Close calls in the sky are just part of the routine for the airline industry.

Pilots and controllers report scores of close calls each year, but that's normal 

Close calls in the sky are just part of the routine for the airline industry.

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The FAA's Isham Cory says KCI needs 30 to 37 controllers in order to function properly, and that staffing for those positions at the facility is now at 130 percent.

But could problems return the next time controllers need a new contract?


Air accidents have a lot in common with biology: Crashes are the product of a series of events, much in the way that an organism is the latest expression of a sequence of genes.

The overwhelming majority of the incidents logged in the Aviation Safety Reporting System and at KCI are innocuous, like the stray bacteria silently dismantled by our immune systems without symptoms. A pilot notices if an instrument is broken or if an error occurs on approach, and a series of reactions quickly steers the flight toward safety. It's when the immune system breaks down — if pilots are tired and ill-prepared, if the tower is distracted and instruments fail — that a single malady multiplies into calamity.

The most recent fatal airline crash in the United States happened February 12, 2009, when a Colgan Air flight headed to Buffalo, New York, plunged into a house five nautical miles northeast of the airport, killing 49 people onboard and a resident in the house. The National Transportation Safety Board, which investigated the accident, said the crash was probably caused by pilot error. But the board's forensic analysis, released in a report a year later, pointed to a long-winded list of contributing factors extending far beyond the moment when the pilot steered the flight into a stall.

The NTSB analysis read in part: "The safety issues discussed in this report focus on strategies to prevent flight crew monitoring failures, pilot professionalism, fatigue, remedial training, pilot training records, airspeed selection procedures, stall training, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) oversight, flight operational quality assurance programs, use of personal portable electronic devices on the flight deck, the FAA's use of safety alerts for operators to transmit safety-critical information, and weather information provided to pilots."

The Colgan crash speaks to the future of flying as much as it does to aviation's past.

An August 30, 2011, Associated Press investigation revealed that an "automation addiction" had caused some pilots to forget how to fly. According to an FAA study, in "60 percent of accidents, and 30 percent of major incidents, pilots had trouble manually flying the plane or made mistakes with automated flight controls," the AP reported. The Colgan flight was one of the accidents cited.

Yet automation continues to take more and more flight duties out of human hands. In 2010, FAA researchers tested a system that would relay computerized weather warnings for pilots instead of relying on controllers to do it. Unsurprisingly, the computers did it faster. In general, an increasingly automated flight system would also mean that flights could land faster and closer together, saving valuable time for passengers and potentially cutting down on the natural erraticism of human behavior.

"There are a lot of things coming down the pipe to make our jobs better," Church says.

Bob Coffman, a member of the FAA pilot training committee, recently told the AP that pilots fly without autopilot for only about 80 seconds of a typical two-hour flight. Could air officials lower the danger of flight by decreasing pilot control still further, or would that leave even more pilots helpless in an emergency?

A world of automation would seemingly remove the thousands of unmistakably human accounts of flight problems now dotting NASA's Aviation Safety Reporting System. But those accounts tell us much about the intangibles of flight for which computers can't necessarily adjust.

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