1:19 AM CDT, March 28, 2011
The almost-completed first phase of O'Hare International Airport's expansion had close calls that could have resulted in fatal airplane crashes, according to a Tribune investigation of incidents filed with the Federal Aviation Administration.
As the Chicago Department of Aviation prepares to start the next phase of rebuilding at O'Hare next month, the reports on the incidents spotlight the challenges of conducting a complicated airport modernization program on a busy airfield. They also show how an ever-changing list of alerts to pilots, air traffic controllers and construction crews increases the opportunity for serious mistakes, including planes taking off and landing on closed runways.
The potential for disaster has prompted the FAA to begin revising its daily alerts to pilots about airfield conditions and other procedures. Work to build a runway in the southern part of O'Hare will kick into high gear now that the city and the major airlines have agreed on the project after a legal battle. City officials say the work at the airport had met FAA safety standards but acknowledge that more can be done to improve safety.
One close call linked to the O'Hare expansion project took place Sept. 9, 2009. Construction work was going on all over O'Hare when a FedEx plane taxied out for departure that evening. After making a preflight check of the MD10 cargo plane's weight, the winds and the length of the runway, the pilots concluded they were too heavy to take off from the 8,075-foot runway that was assigned, according to the FAA.
An air traffic controller offered a choice of two other runways. The crew made its decision unaware that the runway they selected was shortened to 5,975 feet — about 4,000 feet less than the pilots thought they had available — because of construction.
The FedEx crew began the takeoff. Accelerating down the runway, the pilots were surprised to see a concrete blast fence coming up quickly ahead, according to the FAA Office of Runway Safety. The blast fence was installed across the runway to protect nearby construction equipment.
Unable to stop short of crashing into the barrier, the pilots continued the takeoff, barely clearing the obstruction. A crash was averted, but it was so close that engine thrust and air spinning off the wingtips damaged and blew away the blast fence, according to an FAA investigation of the incident, which has not been publicly disclosed until now.
The Tribune found other incidents in FAA databases, including:
•A pilot reporting that his fully loaded Boeing 777 departed O'Hare in May 2008 in excess of the plane's maximum allowable weight "due to ignorance of a (notice) concerning work in progress reducing runway length."
•A pilot of a Boeing 747 reporting that in July 2007 he and his first officer landed at O'Hare unaware the runway had been shortened for construction.
•An O'Hare air traffic controller reporting in June 2004 that he ordered two planes within a three-minute period to abort their landings because of construction vehicles crossing the runway.
"Construction on an airport does increase the risk. It changes the traffic patterns that pilots may be accustomed to and it requires a lot of extra care on everybody's part," said David Zwegers, aviation safety director at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla.
The lawsuit that United and American airlines filed against Chicago seeking to delay O'Hare expansion-related construction until more runways are needed also sheds light on the difficulties and dangers of flying in and out of O'Hare while it is being rebuilt. Each runway project "requires numerous enabling and support projects located in virtually every corner of the airport," the lawsuit said. "A significant portion of O'Hare will be disrupted."
The compromise the Daley administration and the airlines reached to build one runway — instead of two runways and an extension to an existing runway — will reduce the complexity of the project, officials said. But heavy construction will occur north and south of the main terminal core.
Work will soon begin to pave the rest of a partially completed runway and six taxiways in the middle of the airfield where hundreds of graves in the St. Johannes Cemetery must first be relocated. The building of a new runway on the south end of the airfield, a new air traffic tower and the relocation of Irving Park Road and Union Pacific Railroad tracks will require hundreds of construction vehicles to operate near aircraft and to shuttle back and forth across the airport, officials said.
The fluid situation can confuse even veteran pilots familiar with O'Hare. In many cases, the approaches to runways must be relocated, which changes takeoff and landing points and creates scenarios much different from what pilots have gone through before.
"Normally, we don't land over anything after crossing over the airport fence. Now at O'Hare we often are dealing with a displaced landing zone beyond barricades, and that can throw an unprepared cockpit crew a curveball," said Capt. Kevin Dohm, a 25-year United Airlines pilot.
Runway closures or shortened runways are common during construction. The constant changes increase the possibility that pilots will miss important alerts from the FAA about construction work or enter the wrong data into their flight computers.
"It changes from day to day — that is the problem," Dohm said. "You really need to be on your toes when you are going into airports under construction."
In August 2006, 49 of 50 people aboard a Comair plane died during takeoff in Lexington, Ky. Construction was one reason blamed for the pilots going to a shorter runway and crashing into a field.
At the time of the September 2009 FedEx incident at O'Hare, 75 notices alerted O'Hare pilots about changes and hazards on the airfield, the FAA found. The notice that the FedEx pilots missed, describing the shortened runway, was No. 53 on that list.
The list of FAA alerts called NOTAMs, "notices to airmen," does not rank the advisories by importance, giving a nonfunctioning light on an airfield as much priority as a closed section of runway or a temporary flight restriction. At O'Hare, the list of NOTAMs is often longer than many flight plans that crews follow, pilots say.
"NOTAMs have always been a source of pain for pilots at O'Hare," said a pilot who asked not to be identified because he didn't want to be at odds with his airline. "A lot of them contain some really petty stuff. They should be structured to point out important operational issues of the day and filter out the minutiae."
The Boeing 747 captain involved in the July 2007 incident about a plane that was too heavy for the runway shortened for construction expressed frustration in his report to the FAA.
"The root of the problem lies in how we get the NOTAMs," he wrote. "We get a stack of paper — few to dozens of pages, filled with endless numbers of NOTAMs in abbreviated English. Ninety-nine-plus percent of them have no operational significance. … The current way of dealing with NOTAMs in the cockpit is an accident waiting to happen."
In a move to prevent vital alerts from falling through the cracks, the FAA is developing digital alerts for pilots and air traffic controllers. FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt called the new information system "one-stop shopping for airspace system changes."
The digital alerts are delivered directly into computers that graphically map the information and provide verbal guidance, similar to GPS navigation in many passenger vehicles. The digital system also helps pilots by singling out NOTAMs that affect their particular flight, eliminating the need to sort through a long list of alerts, officials said.
Software changes to the new system are under way, said FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory. O'Hare and Midway Airport will start testing the system later this year, she said.
About 10 changes related to construction were made at O'Hare after a construction safety summit that the city and FAA held in April, officials said.
Revisions to air traffic controller training were introduced based on best practices at other construction projects, officials said. The controller involved in the FedEx incident did not mention the shortened runway. He had been taught not to question pilots about the operation of their aircraft, the FAA found.
Chicago aviation officials said O'Hare had been operating in compliance with FAA requirements before the series of construction-related mishaps, but that the safety summit showed more could be done.
"Following those events, the (Chicago Department of Aviation,) along with multiple other key stakeholders, participated in the FAA's simulations process which provided enhanced safety, mitigation strategies and additional processes for future construction activities at the airport," said city aviation spokeswoman Eve Rodriguez.
The construction summit also led to new, shorter signs at the beginning of runways and at intersections frequently used for departure. The available runway distance is now posted on the signs.
In addition, old runway markings have been painted over in black to eliminate confusion and ensure they cannot be seen from the air, officials said.
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