The only thing faster than the airplane is information

It is amazing the contrasts in government efficiency–or the lack thereof–that exist every day. For instance, the FAA has spent billions to get the NextGen ATC system off the ground, and for all of that, we still have NowGen and YesterGen. Likewise, as my AME likes to say, the pilots are flying in 2012, but the FAA is practicing medicine in 1960-something. On the other end of the spectrum is the IRS. Get their attention, and you will be hearing about it immediately. They don’t mess around.

But, for all of the bad FAA jokes (my favorite: I’m from the FAA and I’m not happy until you’re not happy), the feds are by and large good people who do the best they can with the tools they have been given, which means they aren’t any different than you and me. I recently got a reminder that when they need to do something fast, they can.

I recently had an encounter with severe turbulence while climbing out of Baltimore. It was a short encounter, and not all that unexpected because of the weather. But, as with any encounter so severe, it got my intention. So, being the dutiful air-person and practitioner of air-person-ship that I am, I reported it to ATC.

The Washington Center controller asked a flurry of questions, and I responded with a flurry of information: altitude, exact location, a description of what happened. Every other airplane on the frequency immediately wanted to know where it was, and they requested deviations away from my little find.

The controller began by asking all flights climbing and descending in our area for ride reports. All the flights were in 737s or bigger, and they all reported “moderate” or “heavy moderate,” and you could hear the bounces in their voices. This made sense, because the CRJ that I fly has short, skinny wings, and it does not absorb turbulence very well at all. What would be severe to us might very well not be to something bigger; of course, the reverse applies as well.

What was so impressive was how quickly the word got out. On every frequency that I used for the balance of our flight to Cincinnati, the controller was issuing the pilot report about our encounter. On the first frequency change, as we were checking in, he was reading the news to everyone in his sector. I told him that we were the reporting aircraft, and he had a couple of follow-up questions, mostly pertaining to the accuracy of his information. It was spot on. It was quick, accurate, and given the proper sense of urgency.

When we landed, I called a friend of mine used to fly for us. He now flies for Southwest and was getting ready to commute to work from Providence, R.I. I told him to be ready for a bumpy ride, and relayed our experience. When he arrived in Baltimore, he called me back and said that the ride into BWI on the 737 flight he took was “737 moderate, and borderline RJ severe. That was a good call, and I’m glad I wasn’t there.”

I wish I hadn’t been either, but I’m glad that the FAA has the means to disseminate that kind of critical information as quickly as it did. Of course, these are the folks who got thousands of airplanes on the ground on September 11, 2001, in record time, so they deserve credit where credit is due.—By Chip Wright

1 Comment

  1. I’m going to guess that was the last weekend in April. I took a trip in a C182 from southern Maine to Easton, MD for a family wedding. It was windy on Friday, but not bad turbulence-wise. However, it was a nasty ride from the Long Island Sound northbound back to Maine. There was lots of chatter on the frequency regarding turbulence reports as they were moderate to severe for us light aircraft. When I flew corp jets turbulence reports always got out and that type of information was always helpful to keep everyone in the back happy (not to mention those of us up front). Chip, I always enjoy your posts – thanks!

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