Friday, October 30, 2009

What happened? Part 3 - The action

Today I'll show you what I understand to have taken place during the runway incursion we had at LAX on Sunday, October 25th. Involved aircraft were Northwest 623, a B753 departing for Honolulu, and Midwest Express 1503, an E190 arriving from Milwaukee.

Let me reiterate that while I witnessed the incident, I was not working any of the involved positions, nor am I a part of the official investigation. Everything I report here is either my personal observation at the time or information I have obtained from public sources.

Midwest Express (Brickyard) 1503 landed on runway 25 left and exited at H-4. This put the aircraft on our new center taxiway, H (Hotel). The tower controller instructed the pilot to hold short of runway 25 right, and the pilot acknowledged the instruction.

Subsequently, Northwest 623 was cleared for takeoff on runway 25 right.

The Midwest Express E190 turned right at taxiway M (Mike) and crossed the hold line for runway 25 right.

The Safety Logic system in the Airport Surface Detection Equipment (ASDE) issued a 'runway occupied' warning as Northwest passed taxiway G (Golf). On the graphic above, the two yellow spots mark the location of the two aircraft when the safety logic warning went off. The tower controller immediately told the Midwest Express pilot to hold his position, and again the pilot acknowledged.

Northwest continued the takeoff, becoming airborne in the vicinity of taxiway N (November).

According to media reports, the closest proximity of the two aircraft was 82 feet (about 25 meters).


Daily Breeze article

LA Times article

KTLA article

ASDE-X Wikipedia article

Thursday, October 29, 2009

What happened? Part 2 - The location

This series is an effort to illustrate what happened in the runway incursion that occurred on Sunday, the 25th. I am not involved in the investigation of the event, and none of this is in any way official information.

The latest news reports I've heard claim that the estimated distance between the two aircraft was about 80 feet (roughly 25 meters).

Today I'll show you the intersection where the event took place:

The following shots all show the intersection as seen from the control tower:

A close-up view of Runway 25 Right at Taxiway M

Here you can see a United Airbus at the hold line. We call this "holding short of runway 25 right".

In this shot, a Southwest B737 is holding short of the runway as an Allegiant MD80 departs. The incident we're discussing should have looked just like this, with the exception of the aircraft and airlines involved. This is a standard, everyday operation at LAX.

The following are simply additional shots of various aircraft at this intersection:

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

What happened? Part 1 - The players

By now, most of you have most likely heard about the runway incursion we had at LAX this past Sunday. While I was there and witnessed the event, I was not working position at the time and had no contact with any of the aircraft involved; nor am I involved in the investigation. The only information I have is what has been reported publicly - no 'inside scoop' will be found here. My only purpose here is to explain the situation for those who aren't familiar with the layout at LAX.

We'll start with the players:

An arriving Midwest Express E190 operated by Republic (callsign: Brickyard). The E190 has a nominal seating capacity of 100, and is a stretched version of the E170, which seats about 25 less; Republic operates both. Besides Republic, we also see E190's in Air Canada colors at LAX. Republic has recently taken over all of the LAX flights for Midwest, and has increased Midwest's operations here from one flight a day to at least three daily, serving Kansas City and Milwaukee from LAX's Terminal 4.

The departing aircraft was a Northwest Airlines B757-300, bound for Honolulu. The B753 is the longer of the B757 models, and is some 23 feet (7 meters) longer than the original -200. Northwest has some of both, as seen in the second photo; seating capacity is approximately 200 for the -200, with an additional 40 or so in the -300. Delta didn't buy any on its own, but has them now that it has taken over Northwest; as of this writing I believe Delta is the world's largest operator of B757's. The last shot shows LAX's other operator of the B753: Continental. In the past, ATA also brought them into LAX. At the very top of the last photo, highlighted by top of Continental's tail, is the intersection involved - more about which in the next segment.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Hazy Days

Last time I told you about the marine layer and its affect on LAX operations; this time I'll tell you about our other common restriction to visibility: Haze. Los Angeles is well-known for its sometimes lousy air quality, generally referred to as "smog". That's not a term used in aviation weather reporting; instead we use "haze", which includes smoke as well as other dry particles like dust. The big difference here is dry. The marine layer is moisture-based, and so is reported as cloud, fog, or mist (The difference between fog and mist is intensity: the international standard for fog is visibility of 1 km, which in the US is reported as 5/8ths of a mile; greater than that is reported as mist).

Haze, unlike fog or mist, doesn't 'burn off' when the day warms up. Instead, the rising sun just creates more glare (and heat: hazy days tend to be hot days). Often, the visibility is just barely enough for the airport to be VFR (3 miles), but there's not a cloud to be seen. The arriving aircraft can often see the airport well enough to shoot visual approaches, but departures can't see the preceding aircraft reliably enough to use visual separation. Thus, like with the marine layer, we can sometimes get airplanes in easier than we can get them out (all of this assuming we're on west traffic, which is usually the case). As you have probably surmised by now, these conditions do not produce good pictures. This has been frustrating for the last couple of days, as we've had several aircraft that I don't have in the photo archives.

This is one: Cathay Pacific has been bringing in B777-300's for a while now, but the only ones I've seen up til now have been at night. This one not only was the first I've seen during the day, but also was the first Cathay Pacific aircraft I've seen with the OneWorld 10th anniversary livery. The same day we also had Malaysia and Japan Air in B777's (both new here), but I didn't get them at all.

While I have shot Qatar here before, I'd hoped to get a better shot than the ones from a couple of years ago on the Atlantic Aviation ramp. No such luck. This is a bit of an oddball aircraft: an Airbus A340-200, seen here departing off runway 25 right.

Another view through the haze: An El Al B777 on taxiway Sierra, taxiing for departure, with the Qantas A380 in the background. As you can see, we've got more construction in progress: the former TWA maintenance ramp is getting trimmed to make way for the taxiway Delta extension as well as the new north-south taxiway.

In these two shots, you can see that while we've got haze on the airport, there's other stuff offshore: the setting sun seen between layers of clouds above the horizon.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Marine Layer

Most folks think of Southern California as the land of clear skies and beautiful weather. And, compared to much of the rest of the country, we are spoiled with relatively nice weather here just about year-round. It may cost a bundle to live here, but at least we don't have to shovel snow, evacuate for hurricanes, or have tornado shelters in our back yards. Right on the coast though, we do experience the effects of the marine layer, usually a low cloud layer and/or fog. LAX is a great place to see this, although it makes for lousy photography conditions.

This is often how it starts - a low fog bank starts spilling over the dunes at the west end of the airport. Sometimes that's as far as it gets, obscuring the beach but otherwise not affecting our operations too much.

Here you can see a departing aircraft climbing out over the fog (I think it's a Hawaiian B767, but no promises). Meanwhile a Coast Guard helicopter turns eastbound after departing from the ramp just behind the parked Qantas B747.

This is how it looked on the south side of the airport: A departing British Airways B747 just barely airborne off runway 25 right.

A couple of seconds later, the aircraft disappears in the fog . . .

And then pops out on top.

Sometimes we can see the marine layer over Redondo Beach to the south . . .

Or Santa Monica to the north. For some reason, these areas adjacent to LAX will often get the marine layer before we do at the airport itself. The shot below shows the eastern edge of the marine layer on the left:
The Southwest B737 on the runway in this shot is the same aircraft just over the threshhold in the previous picture. This sequence was taken a little while after the shots at the beginning of the entry; you can see that the fog is gradually moving eastward over the airport.

Another view of the south side, showing the later British Airways flight of the day taxiing in. The marine layer is now about mid-field and has started to affect our departures. Meanwhile, the arrival end of the airport is still clear:
Our daily Air China flight on about a one-mile final for runway 24 right, with downtown LA and the mountains in the background. You can see here how close the mountainous terrain is to the airport, as I mentioned in the entry discussing east traffic.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

There it is!

As one of my current trainees recently discovered, when gate 58 has a B777 on it, a B737 (or an Airbus) at gate 59 becomes virtually invisible at night. In order to accommodate the B777 at gate 58, the jetways for gates 58 and 59 are repositioned so the B777 can park parallel to the terminal building. The aircraft on 59 is parked at an angle to clear the B777's wing. This sequence of shots shows the airplane as it pushes off gate 59 onto taxiway C:

For comparison, here are some daytime shots of Terminal 5:

Here you can see how the B777 is positioned at gate 58, as well as the tail of the airplane at gate 59.

A close-up of the aircraft at gate 59 when positioned to accommodate the B777 at gate 58.

This is how it looks when anything other than a B777 is on gate 58 (in this case, a B767); notice the different positioning of the aircraft at gate 59 as well. Just a slight difference, and yet it's much easier to see from the tower. It's also easier for the ground controller and the ramp crews, as in this configuration aircraft inbound to both gates can taxi into their gates; whereas in the B777 configuration both aircraft have to shut down on the taxiway and be towed in.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Where's that plane?

Here's another trap for ground controllers at LAX: Find the Delta B737-800 in this picture.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Still no house!

I was expecting to get a call yesterday from my friend Stephanie to tell me that the loan paperwork had arrived. I managed to have the day off from work so that I'd be available to sign my arm off once called. As you've already figured out, this didn't happen. Not the end of the world, though, as I managed to finish one book, read another cover to cover, and start a third. Yes, there were plenty of chores that I ought to have been doing, but then I wouldn't have been able to get to the phone. Invariably, when the call comes through, I'll have my arms full of something or be buried in something else that keeps me from taking the call.

This morning started much the same way, although I finally gave it up as a bad job around mid-morning and loaded up the Rover with laundry (I gave the cats their flea treatment over the weekend and in protest Dexter committed a couple acts of civil disobedience). Hanging out at the laundry didn't make the phone ring, so I went and stood in line at the credit union. That didn't work either. Giving up again, I went and had lunch with a friend and then got involved in some chores around the hangar. Wouldn't you know it - I'm laying on my back, with my head up under the panel of the Baron and both arms buried in the works (and the shop-vac running) - and Stephanie calls. It was completely hopeless to even try and get to the phone, even though I was wearing it at the time. Stephanie's message was that the paperwork that supposedly went out Thursday would probably go out tomorrow! How anyone actually ever closes escrow on time is beyond me.

Gratuitous sunset pictures:

After last week's rain, it's been clear skies.

But not for long!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

No house - yet

I was hoping to celebrate my late brother's birthday today by closing escrow on the house that I'm trying to buy. But no such luck. Thanks to all the mortgage mess, it takes much longer than it used to; on the recommendation of my friend Stephanie, I asked for a 45-day escrow period (30 days used to be the norm). My agent Bernard and I did the final walk-through during a lull in the rain on Tuesday afternoon, and he mentioned that Stephanie had asked him to get us a five-day extension as she was still waiting for the lender to give her the okay to order the closing documents. So maybe next week . . . ?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Rainy weather

It's been a soggy couple of days here in LA. Our first rain of the season has brought along with it predictions of mudslides in the fire-ravaged areas, although as I write this none have yet been reported.

Rainy weather often brings with it a flow change at LAX. We're usually west traffic because the prevailing winds are off the ocean, and normally stay west until the tailwind component exceeds ten knots. We informally call it the "three go-around" rule, meaning that we won't consider turning the airport around until the third arrival goes around. Despite having no go-arounds, we 'turned the boat' yesterday about mid-morning, when departing pilots started complaining about the 12-knot tailwind out of the east. After a lot of coordination between the tower, the tracon, and the center, the decision was made and LAX changed to east traffic. The rain began just an hour or so later. Here's how things looked before the rain began:

All the aircraft you can see here (with the exception of the ones at the gates) are departures for runway 7 Left; that's Southwest on short final for 7 Right.

Meanwhile: Looking out to the east, here it comes! This was taken maybe an hour before we saw rain on the window panes. The line of aircraft in the first shot was due to extra space required between each departure so there would be room for the pilots to deviate around this weather.

Ironically, once we were east, we had several go-arounds due to reduced visibility caused by the rain. Because of the dunes at the west end of the airport, better runway visibility is required for east arrivals than for those from the west. This is especially true for the north-side arrival runway, 6 Left, for which the ILS approach has higher minimums and requires a mile visibility. To illustrate (sort of), take a look at these two shots. The first is a JAL B747 on short final for 6L; the second is an Asiana B747 on short final for 6R:

Runway 6 Right is better, but that's normally used for the departures. While it is possible to depart off 6 Left, aircraft would then have to cross the arrival runway to get to the departure runway, and that would put them in the ILS critical area - meaning that the arrivals would not be guaranteed an uninterrupted ILS signal. Not to mention that 6 Left is our shortest runway: about a quarter-mile (roughly half a km for my international readers) shorter than 6 Right. Yet one more consideration is that the controllers have to plan way ahead for that 6 Left departure, as the turning point on taxiway E for 6 Left is over a quarter-mile prior to the entry point for 6 Right, and there's no easy way to get back to it once the aircraft has gone past it.

Besides all of that, the big deal about LAX going east is that it affects traffic throughout the LA basin. Everything tends to slow down a bit because we just don't do this very often, and the airport and airspace are not conducive to the same volume of traffic. The arrival and departure controllers in the tracon all have different airspace, with different runways, fixes, altitudes, and obstructions. While it's perhaps a bit simpler for the arrival guys since the finals extend out over the ocean (no ground obstructions to worry about), the departure controllers now have to contend with the ring of mountains that create the northern and eastern borders of the LA basin. Normally it's not a problem for them, as the heavy slow climbers can lumber out over the Pacific to gain altitude. When we're east, however, some of the long-haul heavies really struggle to get up over the terrain, which in places is less than twenty miles from the airport. Often we have to wait until the first heavy has made it out of the basin before we can roll the nest one. I've watched on the radar as the departure controller turns a slow-climber back and forth like switchbacks on a mountain hiking trail or a sailboat tacking into the wind. This is particularly a problem for north-bound departures.

Even the airport itself is optimized for west traffic. Runway exits that work fine during west operations are no help when we go east. There are a couple of taxiways that we virtually never use until we go east, when they suddenly become the preferred runway exits, namely H1, H3, and W:

As an aside, I was surprised at the difficulty in finding a current airport diagram on the web. It is available from the FAA and other sources as a PDF file, but I wanted a graphics format (jpg) to use here. Undoubtedly it's out there somewhere, but a quick search didn't find any current versions. There have been a number of changes at LAX in the last year or two, most of them associated with the addition of the taxiway between the south-side runways. After the construction was completed, we found that the original labels weren't working well, and so many were re-named. Anyway, the diagram above is, as of this date, the current airport diagram for LAX. I ended up printing out the PDF and then taking a picture of it for use here. As you can see by the dates on the bottom, stuff like this doesn't stay officially current for very long. For all sorts of pilot information about LAX, including links to the current airport diagram and approach plates, go to

Our first rain of the season was a great training opportunity. At present, LAX tower has a bit less than three dozen journeyman (journey person?) controllers - what we used to call 'FPLs' for Full Performance Level - and another dozen-plus in various stages of training. Since we are predominantly west traffic, some of those in training or freshly out of it have heard about east traffic but have never actually seen it - until now. Among them, we have one trainee whose first day was yesterday, several recently signed off on ground control (having never gotten to work east traffic while in training, including one of my ground trainees who just got signed off over the weekend), and our most-recently certified controller, who got signed off on Monday. It was pretty much non-stop training on all of the ground control positions all day, as everyone got to take a turn on each one. Lest I give the impression that safety was in any way possibly compromised, none of the 'newbies' was put on position without first getting to watch an experienced controller work it, and everyone got a quick refresher on east traffic procedures before taking position. Here is probably the best shot I got of training in progress:

Here are some other rainy-day shots. All were shot through the tower windows, as going out on the catwalk in this sort of weather is not especially prudent.

This is another shot of the Asiana B744 landing on 6 Right. Notice the spray thrown up by the reversers.

Earlier in the day, Qantas arrived on 6 Left in the A380.

Two shots of a Delta B752 showing the jet blast. In the first shot, just the left engine is running. In the second, both are running. The water spray effect loses something in still photographs, but you can still see it. It's also possible to see when an aircraft is taxiing on only one engine, as demonstrated by this Virgin America A320:

In this shot, I tried to show the area affected by jet blast behind an aircraft. Although it's hard to see (look at the disturbed surface of the water on the ground), the spray behind this Northwest B752 extends beyond the right edge of the shot all the way to the end of the alley.

Qantas 107 to JFK just airborne off 6 Right.

A couple of views of a Fedex MD11 departing off 7 Left for Memphis. The second shot would be pretty cool if not for the window shade ropes.