“You are cleared for the visual to 28R.” While the captain read back the clearance, I started the left turn towards the San Francisco Airport. We were flying the base leg southeast of the field. I dialed the altitude selector to cross the San Mateo bridge at 1,800′. After joining the localizer, I switched the flight director to flight path angle. With the glide-slope out of service, I dialed and pulled the proper knob to start the aircraft down a three degree glide-path. The Airbus A319 was in the precise state I wanted… on course, on speed and stable.
That was Friday afternoon. Six days earlier, a Boeing 777 operated by a foreign carrier descended through the airspace just off our left side. You already know how that flight ended. This was my first flight into SFO since the accident. Runway 28L was still closed.
I left the autopilot engaged a little longer than usual. While monitoring everything, I was also surveying the situation at the field. Although there were still numerous vehicles and structures to the side of 28L, the wreckage of the 777 had been removed. Pilots who had been through SFO on Thursday told me the fuselage was still on the grass. I’m glad it was gone… I really didn’t need to see it.
After clicking the autopilot off, I finished the approach and landed the jet. I got the touchdown I expected after being off for eighteen days.
From the jet bridge steps, I snapped a photo. I knew we were in the final hours of this event. It reminded me of a catastrophic, life altering automobile wreck. The vehicles and surrounding area are all cleaned up leaving not a hint of evidence that an accident occurred. Those involved are affected forever… those of us who drive by an hour or two later have no idea it even happened.
That evening, at the hotel in Dallas, I saw a Facebook post from a friend: “Just landed on 28L in SFO.” Six days after the accident, the runway was open. San Francisco was back to normal operations. (Delays caused by clouds, visibility, wind and construction.)
On Saturday, I flew another visual approach to 28R. My captain went home and his replacement gave me the option to fly the next leg. A few hours later, I flew another localizer/visual approach into runway 27 in San Diego.
Sunday morning, I watched the captain fly a visual to 28L. As suspected, due to an incredible clean-up, I saw no evidence of the crash.
I have purposely remained quiet about this accident. Although I have a very clear picture in my head of what I think happened, I will not publicly speculate. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) does a remarkable job preparing a detailed accident report that identifies the probable cause of an accident. It usually takes six months to a year for them to reveal their findings.
The experts need a year… But, if you’re uninformed, you can announce your findings just minutes after the accident.
While I choose to remain silent about a probable cause, I was fairly vocal in my criticism of the talking heads on television. A few of you told me to “calm down” on Twitter. At least you didn’t have to listen to me scream at the television. While watching, my frustrations were split between the reporters AND the so-called “experts” they were interviewing.
There is a proper way to pronounce runway numbers. Runway 28L is spoken “Two Eight Left.” It is not “Twenty Eight L.” If there’s an R or C, then it’s right or center respectively.
For those of you who don’t know, runways are not randomly numbered. They are named for their magnetic heading minus the ending zero. Think of a compass rose: 360 degree = north, 90 = east, 180 = south, 270 = west. When landing on 28L, the aircraft is pointed somewhere close to 280 degrees. The same piece of concrete heading the opposite direction is 180 degrees different. That’s why the other end of 28L is labeled 10R. (100 degrees and the “right” runway when heading east. 28R is 10L on the other end.)
An aborted approach is a go-around. If the engines are out of idle (“spooled up”), the throttles can be advanced to instantly start climbing up away from the runway. This is not referred to as “hitting the gas” by even the most amateur pilot. So, please don’t say it on television.
That glide-slope issue
Again, I’m not speculating on any probable cause. I just want to comment on a few things I heard…
I listened to one anchor ask her guest, “Reports say the glide-slope was not working… HOW CAN THAT BE?!” Her tone indicated that it was some sort of essential equipment that some ignoramus decided to switch off for the day.
The glide-slope provides vertical guidance to pilots for landing. It is only required if needed to descend below clouds or in low visibility. It is not essential for visual approaches. I wish reporters would educate themselves about equipment before acting indignant about it being inoperative.
That same segment became even more puzzling a few minutes later. The “expert” adequately explained the function of a glide-slope. Then, the reporter tossed a follow-up question: “Well, what would they have done if there were instrument conditions?”
The expert answered, “They would have had to land on a different runway or divert to another airport.”
Apparently, the twenty five year Naval Aviator has never flown a localizer, VOR or RNAV/GPS approach in instrument conditions. If the weather was very low, his answer would have been correct. But, he was asked about “instrument conditions” versus a visual.
There were several other answers he provided that led me to believe he’d never actually flown an airliner.
Next time there’s a big rig accident on the freeway, perhaps they will call in Danica Patrick or Dale Earnhardt Jr for analysis.
In another segment, I listened to a reporter and expert mention the glide-slope inoperative and question whether or not an “auto-land” was performed. While it is true that the 777 can land itself, all auto-lands require a fully functioning glide-slope. The glide-slope is so important to an auto-land that the controllers “protect” the antenna area during very low visibility. While aircraft are landing, taxiing jets are held back from this area to ensure the signal is not disturbed. For more information, search for “ILS Critical Area.”
I listened to several experts say there may have been a visual illusion “coming in over water.”
In several places, terrain slopes or water around an airport can create the illusion of being high or low on the approach. I’ve seen this illusion in Las Vegas, Albuquerque and San Jose, Costa Rica.
I have never experienced any visual illusion on the 28s in San Francisco.
Are you even watching the video?
Immediately after the accident, a reporter was speaking with an expert on the telephone. The expert asked, “Since I cannot see the video, is the entire plane intact?” The reporter answered, “Yes, miraculously, it is!”
The entire tail was missing.
I went back later and watched a few raw news clips on YouTube. In one, the reporter stated that they weren’t sure if the slides were deployed and whether people were evacuating. While she was speaking, I could see the slides deployed and people evacuating.
How did they get out so fast?
One knowledgeable expert was explaining to a reporter that manufacturers must demonstrate the ability to evacuate all passengers in ninety seconds. The confused reporter said, “How can that be? When I sit in the back of the plane, it takes fifteen minutes before I get off!”
Before the expert could answer, my twelve year old soon blurted out, “Well, isn’t that because nobody takes their luggage and there are several exits for them to jump out?” That’s my boy. Good job, son.
I listened to several reporters question whether a microburst could have pushed the aircraft low. While it is true that microbursts create severe downdrafts that could cause an airliner to plummet, the weather pattern around SFO couldn’t have been any more opposite than required to create a microburst.
NTSB press conferences
I publicly mentioned that the NTSB Chair performed remarkably well during all her press conferences. While debatable whether or not she released too much information, she was calm, methodical and knowledgeable.
Everyone knows that the NTSB doesn’t speculate on anything. So, why would a reporter blurt out “Do you think it was pilot error?” just hours after the accident? They will never, ever answer that question.
The granddaddy of them all
Finally, when the “fake pilot names” report aired, even those with no aeronautical knowledge started to realize that television news may not be the best source of information about the accident. When I first saw the clip, I was convinced it was fake. I’d post the video, but it has been removed from YouTube.
My thoughts and prayers go out to everyone affected by this accident.
When bad things happen, we need to slow down and let the real experts do their jobs. It is more important that we learn lessons from mishaps instead of beating out the other networks with erroneous facts and misguided theories.
We need more Captain Sully type commentators and less Type-As trying to steal the spotlight.
If you know your stuff, I welcome you into my home during a crisis.
If not, get off my television.
I appreciate each and every one of the few hundred of you who read this on a regular basis.
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