February 8, 2011

New partnerships for InvestigateWest

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InvestigateWest teamed up with KING 5 TV, producing an in-depth look at air safety in the skies over Washington state.

The story might open your eyes next time you drag that carry-on aboard the plane. On average, more than 150 close calls are happening every day, KING’s Jim Forman reported. 

A pilot and co-pilot operating on three hours’ sleep start taking a wrong turn – right into the path of another aircraft – after lifting off from Boeing Field in Seattle, InvestigateWest’s Robert McClure reported.  Quick work by an air traffic controller averts disaster over the state’s largest population center.

Reporting by both Forman and McClure found that NASA’s reporting system, designed to identify and prevent problems, also serves as a sort of “get out of jail free card” for reporting pilots and controllers.

“If you cause a car crash, drivers can’t get off the hook simply for admitting fault. But in the case of pilots or other air safety professionals, if they are willing to admit they were in the wrong, the FAA won’t hold the report against them,” Foreman reported. “It also waives fines and penalties including the most serious — revoking a pilot’s license.”

Part one of Forman’s report includes a video presentation with special graphics highlighting the risks posed by near-miss collisions. Part two of the report focuses on the most congested airspace over Washington state.

InvestigateWest’s story was also co-reported based on data work performed by Kevin Crowe of the Watchdog Institute of San Diego, and with important assistance from our intern reporter Will Graff of Western Washington University. Other reporting organizations, also are contributing to similar reporting work in different regions of the country. InvestigateWest’s story also was published by The Spokesman-Review, with addtional reporting from McClure on problems in the Spokane aviation community.

What was interesting was that everywhere we looked, we found problems. But as several officials we interviewed said, it’s better to have the air safety system’s problems identified and reported than swept under the rug. Think about it as your cramming that carry-on into the overhead next time. Or not. Maybe just watch the movie.

InvestigateWest’s story also ran in The Spokesman-Review, for which we did addtional Spokane-centric reporting, which included telling the story of Larry Sundholm of Spokane. Last July, the electrical system on the Lancair 320 he was flying started cutting out while he was preparing to land at Felts Field in Spokane.

With another plane already on the runway, the controller instructed Sundholm to circle around and come back. He started to go around, but then his electrical system went completely dead. It was a close call that resulted in a hard landing.

Other partners in a national partnership was part of a  collaboration by members of the Investigative News Network who dug out stories found in NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System, a collection of thousands of safety incidents anonymously reported by pilots and others in aviation.

Other partners include:

National Public Radio: Investigation scrutinizes safety of flight automation

WisconsinWatch.org: Aviation database reveals frequent problems at airports

The New England Center for Investigative Reporting: Breakdown: Air safety snarls spell trouble in Massachusetts

The Watchdog Institute of San Diego: Anonymous reports of close calls in the air and on the ground are meant to prevent calamities

The Rocky Mountain Investigative News Network: Colorado air traffic concerns soar

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