Austin Encounter Highlights Importance of Two Pilots on the Flight Deck
By John Perkinson, Senior Staff Writer
From left: Capt. Werner “Sonny” Beyer (FedEx Express), F/O Robert Bradeen (FedEx Express), and NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy. Capt. Hugo Carvajal (FedEx Express) wasn’t present for the photo.
Year after year, North America continues to experience a significant number of runway incursions. In late August, the FAA reported 985 incidents so far this year. However, these incidents aren’t limited to the United States. The Transportation Safety Board (TSB) of Canada acknowledged that its rate of incursions has doubled in the last 12 years.
Runway incursions have been the topic of several recent conferences held by federal agencies seeking aviation industry stakeholder input to better understand the nature of this trend and consider new mitigation strategies. And during ALPA’s recent 67th Air Safety Forum, the event featured a panel discussion titled “Runway Safety: The First and Last Point of Contact.” Panelist Bridget Singratanakul, a runway safety representative with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), noted that there were 1,730 runway incursions recorded in 2022.
Given these alarming numbers, the U.S. aviation industry continues to address this matter, implementing new technologies, revisiting protocols and training, and fostering better communications among all parties involved. Kathy Fox, chair of the TSB of Canada, observed, “We’ve seen lots of work done by NAV CANADA, airports, air operators, etc., to implement administrative procedures, including changes to phraseology, procedures, and the designation of airport hot spots.” Yet, these kinds of events continue to occur.
U.S. NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy, attending an FAA runway safety summit last March, put it succinctly, saying, “The absence of a fatality or an accident doesn’t mean the presence of safety.”
First and foremost, safety must be priority number one. Given the complex nature of aviation and the consequences of experiencing operational failures, having backup systems is essential. Redundancies are standard operating procedure in aircraft system design and imperative to the safety of any flight.
Having two experienced, well-trained, and properly rested pilots on the flight deck is the most important component of airline safety. Despite the remarkable developments in technology, two pilots continue to make a tremendous difference, detecting inconsistencies and irregularities and taking the necessary action.
Countless examples demonstrate the necessity of having two pilots on the flight deck, but a specific incident that occurred last winter further validates this.
Averting Potential Disaster
On the morning of Feb. 4, 2023, FedEx Express Flight 1432 departed Memphis, Tenn., enroute to Austin Bergstrom International Airport in Texas. The NTSB’s Aviation Investigation Preliminary Report indicated the weather in Austin at the time of the incident was low instrument flight rules with calm winds, visibility at a quarter of a mile, freezing fog, vertical visibility of 200 feet, and a temperature of 33.8 degrees Fahrenheit.
“I was the pilot monitoring,” said F/O Robert Bradeen (FedEx Express) in an interview ALPA conducted. “The captain [Hugo Carvajal] was flying because we were set up for a CAT III autoland ILS due to the low visibility.”
According to the NTSB report, the FedEx pilots made contact with the tower at 6:34 a.m., indicating they were on approach to Runway 18L. The controller then cleared them to land.
Four minutes later, the pilots of Southwest Airlines Flight 708 were holding short of that same runway. The controller gave them a takeoff clearance while acknowledging that the FedEx aircraft was just three miles away.
The Southwest first officer confirmed the clearance, and the aircraft proceeded onto the runway where it came to a complete stop. The captain transferred control of the aircraft to the first officer, who reportedly advanced the power, checked the engines, and released the brakes to initiate takeoff.
Bradeen remembered, “The captain and I both thought that was a bit tight given the visibility. So that’s why I queried [the tower] again to make sure we were still cleared to land, make sure we weren’t forgotten about.” The controller verified their clearance.
At 6:40 a.m., the controller asked the Southwest flightdeck crewmembers to confirm they were under way, and the captain replied, “Rolling now.”
Bradeen recalled, “I happened to look outside at just the right time and saw the silhouette of the Southwest airplane right where we planned to be touching down…. That’s when I called for the go-around.” The NTSB report noted that the FedEx aircraft was approximately 1,000 to 1,500 feet from the approach end of the runway.
“I was concerned that Southwest would take off and climb up into us, so I attempted to tell them to abort,” he said. “We executed our procedures, started our left-hand turn, and got vectors back around for a second approach, which was uneventful. Southwest continued their takeoff and continued onto their destination,” Cancun, Mexico, where they landed at 9:47 a.m.
Bradeen observed that the captain executed the go-around with “no questions asked.” He said that Carvajal never saw the Southwest aircraft but, nonetheless, provided a textbook example of why crew resource management is so important.
On the ground, the FedEx pilots consulted with ALPA and pilot representatives from the Air Safety Organization’s Pilot Assistance Group Critical Incident Response Program.
Meanwhile, the NTSB acted quickly to initiate its investigation with the FAA, FedEx Express, Southwest Airlines, ALPA, the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, NATCA, Boeing, and Honeywell Aerospace participating. Among the team of investigators, Capt. Ian Carrero (FedEx Express) is the party coordinator for ALPA.
The board organized participants into groups to study the operation at the time, the weather, air traffic control, human-performance issues, and the flight data recorder. The FAA shared Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) and audio recordings.
In its preliminary report, the NTSB indicated that the FedEx B-767 was beginning to turn left at 1,900 feet at the departure end of the runway while the Southwest B-737 was about 1,000 feet below it, beginning to turn right from the runway heading. Fortunately, there were no injuries to the two pilots and the jumpseater on board the FedEx flight or the 123 passengers and five crewmembers on the Southwest aircraft.
Austin Bergstrom International Airport doesn’t have ground-surveillance radar, which would have enabled the controller to better track the Southwest aircraft. Currently, only 35 airports in the United States have this equipment.
“It was obviously a startle event,” said Bradeen. The FAA has defined the startle effect as “an uncontrollable, automatic reflex that is elicited by exposure to a sudden, intense event that violates a pilot’s expectations.” This experience can sometimes impair information-processing performance, negatively influencing the pilot’s decision-making abilities. In this instance, Bradeen acted quickly.
When queried about flight deck instrumentation that might have alerted him to the presence of the airplane ahead, Bradeen noted, “TCAS is inhibited low as you come into approach so that it doesn’t get triggered by aircraft sitting on taxiways next to the runway…. It’s primarily up to the pilots looking outside to see any threats on the runway.”
At an NTSB roundtable in May, Homendy, referencing the incident, commented, “As stated in our preliminary report, two crewmembers were on the flight deck of the FedEx plane—two crewmembers who I believe prevented a disaster from occurring in Austin that day.” She continued, “Those two crewmembers are heroes in my book.”
Meanwhile, runway incursions continue. Twelve days after the Austin incident, an Air Canada Rouge A321 was cleared for takeoff on Runway 14 at Sarasota Bradenton International Airport in Florida at the same time an American Airlines B-737 was cleared to land on it. On August 11, a Cessna Citation 560X on approach overflew a Southwest B-737 preparing to takeoff at San Diego International Airport in California.
“We’re experiencing the safest period in aviation history, but we don’t take that for granted,” said Billy Nolen, then acting FAA administrator. “Recent events remind us that we can’t become complacent.”
Recalling the Austin encounter, Bradeen agreed with Homendy, stating, “I think that it’s absolutely fair to say that if there hadn’t been two experienced, rested, and trained pilots on the flight deck that day, it would have been a very different outcome to that situation.” The 131 individuals aboard these two flights who survived the encounter are proof positive.