About the oldest rule in the book is see – and be seen. The only change is that pilots now have highly sophisticated ways of seeing each other, as the FAA’s recent advances in ADS-B show. In fact, the agency has finalised an agreement with a helicopter trade group to start using the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast system in the Gulf of Mexico, a step the airlines enthusiastically endorse. We mention these advances because we’re coming up on an important milestone in the history of US air safety and air-traffic technology. It is 50 years this month since a major midair collision between two packed airliners brought so much public focus on airline safety that Congress created a separate FAA and committed the government to the radar coverage that is still the basis for most air traffic control in the nation.Dubbed the Grand Canyon crash, the 30 June 1956 tragedy killed 128 people when a TWA Connie slammed into a United Airlines DC-7 above Arizona’s Grand Canyon. Back then, radar coverage was limited to areas near large city airports, and en-route traffic was governed by verbal orders and altimeters, a system that seems even less reliable than that of the railroad: trains at least have stop signals!
Still, see-and-be-seen remains central, and interestedly the National Transportation Safety Board agreed recently to reopen its investigation of another but more recent midair horror in which neither crew saw the other. Therein lies another story. The board rarely reopens earlier cases, even when Congress or the press demands it. But in this case, the painstaking research of an amateur historian living near the crash site has led to the change. This July 1967 midair over Hendersonville, North Carolina, involved a Piedmont Airlines Boeing 727 that collided with a Cessna 310 – killing 82 people. The board’s 1968 finding has been the Cessna “deviated from its VFR clearance into the flight path” of the Piedmont jet, but the historian, a truck-line dispatcher named Paul Houle, produced evidence suggesting investigators 38 years ago may have overlooked mistakes by the Boeing’s flight crew and air-traffic controllers. The safety board may or may not change its conclusions but will examine Houle’s findings. The 1967 crash did lead to some important changes in the way navigation aides are named and helped hasten radar coverage, which the mountainous western Carolinas region lacked at the time. You can find Houle’s website here.