As planes fly faster and higher, it becomes harder for controllers to track their movements. Today only controllers have an accurate picture of air traffic. They use this information to guide pilots around potential problems. The pilots themselves have no way to independently confirm where they are in relation to all other flights. They must rely on controllers to tell them.
Labor Day weekend, 1986. Approach controller Walter White guides Aeromexico flight 498 in for a landing at Los Angeles International airport. The airspace around LAX is very tightly controlled. It is called the TCA, the terminal control area. As Aeromexico flight 498 closes in on the airport, Walter White sees a plane he does not expect on his radar.
“Ok, you are right in the middle of TCA, sir.”
Walter White hustles the small plane out of the controlled airspace,
“… and we run a lot of jets right through there at 3,500.”
but White does not realize that there is another plane dangerously off course.
“We should be able to see the ocean by now… Take a look at the map and see…”
The Piper Cherokee is cutting across the approach to LAX oblivious to the danger. The Aeromexico flight is just minutes from landing.
The National Transportation Safety Board questions Walter White about what he saw on his radar display.
“At any time, did you see the Piper Cherokee on your scope? – No, no sir! The Piper Cherokee was not displayed. It is my belief that it was not on my radarscope. But when investigators finally get the air traffic control radar records, they conclude the Piper should have been visible.
“He was looking at one, trying to keep it clear. And lost track of another one on the same altitude as the approaching Aermexico jet”
The collision over Los Angeles drew attention to weaknesses in the radar systems used by air traffic controllers and led to some much-needed improvements.
“Intruder is an automated program that is now incorporated in all our major radar facilities. That if an aircraft should inadvertently intrude, the controller will now be given a visual in an oral alert, this giving him time to override a timely warning to the pilot.
After the collision over Los Angeles, radar systems at the airport were upgraded.