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Meanwhile, we hold driving to a different standard. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, more than 30,000 fatal vehicle crashes happened every year between 1994 and 2009. Over that same decade and a half, Americans asked for more statistical death in the form of speed-limit increases and the revocation of motorcycle-helmet laws.
Yet pilots and air traffic controllers continue to report thousands of bumbles, stumbles and potentially lethal events that happen over the normal course of air travel. And much of the action takes place over Kansas and Missouri.
The Aviation Safety Reporting System receives roughly 50,000 reports a year, about 20 percent of which are released to the public by NASA, which maintains the database. NASA has no authority to rebuke those involved, and those who file reports also win some immunity from FAA punishment, which encourages more reports. The database operates as a kind of Borg brain that assimilates errors into a single compendium of screw-ups — a live-and-learn digest for airline officials, as well as a kind of police blotter for the skies and a diary for those who traverse them.
Reports show pilots complaining about air traffic controllers, air traffic controllers complaining about being overworked, planes skidding off runways, drunken passengers peeing on food carts, and more of those near hits in a sky that seems not nearly big enough. Take, for instance, the crew of a 737 headed for Dallas. A report about that journey says the plane banked right after pilots noticed something falling from a plane above them. The object zipped by less than 1,000 feet from the left wing.
"As we got closer, it became clear that the object in question was, in fact, a person skydiving, as we were able to clearly identify their head, their arms, and their legs," the first officer later wrote. As in all the database's reports, the writer's name and gender — as well as the airline carrier and the specific times of the incident — have been redacted.
At Kansas City's Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport in July 2010, an air traffic controller reported that two aircraft had veered a little too close to each other. After the danger passed, the controller wrote, a conflict-alert (CA-CA) alarm beeped and flashed to warn of the danger.
"This is normal, in the terminal environment the (CA-CA) often waits until the aircraft have already passed before sounding; it's almost entirely useless as a safety aid," the controller wrote. "It's a running joke."
The controller wrote that another alarm, the low-altitude (LA-LA) alarm, never went off when it should have and that a controller at nearby KCI had handled the event sloppily.
"This was a pretty screwed-up operation throughout from a legal standpoint, and was pretty unsafe, too."
Yet when The Pitch asked the FAA about this mishap, they said they had no record of it and that there had been no similar complaints. Isham Cory says some details in the report itself don't make sense and are"very suspect."
"If this was a controller and if this person is still in the area, we'd like to talk to them because they detail several procedural errors that they made themselves," Isham Cory says via e-mail. "It doesn't add up. This is very odd."
After a March 2001 flight took off from St. Louis and was headed through Kansas City's airspace, one captain reported, flight attendants were about to start serving drinks when they noticed that the bathroom was occupied. A young man in his 20s was inside, but the attendants soon realized that there were no empty seats on the plane. He then jammed the door shut.
"This is the captain, and I need you to open the door now!" the pilot ordered.
The young man immediately opened the door and claimed that he was sick. He said he couldn't remember his seat number.