WASHINGTON – WASHINGTON (AP) — Last June, air traffic controller Ron Chappell noticed a tiny blip on his radar screen. His 22 years of experience told him that blip could be a small plane, moments away from possibly colliding with a SkyWest airliner approaching Los Angeles International Airport.
Chappell quickly radioed the pilot of the SkyWest plane, who descended immediately. The relieved pilot thanked Chappell for pointing out the smaller plane, saying, "We didn't see him until you said something."
On Tuesday, the National Transportation Safety Board begins a three-day forum on getting more pilots and controllers to strive for that same professionalism under pressure. Their models: controllers like Chappell, as well as pilots like US Airways Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, who ditched his Airbus A320 into New York's Hudson River last year — and saved dozens of lives — rather than risk crashing it in a densely populated area.
The forum is focusing on success stories. But the impetus for it is a series of high-profile incidents in which the conduct and judgment of pilots and controllers have been called into question.
"So many in the industry recognize this issue of professionalism is a real challenge," NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said in an interview. "How do you encourage people day in and day out to do the right thing every time when people aren't watching?"
Pilot and air traffic controller unions say there is no professionalism problem, and say such instances are rare.
"Obviously, there have been one or two events that have highlighted potential issues that they want to take a look at," said Rory Kay, an airline captain and chairman of the Air Line Pilots Association's safety committee. "I think we're in agreement that it's a timely opportunity to sit down and have a good, hard revisit on the subject."
Hersman cited a 2004 accident in which two regional airline pilots took their plane on a joyride to 41,000 feet — higher than the plane's operating capability. Both engines stalled. The pilots were unable to restart the engines, and were killed when the plane crashed near Jefferson City, Mo.
Federal Aviation Administrator Randy Babbitt, in speeches and congressional testimony, has called on pilots and controllers to create a professional atmosphere in cockpits and radar facilities and not to tolerate rule-breaking by colleagues. He began the campaign last summer in response to the crash of Continental Express Flight 3407 near Buffalo, N.Y., in which all 49 people aboard and a man on the ground were killed.
The safety board said the crash occurred after the plane stalled because the pilot pulled back, instead of pushing forward, on a key piece of safety equipment. But they also cited a series of errors and unprofessional conduct by the pilot and first officer leading up to the accident.
Among those planning to attend the forum are family members of the victims of Flight 3407, who have been campaigning for improved pilot training, an increase in the experience required to become an airline pilot and new work rules so pilots don't suffer fatigue while flying.
"Our focus from day one has been to do everything possible to ensure that the mistakes of Flight 3407 are never repeated, and this safety forum will be just one more way of accomplishing that," said Kenneth Mellett of McLean, Va., in a statement. Mellett lost his son, Coleman, a guitarist for the Chuck Mangione Band, in the crash.
FAA recently asked airlines to create and enforce policies that will limit cockpit distractions and to include distraction issues in their crew training programs.
The advisory was prompted by an incident last October in which two Northwest Airlines pilot overshot the Minneapolis airport by more than 100 miles because they were engrossed in a complicated new crew-scheduling program on their laptop computers.
(This version CORRECTS the year of an accident over Missiouri to '2004'.)