Simulated Stress Stimulates Safety in Las Vegas
Friday, September 21, 2012
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is a joint collaborative article between NATCA and the FAA. To read the article on the FAA website, click here.
Two airliners approach Las Vegas McCarran International Airport on a clear, calm day. A Learjet prepares to depart. Then both arriving flights declare go-arounds just as the departure lifts off. Now there are three planes over the field, seven seconds away from collision. The pressure on the controllers handling the flights is immense.
Fortunately, they're not up in the tower. They're across the airport in Las Vegas' Tower Simulation System. And as the seconds tick down, controller Chris Iwanski can stop the planes in midair, and have the controllers working the two local positions take a few minutes to assess the situation.
The scenario is realistic for Las Vegas, where the runway layout creates intersecting flight paths and wind gusts and wind shear can sweep in without warning. In fact, there have been two incidents in the last few months that involved aircraft going around in the face of landing or departing crossing traffic.
To prepare controllers for such circumstances, Operations Manager Scott French and NATCA Facility Representative Jamaal Haltom formed a collaborative workgroup that included Iwanski and John Pastore — both controllers — and Randy Hart, a front line manager.
“The intensity with which they attacked the problem was phenomenal,” said Air Traffic Manager Jim Burgan.
They met on a Sunday to identify the issues and desired outcomes. The next day, they met at the Tower Simulation System to script a training scenario with the help of a trainer and a TSS programming expert.
By Wednesday, training had begun on the scenario, which has a Southwest flight coming in high toward Runway 19R to avoid a swarm of helicopters hovering over the Las Vegas Strip while a United flight heads toward Runway 25L from the southeast.
In the tower, Local Controller 2 is handling runways 19R and 19L. A Learjet is ready to take off from 19L. Since the Southwest flight is landing on a parallel runway and Runway 25L doesn’t intersect 19L, the controller can clear the Learjet for takeoff.
But moments later, the Southwest pilots declare a go-around after passing the airfield fence. They were unable to achieve a stabilized approach.
Local Controller 2 yells across the cab: “Going around.”
Almost simultaneously, a strong crosswind gust hits the United flight over Runway 25L, pushing the aircraft north of the centerline. The United pilot declares a go-around halfway down the runway.
“Going around,” shouts Local Controller 1, who is handling Runway 25L.
By then, the Learjet is already airborne at midfield. All three aircraft are just seven seconds away from collision. The Local Controller 1’s mind is nearing total overload. Six seconds. Avoiding one aircraft is hard enough. Five seconds. But two? Four. One is high, the other is low. Three. Where does United fit in? Two. What’s my next move? One.
At this point Iwanski pauses the scenario.
“You both shouted ‘going around.’ Was the second shout just an acknowledgment of the first or was it another go around?” he asks. “Communication in the cab is key. You have to be absolutely clear. And sometimes you'll have to operate outside the box,” referring to the standard operating procedures and letters of agreement. “Separate first. Coordinate second.”
The training was especially helpful for the younger controllers at Las Vegas, according to Pastore. “We have a lot of new people,” he said. “This is a busy airport. Why not try to help them out?"
Eight days after the training began, all 34 Las Vegas Tower fully certified controllers had been trained on the “unusual situation.” The group plans to develop more scenarios based on safety-related trend data, and Burgan aims to hold simulator refresher training regularly.
“What's becoming more apparent in the new safety culture is that if you're looking for answers, in most cases you need look no further than the front line,” Burgan said, “Frontline CPCs designed, scripted and instructed the scenarios. This is what great teams do. They see a problem and all feel a level of collaborative responsibility toward a solution.”
Hart agreed, giving credit to the controllers who drove the effort. “We were provided the opportunity to tap the talents of two of our senior CPCs who provided great critique and great feedback to all the CPCs that attended,” he said.
Iwanski saw it as a means to drive safety at the tower through teamwork and guidance.
"I want to see everybody be successful,” he said. “I don't want to see anyone put themselves in a corner that they can't get out of. If I have a tool that I can share with somebody else to get them out of a jam, I’m going to do that.”
A dispatcher for one of the airport’s biggest airlines was so impressed with the training effort that he wants to incorporate the scenario into yearly refresher training.
Burgan said it’s all part of the tower’s effort to keep everyone focused on safety.
“This is the passion that drives us in Las Vegas,” he said. “We’re all inspired by All Points Safety: Everyone, Everywhere, Everyday.”