Quiet daily competence, with high stakes and total concentration. A recent sample from the skies over Dulles Airport.
The purpose of this post is to let you hear a sample of the real-life workings of airline professionals, as they respond to what could have been a dangerous situation—and fortunately wasn’t. It’s a theme I’ve mentioned many times before, including here and here.
The 11 minutes and 45 seconds of the audio clip capture transmissions around Dulles airport this past Thursday, January 27, shortly after noon.¹ Through the first eight minutes, you’ll hear a female controller working Dulles approach. These approach controllers guide planes just after they take off from Dulles (or nearby small airports like Leesburg), and just before they land.
Through the remaining time you hear a male controller from Dulles tower. Tower controllers give pilots “cleared for takeoff” instructions and direct them during the first stages of the climb away from the runway. Then they pass responsibility to the next controllers, called “approach” or “departure” depending which way the plane is going. Tower also clears planes for landing, and instructs them through the last minute or so before they touch down.
The minutes you’ll hear on the clip roughly match the plane’s journey along the red-line path, which it flew in a clockwise direction. I’m including a wider-view version of the map for orientation:
The summary of what happens is:
Let’s go to the tape.
Here are some guides to what you’ll hear, in the 11:45 segment above.
—For the first 30 seconds, the approach controller is handling routine traffic in and out. This is how things normally sound, and gives an idea of how much controllers must keep track of.
—Around time 0:30, you first hear “SkyWest 3857” check in. The pilot calmly says, “We’ve got a mechanical situation here…”
—Around 0:55, after dealing with some other planes, the controller asks, “Do you need any assistance?” You’ll hear the back and forth over the next minute, and then some silence until around 2:00.
—Around time 2:30, the controller starts directing (“vectoring”) the plane on its sequence of right-hand turns back to Dulles. You’ll notice throughout this clip the way she and her counterpart at Dulles tower deal with this plane’s problems while keeping track of the many other flights.
—Between 2:50 and 5:00, you’ll hear the back-and-forth as the controller asks if the crew is declaring an emergency. The pilot says, purely matter-of-fact, “Yeah, we’ll go ahead and declare an emergency at this time.” Later the controller asks if the crew will need “the equipment.” That’s code for bringing fire trucks and rescue vehicles to the runway, in anticipation of a possible crash landing. The pilot says, similarly deadpan, “we’ll take the equipment.”
—If you’ve gotten this far, you can follow the rest of the sequence. The pilot says he has “airport in sight.” The approach controller clears him for a “visual approach” and passes him to the tower controller, around time 8:15. The pilot checks in with Dulles tower (around 8:30) and asks for visual confirmation that his landing gear is in place (around 9:50). The tower controller clears the plane for landing; it touches down; and the drama is over. I assume that the passengers deplaned, resigned to yet another case of travel inconvenience and delay. I don’t know what the pilot told them en route. But presumably most were unaware of the coordination over the airwaves and in the skies that had kept them all safe.
—The only stage business in this last part that might not be obvious is an exchange between Dulles Tower and a ground-crew team (“Ops 2”). They agree that as soon as the emergency-status inbound plane has touched down, they will declare that whole 11,500-foot runway closed. That’s because at this point the fire trucks and rescue vehicles are poised, and no one knows what will happen when the plane arrives.
Quiet daily competence, in action. This is what it sounds like.
I’ve now taken about as long to explain the potential drama as it consumed in real time. For those who have ever been passengers—or have an interest in teamwork, or in the value of procedures, or in trained unflappability under pressure, or in the ability to handle many matters while focusing on one—I think you will find this clip revealing.
I have no idea who any of these people are. I know that they all did their jobs calmly, carefully, and very well.