This could have been a catastrophe. How the aviation world will try to learn from it.
Great summary- thanks so much. Would it be possible to follow up later and tell us when the NTSB concludes what really happened (why did the 3 pilots turn the wrong way?)? So often we hear only when the event happens and not later when the investigation is concluded. Thanks
Thanks for an astute presentation of the facts (even though disoriented a bit at the first attempt). I'm late to commenting but read each version when it was fresh, and the underlying realities are unchanged and enhanced by the contributions of other readers.
I had an unmentioned reaction when I followed this timeline as presented which can be summarized by the following: Why is it that major airports - as well as airliners themselves - do not have automated monitoring of ground traffic such that incursions like this would have been caught at the instant the AA airliner turned in the wrong and dangerous direction? I would think this would have been a relatively easy and yet valuable test of machine learning in a standalone context. In the 90's I worked with road traffic engineers who were developing the first generations of tools that would identify anomalous and/or dangerous traffic flows in dense cities and they were already able to detect accidents within a minute of the event without any direct data, and these aircraft are certainly transmitting position, orientation, speed, and acceleration constantly.
That said, I am also reminded that airport management, like military tactics and medical procedures, are high stakes environments where "change" and "innovative" are often faced with high barriers called "tried-and-true" and "legacy". Earlier today I received an invitation to read a new study regarding the potential interference of 5G cellular signals with legacy radio altimeters on older aircraft whether commercial or not. Here is the conclusion they reached last year:
"The results presented above highlight the need for performing multi-path, site-specific
analysis of radio wave propagation including multi-path effects in order to accurately
assess the degree to which 5G fundamental emissions may interfere with radar
altimeters. This analysis is especially important to allow the safe activation of 5G
base stations in formerly restricted zones given that radar altimeters which are acutely
susceptible to out-of-band interference remain deployed on aircraft at the beginning of
Just as many people dismissed the potential impact of Y2K-related software bugs, these matters may seem marginal but require significant verification before entering service with confidence. The absence of a catastrophe is not evidence of time poorly spent...
... which led me to contemplate the skies filled with unmanned drones carrying Amazon parcels, the first generation of e-VTOL taxis connecting airports with urban centers, and eventually personal craft flying out of parking lots and private backyard pads... with an AI-enabled overwatch, of course.
Reliability and resilience testing of that should be a breeze, right?
I was surprised to read that the American aircraft continued its flight to London. Presumably the company decided this for the convenience of the passengers and investigators can wait. But did the captain (or pic) make the requested phone call?
Can we talk about how abominably non-standard ATC radio phraseology is at JFK? There are a lot of factors at play in this incident -- and this is one that’s easy to fix.
Crappy, lax, high-speed, heavily-accented, non-standard JFK r/t -- especially on Ground -- has been internet comedy for decades (“Kennedy Steve”) but it’s not funny anymore.
Where was the read back-hearback in the taxi clearance? Can’t tell. The comms are a mess.
Jim—long time reader of yours but first time commenter.
Sounds like you need to give the PMDG 737 in Microsoft Flight Simulator a try and practice some rejected takeoffs! I’d love that article!
Interesting; the plot thickens. Questions: Among large airports is there much variation in the complexity of the taxi runway networks? Do the authorities keep track of all pilot taxiway errors? Are they more likely to happen at different times of the day or in other variable conditions?
Wow. Frighteningly fascinating. And yet, I know that commercial flight is far safer than automobiles.
Your interest in this stuff is contagious.
Great recap, Jim. What jumps out at me (again) is how serious the aviation industry is about performing postmortems - even when no metal is bent and nobody is hurt! As you say, we will learn from this, and some minor change to procedure or technology will result. We have certainly adopted a near religious mindset of "Black Box Thinking" (Matthew Syed's phrase).
I can't help but think that is a key reason there were zero fatal accidents in 2022 for either US airlines or US-registered business jets. That is a truly staggering statement, but one we sort of take for granted. Many other industries - including, as you have so often written, the media - could learn from pilots.
Really, really appreciate your thoughtful analysis and the discussion it has generated.