers that there was traffic in the area. "Thanks," he told them sarcastically. "We just narrowly missed him."
The controllers wanted to know if Jenkins wanted to file a near-miss report with the Federal Aviation Administration. "You bet," came his terse reply.
Alaska Flight 107 never made it to Portland that day. Because of the incident, and because Jenkins had "firewalled" the engines, the airline was concerned that there might be substantial engine damage and wanted to inspect the aircraft at its Seattle base.
After explaining to his startled passengers what had happened, many of whom had also seen the small plane coming right for them, Jenkins flew over Oregon and landed uneventfully in Seattle.
Based on the information that Jenkins supplied to authorities, the FAA has found and interviewed the other pilot. He had been flying from the Compton, Calif., airport to Long Beach.
"I'm afraid I can't comment on the case," says Tom Cornell, the FAA safety inspector investigating the incident, "other than to say that we've talked to the pilot."
'Could Take Years'
However, according to one source close to the investigation, the pilot of the Beechcraft hasn't told investigators much. The pilot, who (incredibly enough) is 85 years old, claims that he didn't violate any restricted airspace. "If he (the pilot) chooses to fight this," says one FAA source, "it could take years to see this thing through the courts."
None of this does anything to assuage Alaska pilot Jenkins. "I have no quarrel with the controllers," he says. "They're overworked. But what's failed again is the system. It's a system that gives someone with a private pilot license a license to kill.