As Good As It Gets Without Video: James Fallows on the Airport Near-Miss in Austin

I love flying. Airports, save for the people whose behavior I’d deplore if I saw it in a grocery store let alone when I’d paid many hundreds of dollars to be stuck in their proximity, are some of my favorite places.

I risk the annoyance of being the guy who needs to ask his row-mates to get all the way up to let him up to go to the restroom because I don’t want to miss the window view: Sure, the quick trip to cover great distances is nice and all, but, for me, the ticket price is all about the view. Oh, and ginger ale at 30,000 feet.

I just never tire of it. A little boy’s infectious enthusiasm for it, I’ve been told. I particularly love take-offs and landings, when the ground is close and able to impart some scale for just how fast you’re going at that moment. On take-off, it’s that feeling of lightness in the instance you realize you’ve beaten gravity. On a landing, it’s the sway and wobble and eventual glide just before touch-down, where you can really feel the pilot’s presence.

James Fallows, long (and still) of The Atlantic, in his wonderful newsletter, Breaking the News, writes on various topics, but one seems to crop up as much as any other and it seems purely a function of his own love of the subject: flying. He’s an accomplished pilot.

But in his most recent edition, he wrote about the near-miss at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, where a landing FedEx jet and a departing Southwest jet got seemingly contradictory directions from the tower, the message for each seeming to be “You got it. It’s all you. You’re good to go.”

If you’re thinking, “Wait…that can’t be right. Because that would mean…” You’re right. They almost crashed. In the fog, barely off the ground in Texas, it was almost very bad.

They were 100 feet from colliding into one another in the air.

The result could have been catastrophic, but instead, it was merely remarkable. As in, what the FedEx crew did was incredible. And also confounding, as in how this got to the point of near-tragedy is a bit of head-scratcher.

Fallows walks readers through a play-by-play of the actual air traffic communications between the three parties, as seen in a YouTube clip that contains the all-important few minutes (I’ve included the video here in case you don’t make it click on the link to Fallows’ write-up).

Fallows decodes and essentially annotates what is depicted in the recording, and I don’t know what it was about it, but to me, it read like a thriller. I was so invested in what was happening, and I felt so thankful for his commentary and guidance on it.

Just a sample:

Time 0:11, FedEx: The FedEx plane makes its inbound call. The crucial information it conveys, and the tower confirms, is that it is on a “Cat III ILS” approach to Runway 18 Left in Austin.
Cat III is essentially an auto-land procedure. Precise signals from beacons on the runway guide the plane (via its autopilot) all the way down, even through fog so thick that pilots never see the ground.

Time 0:20, Tower: The Austin controller clears the FedEx plane to land. He gives them “RVR” readings — Runway Visibility Range. They indicate that visibility is very poor.

Time 0:38, Southwest: Southwest announces that it is holding short of the same runway, and “we’re ready.” In aviation parlance this would mean: We’ve been through all the checklists and procedures, we’re all set to give it the gas and go.

In the video itself, it just reiterates why I have a relatively calm, cool, and collected way about me: I’m ultimately very trusting of the pilots on the assumption that they’re very good at what they do. And this FedEx crew only reinforced that. There’s a dissonance between how bad things could have been, how serious things were in the moment, and the utter calm which which the pilot talks, all the way through the short recording. It’s nothing short of amazing.