FAA Admits to Flaws in Runway Test; Determining Slickness an Educated Guess

March 7, 2006
Officials admit the process of determining if a plane can land in snow or rain could have played a key role in the Southwest accident in Chicago.

A crash that killed a 6-year-old boy when a jet slid off a Midway Airport runway and into a busy street has brought to light the fallible way braking ability on slick landing strips is tested.

The Federal Aviation Administration launched a review of the critical procedure just days after the Dec. 8 accident involving a Southwest Airlines plane landing during a snowstorm, FAA spokesman Tony Molinaro said Thursday.

The results could change how pilots and air traffic controllers determine if a plane can land in snow or rain, a process officials admit involves guesswork and could have played a key role in the accident.

"This is a tough thing to get our arms around," Molinaro said. "There are so many factors involved. We know that it is an imperfect science, and from our point of view, (the accident) brought it to the forefront."

Overall, Molinaro stressed, the braking tests are safe but could be more accurate.

Planes overrunning runways are rare, he said, "and that tells me that everything out there truly is safe even in tough conditions."

Currently, an FAA-approved machine rolls down the runway between landings to test friction on the landing strip in rain and snow. A rating is then assigned and relayed to pilots so they can determine whether to land, and what they may need to do to prevent sliding off the strip, such as employing reverse thrusters or an early touchdown.

The process is well known in the industry to be inexact. Many times, pilots upon landing will pass along braking ratings that differ from what the ground machinery is telling air traffic controllers, Molinaro said.

Bob Woodreck, a veteran Midwest Airlines pilot who flies 130- passenger MD80s out of Milwaukee's General Mitchell International Airport, said pilots know well the inconsistency of runway friction reporting.

"It happens enough to be a concern," he said.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which is charged with investigating the Midway accident, is reviewing how the runway's friction ratings were relayed to pilots, in addition to several other factors, said spokesman Keith Holloway.

A final report on the crash is not expected for several months. The disclosure about the FAA's separate review of the process surfaced Thursday after a report in USA Today disputed whether the runway friction rating given by air traffic controllers before the crash was accurate.

Molinaro said the slickness of the runway was always believed to be an issue with the crash. In January, the NTSB made an emergency recommendation based on the crash that Boeing 737 pilots shouldn't count on reverse thrusters when deciding whether they have enough space to land on short runways such as those at Midway.

The reverse thrusters, which blow engine power backward to slow the plane upon landing, were delayed about 18 seconds during the ill-fated Southwest landing.

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