How an Aviation Emergency Sounds in Real Time
It sounds like calm professionalism. We can all learn from this.
Yesterday morning, September 19, an Airbus 320 with 160 people aboard had a hard landing at Boston’s Logan airport. It was Allegiant Air’s flight 2601; it was en route from Knoxville; and it blew out a tire on touchdown and thus was stranded on the runway, temporarily delaying other Boston takeoffs and landings.
Fortunately all passengers and crew were safely taken off the plane, via air-stairs brought out to the runway.
You can read more of the details here, from Boston.com. The hard landing followed an equipment malfunction, which left the pilots unsure of whether their landing gear would be “down and locked.” The screen shot above, via our friends at FlightAware, shows the delaying route the plane took while trying to diagnose the problem. I’ll explain the turns and orientation later.
Immediately after landing, the pilots were concerned that sparks from the impact and friction might have touched off a fire under the plane’s wing. The passengers had been warned to brace before landing, and afterwards many of them told reporters how frightened they had been.
Here is why I mention the incident, apart from gratitude for the no-injury outcome: To give an illustration of the calm, supremely competent, unrattled, cooperative professionalism of the people who have made modern airline travel as safe as it is. You’ll be able to hear a sample for yourself.
My wife, Deb Fallows, and I have frequently written about the temperamental example set by the men and women who operate the nation’s air-traffic system. For instance this, by me, about an episode at Denver’s Centennial airport. And this and this by Deb, about the specialized language of the skies.
Decades ago, in his book The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe, made fun of the hyper-cool-cat drawl that many airline pilots appeared to have modeled on Chuck Yeager. “Just a little bit of turbulence ” comes over the PA system, as the plane suddenly drops two thousand feet.
You’ll hear what genuine coolness-under-pressure sounds like in the clip above. The nine-and-half minute compilation, via our friends at LiveATC.net (and with thanks to Ari Ofsevit and David Perry) is much of the back-and-forth between the pilots of Allegiant 2601 and the air-traffic controllers they are dealing with. I’ve appended the transcript below, but it’s much more powerful if you listen to it. Here are a few of the points in the drama to be aware of:
At the beginning of the recording, Allegiant 2601 is en route to landing on runway 33 Left at Logan airport. Runway numbers match the magnetic-compass heading of the runway. Runway 33, left or right, has a heading of 330 degrees—roughly north by northwest. The plane was traveling up the South Shore coast toward a straight-in landing.
Time 0:15 The Allegiant flight crew says “we need to go around.” As they prepare for landing, the pilots have discovered that the landing gear might not come down. “Go around” means aborting the landing and preparing for another approach. They’re vectored for the first turn you see, away from Boston and toward the southwest.
Time 1:10 The controllers ask how much time the crew will need to troubleshoot. They are wondering how they’ll fit the plane into the flow of other departing-and-landing traffic at their busy airport, and what kind of delaying route they need to allow for. The Allegiant crew guesses ten minutes. That leads to all the circling in the Framingham area that you see.
Time 2:05 “We need to declare an emergency,” from the Allegiant crew. This is a big deal. It means that the controllers are supposed to get other traffic out of the way in order to get the plane down safely.
Note two other aspects of this moment: How matter-of-fact the pilot sounds. And how the next information he relays, after declaring an emergency, is “We have a hundred and sixty souls on board.” You don’t want to have to tell that to the controllers—I’ve done it only once—but it’s the formula. (You’ll notice how formulaic in general air-traffic control exchanges are.)
Time 2:35 “We’re not going to be able to move once we get on the runway. We’re going to need the trucks rolled.” “The trucks” are the fire-fighting and rescue equipment every commercial airport has on instant call. The pilot is preparing for a gear-up landing. Notice his tone, and the controller’s. The controller’s response is a flat, “Roger, we will notify.” A few minutes later, around time 5:05, another controller says, “All the trucks and equipment are waiting for you.”
Time 3:30 The pilot says, “We need 33 Left as soon as you can.” The controller asks, “Did you say, As soon as you can?” The answer: “Affirmative.” Neither elaborates, or needs to.
The next few minutes are the controllers routing the Allegiant flight back to the airport, clearing other planes out of the way, and setting up the landing.
Time 6:55 after the hard but safe landing, the pilot asks the ground controller for the fire-and-rescue crew to do “a drive-by of the aircraft” to see whether its right side is on fire.
Time 8:00 and onward: the pilot confirms that the 160 souls on board are ready to get off by the emergency air-stairs. “We’ll take care of you, sir,” a controller say. Then the controllers begin routing other planes at Logan to a different runway: “All aircraft can work on your numbers for runway nine. It is the only open runway that we have.”
I don’t mean to idealize or romanticize people in these occupations, who have the same flaws all of us do. But listen to the way they did their work—all of them fully aware that 160 souls were at stake. It is admirable, to put it mildly, and worth notice.
A transcript of the recording, produced via the Otter system I mentioned yesterday (but requiring more clean-up than the example I provided — and I haven’t cleaned up everything), is below. The time stamps are within a few seconds, one way or another, of what you’d hear in the recording above. The recording skips past parts of the flight but has all the crucial moments.
Allegiant 2601 00:02
Good morning Allegiant 2601 ILS 33 left.
Boston Tower 00:05
Twenty six zero one Boston Tower. Good morning. Runway 33 left, continue. One or two departures prior to you.
Allegiant 2601 00:11
Continue, Allegiant 2601.... Tower, Allegiant 2601, we need to go around and shoot a problem.
Boston Tower 00:21
Allegiant 2601 fly the runway heading and climb and maintain 3000
Allegiant 2601 00:27
Runway heading, 3000, Allegiant 2601.
Boston Tower 00:36
Allegiant 2601, turn left heading two-niner-zero for now.
Allegiant 2601 00:41
Heading two nine zero, Allegiant 2601
Boston Tower 00:44
Allegiant 2601 turn left heading 240, maintain 3000 contact Boston departure, 133 point zero.
Allegiant 2601 00:53
Two four zero, 3000. Say the frequency again?
Boston Tower 00:56
133 point zero
Boston Departure 00:59
Allegiant 2601 Boston
Allegiant 2601 01:01
Go ahead for Allegiant 2601
Boston Departure 01:04
Boston departure, radar contact. Climb and maintain 4000.
Allegiant 2601 01:06
4000, Allegiant 2601
Boston Departure 01:07
26 01 How long do you think you'll need to troubleshoot?
Allegiant 2601 01:14
Say that again. Allegiant 2601
Boston Departure 01:19
How long do you think you'll need to troubleshoot?
Allegiant 2601 01:32
About ten minutes possibly for Allegiant 2601.
Boston Departure 01:35
Allegiant 2601 turn right heading 350.
Allegiant 2601 01:35
Right turn 350 Allegiant 2601.
Boston Departure 01:38
Allegiant 2601 climb and maintain 6000.
Allegiant 2601 01:41
Climb and maintain 6000 Allegiant 2601.
Boston Departure 01:43
Allegiant 2601 turn left heading 360.
Allegiant 2601 01:48
Left turn 360 Allegiant 2601.
Allegiant 2601 02:00
Boston Departure 02:01
2601 go ahead.
Allegiant 2601 02:03
We have to declare an emergency. We have a hundred and, uh, sixty souls on board. Forty-five hundred pounds of fuel. We have a right main landing gear indication that there is not down and locked.
Boston Departure 02:18
Allegiant 2601 roger. Do you want to return to the airport at this time?
Allegiant 2601 02:23
Boston Departure 02:24
Allegiant 2601 turn left heading one five zero.
Allegiant 2601 02:28
Left turn heading 150. Allegiant 2601.
Allegiant 2601 02:36
Approach, Allegiant 2601.
Boston Departure 02:39
Allegiant 2601 02:40
We're not going to be able to move once we land on the runway. We're going to need the trucks rolled.
Boston Departure 02:45
Allegiant 2601, roger. we will notify.
Allegiant 2601 02:57
Approach Allegiant 2601.
Boston Approach 03:01
CAIR 978 [Cape Air] you can expect to go for a ride. There is an aircraft inbound with some landing gear issues it's going to be in front of you.
CAIR 978 03:11
CAIR 978. Roger.
Boston Approach 03:26
Allegiant 2601 you up on my frequency yet?
Allegiant 2601 03:29
Yes sir Allegiant 2601 at 6000. we need 33 Left as soon as you can.
Boston Approach 03:36
Allegiant 2601 did you say as soon as you can?
Allegiant 2601 03:39
Boston Approach 03:40
Allegiant 2601 turn left heading 120, descend and maintain 5000.
Allegiant 2601 03:45
Left 120, 5000. Allegiant 2601.
Boston Approach 03:48
CAIR 978 change of plans. Aircraft need to come in ASAP. You can turn right heading 060. I'll have further instructions here in a minute.
CAIR 978 03:56
060, CAIR 978
Boston Approach 04:06
Allegiant 2601, contact Final, 126.5, you're gonna get no delay.
Allegiant 2601 04:13
Twenty-six five, Allegiant 2601.
Boston Final 04:27
Zero one, Boston approach, roger. Descend and maintain 4000
Allegiant 2601 04:30
4000, Allegiant 2601
Boston Final 04:40
Allegiant 2601 fly heading 090
Allegiant 2601 04:42
Heading 090, Allegiant 2601
Boston Final 04:42
Allegiant 2601 would you like to set up for the localizer--correction, the ILS 33 Left? Or do you want a visual.
Allegiant 2601 04:53
Visual's fine. Allegiant 2601
Boston Final 05:01
Allegiant 2601 all the trucks and equipment are waiting for you.
Allegiant 2601 05:04
Allegiant 2601 05:06
Allegiant 2601, field in sight.
Boston Final 05:07
2601 you say you have the field in sight?
Allegiant 2601 05:07
Boston Final 05:13
Allegiant 2601 fly heading 070 cleared visual approach runway 330 Left.
Allegiant 2601 05:20
Cleared visual three three left, Allegiant 2601
Boston Final 05:27
Allegiant 2601contact Boston tower 134 point 05
Allegiant 2601 05:33
34-05, Allegiant 2601
Boston Tower 05:40
...continue following Embraer on a four mile final.
Allegiant 2601 05:42
Continue, Allegiant 2601
Boston Tower 05:49
Runway three three left, cleared to land.
Boston Tower 05:50
I'm sorry, Allegiant 2601, three three left, cleared to land.
Allegiant 2601 05:56
33 left, cleared to land Allegiant 2601.
Boston Tower 06:10
Allegiant 2601 it appears that your gear is down.
Allegiant 2601 06:10
Allegiant 2601 thank you sir.
Boston Tower 06:20
2601 it appears you landed. Do you need assistance right now?
Allegiant 2601 06:24
Not at the moment Allegiant 2601
Boston Tower 06:34
For the aircraft waiting in line the previous aircraft blew a tire on the runway. So they're disabled on the runway. So we're coordinating to work out another departure runway. Just everybody hold position there.
Allegiant 2601 06:50
Tower Allegiant 2601 01 . Could we have a drive by on the aircraft right side and see if there's any smoke?
Boston Ground 07:05
Engine five. You're on the right side of the aircraft right now. Can you see if there's any smoke on that side?
Boston Ground 07:19
The aircraft wants to know if there's any smoke on the right side.
Boston Ground 07:32
Thank you. And Allegiant 2601 Did you hear that?
Allegiant 2601 07:35
We did hear that. We would prefer air stairs from the normal departure door if CFR thinks that looks safe.
Boston Ground 07:47
The pilot says they'd prefer the air stairs on the normal door if that feels safe to you.
Allegiant 2601 07:59
CFR has their air stairs next to the aircraft. We're going to have a bunch of people deplaning. We're going to need escort to the terminal for the safety of the passengers.
Boston Ground 08:09
We will take care of you, sir. .
Allegiant 2601 08:20
My lead flight attendants are working on it at this time. We'll be opening here shortly. Yeah full souls on board is 160
Boston Tower 08:38
All aircraft can work on your numbers for runway nine. It is the only open runway that we have.