Emergencies and ATC Part 2

Last week, we talked about an Air Carrier incident during which an emergency was declared. Shortly after that, we learned of another Air Carrier that had a fire in the cockpit and declared an emergency while at cruise altitude. Details can be found on the NTSB web site.  This incident is a near textbook example of how to handle an emergency.

The audio from this incident (from LiveATC.net) is chilling. The first indication is a simple call to New York Center, much the same as a million routine calls every day. The crew said they have a fire in the cockpit and need to go to the nearest airport. The controller immediately responded with a vector and distance to the nearest airport. As soon as time permitted, the controller started to obtain the needed information for the Crash Fire Rescue (CFR) response.

Meanwhile, conditions in the cockpit must have been incredibly challenging. Both pilots were wearing smoke hoods and goggles. The Captain turned over flying and communications to the First Office while he battled the fire. It took two full Halon extinguishers to put out the fire.  Yet they found time to clearly and concisely communicate to ATC their requests.

The crew communicated their needs while fighting one of aviation’s most feared emergencies – an in-flight fire. Their plan changed several times during the course of the incident. Initially, they wanted to go to the nearest airport. In this case it was actually behind them. Once the fire was under control, they (probably after consulting Company) elected to go to a larger airport that had better facilities. Although we don’t have access to the cockpit tapes yet, we can assume the crew was completing various emergency checklists.

What most pilots don’t realize is that at the same time ATC was running their own version of an Emergency Checklist. The Controller’s handbook lists a series of steps that ATC will take as soon as an emergency is declared. While most of the checklist items pertain to a lost aircraft or a VFR pilot that has encountered IMC, there are common pieces of information to be gathered. These include; nature of the emergency, pilot’s desires, number of persons on board (souls on board), fuel remaining, any special handling, coordinating with any adjacent facility, notifying CFR and in today’s security climate notifying TSA.

As this situation progressed and ATC started to vector the aircraft towards their divert airport, the crew requested a delaying vector – basically a 360° turn. This maneuver required the controller to coordinate the turn through a large area of airspace and issue several altitude step downs. All of this was communicated clearly to the crew. ATC kept the crew advised of their position and the expected response from the CFR units.

The difference between this incident and the one we talked about last week was simply the communications involved. This was as “textbook” as you can get in a stressful and rapidly changing situation. Both ATC and the flight crew knew exactly what each needed and could expect.

Thanks to all who commented on last week’s blog. Several people asked what happens to the pilot after an emergency is declared. Next week, we’ll talk about the “dreaded paperwork” after an incident.

Fly safe.