Close call at airport

Saturday incident reveals radar, communications challenges


— A close call this weekend at Yampa Valley Regional Airport reveals some of the major challenges of mountain flight and small airport operations.

On Saturday afternoon, air traffic controllers in Denver gave a small private plane clearance to take off from YVRA as United Express flight No. 6573 was landing. The two planes managed to avoid one another, but still provided quite the scare for passengers and airport officials.

"Just as we were nearing a touchdown, we suddenly banked sharply and accelerated up at what must have been full throttle," Hayden resident John Merrill, a passenger on the daily flight from Denver, wrote in an e-mail to the Pilot & Today. "After a couple of disturbing minutes, the pilot came on and said that he suddenly saw 'another plane moving onto the runway' and that is why he aborted the landing so abruptly."

Airport Manager Dave Ruppel confirmed Merrill's account on Monday. According to Ruppel, one of the United pilots told air traffic controllers in Denver, "I'm on the deck." The Denver officials then cleared the private plane to take off, Ruppel said, thinking the United flight was on the ground.

"It wasn't a good day, but fortunately, we had a clear day and they saw each other," Ruppel said.

The United plane was a 66-passenger CRJ-700, and the private plane was a 9- to 12-passenger King Air based out of Oklahoma City.

Ruppel said airport personnel in the Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting facility at YVRA saw what was happening but were helpless to do anything about it because both airplanes had their radios tuned to air traffic control in Denver, rather than YVRA's local UNICOM system.

"It was pretty scary to both of" the firefighters, Ruppel said. "They were pretty upset by the whole thing. That was a pretty close thing."

No official record

Ruppel said Saturday's incident was serious, but it was news to Federal Aviation Administration officials Monday.

"Right now, as it stands today, we have no record of this," FAA spokesman Allen Kenitzer said.

While YVRA officials can and did speak to those involved, Ruppel said the airport does not have the ability to file violations with the FAA because it is an "uncontrolled airport." Uncontrolled airports are those that do not have a tower that is part of the FAA air traffic control system. The responsibility to report Saturday's incident lies with the pilots involved and air traffic controllers in Denver.

Kenitzer defended the FAA's procedures.

"What else can we do?" Kenitzer said. "We can't pay people to stand around and watch runways. : We do rely upon honesty and integrity."

Ruppel said Saturday's incident is one instance when one might wish the FAA's rules were different, but overall, he said the policy makes sense.

"It's very frustrating when you have something like this happen," he said. "But if you're not a pilot and you're not in that situation, you may not understand how serious it was. It has to come from someone who actually knows what the situation is."

YVRA's status as an uncontrolled airport also means that neither plane was breaking any rules by not being tuned in to the airport's UNICOM system.

"It would have made sense, when you're in the airport vicinity, to stay on the frequency," Ruppel said.

Ruppel said the private plane might have switched to the Denver frequency early because of a need to quickly communicate with air traffic controllers once the plane was in the air. The reason why the descending United flight was not tuned in is more puzzling.

Ruppel said the United pilot told air traffic controllers in Denver that he was canceling "instrument flight rules." Instrument flight rules, or IFR, are a set of rules for flying by aircraft instruments only, while separation from other aircraft is provided by air traffic control. The rules allow for such things as flying through clouds. When a pilot cancels IFR, he then operates under "visual flight rules," and is responsible for navigation, obstacle clearance and traffic separation.

Local commercial pilot Bret Orr said normal procedure after canceling IFR would be to switch to the local UNICOM system and communicate intentions. Local pilot Mike Forney agreed.

"I am surprised that they weren't talking to each other," Forney said. "That's kind of strange."

Ruppel said Saturday's incident also underscores the need for radar coverage at Western Slope airports such as YVRA. Because of the mountains, planes that are taking off or landing fly too low to be detected by radar in Denver. Air traffic controllers must rely on their communication with pilots - and in this case the United pilot's apparently erroneous claim to be "on the deck." A phone message and e-mail left with United officials Monday were not returned.

Next steps

Municipalities throughout Northwest Colorado are partnering with the FAA and the aeronautics division of the Colorado Department of Transportation to install electronic airplane surveillance equipment that will provide radar coverage. Ruppel said the system likely won't be certified until April 2009.

"With that system, Denver Center would have been able to see that the CRJ was not on the ground," Ruppel said.

The chances of YVRA becoming a controlled airport are slim. Ruppel said the airport has about 15,000 takeoffs and landings a year, when the threshold to receive federal funding for an air traffic control tower is 100,000. The cost of a tower means Routt County is not likely to construct and run one itself. Ruppel estimated a tower would cost more than $5 million to build and about $500,000 a year to operate.

There is a possibility that YVRA would be deemed eligible for a "seasonal tower" during its busy winters.

"That's something that we're exploring at this point," Ruppel said.

FAA spokesman Mike Fergus said Saturday's incident warrants a closer look. FAA officials said more information may be available later this week. In the meantime, YVRA officials are responding as much as their limited clout allows.

"We try to emphasize to all the pilots who operate here that they need to be in touch with our UNICOM systems," Ruppel said. "This type of situation obviously highlights that."


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