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In 2003, a private plane was making its final approach to the Asheville Regional Airport, the only commercial airport serving the 17 westernmost counties of North Carolina.
The weather was good, and the pilot had a clear view of the runway. As the pilot maneuvered the plane toward the runway, a warning system came on and informed the pilot that another plane was within 300 feet. Without notifying the tower, the pilot took evasive maneuvers and avoided a collision.
“I really thought that I had no time to talk,” the pilot stated in a voluntarily filed report about the incident, one of 101 incidents at the Asheville Regional Airport chronicled in the Aviation Safety Reporting System database managed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and accessible online.
Each week nationwide, thousands of aviation incident reports are filed by pilots, air traffic controllers, flight attendants and others.
The database of incidents is available for anyone to search at http://asrs.arc.nasa.gov/search/database.html. The system has been heavily used since its inception, according to NASA. There were 400 reports filed monthly in the beginning. Now, more than 4,000 reports are filed each month.
Of the 101 incidents in the system related to Asheville Regional Airport, roughly half deal with the challenges of flying in the mountains. In several incidents, planes flew too close to the mountains, and in others, pilots had communications problems because of the terrain. Incidents in the online database for the Asheville Regional Airport go back to 1998.
By comparison, the Tri-Cities Regional Airport in Tennessee had 64 incidents in the database, and GSP International Airport in Upstate South Carolina had 102 incidents in the database.
Asheville Regional Airport spokeswoman Tina Kinsey referred all questions about flight safety and the database to the Federal Aviation Administration. The airport authority is only responsible for maintaining the physical parts of the airport like the hangar and runways but not the operation of aircraft, Kinsey said. But she added, “safety is number one in the industry for everyone involved.”
The Aviation Safety Reporting System was created in 1976 as a response to the crash two years earlier of TWA Flight 514, according to ASRS website. The pilot and co-pilot became confused on the proper approach to Dulles International Airport and crashed into a mountain, killing everyone on board.
As far back as World War II, the government has recognized the value of a voluntary reporting system. With the Aviation Safety Reporting System, people voluntarily report “unsafe occurrences and hazardous situations,” according to the ASRS website.
Despite the wealth of data gathered through the Aviation Safety Reporting System, the FAA, which regulates the airline industry, is not required to follow up on the reports.
“FAA reviews ASRS, along with data from dozens of other databases and reporting systems,” FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen said in a statement to Carolina Public Press. “But ASRS reports are not filed with the FAA, and we do not investigate each report. We do not use ASRS reports for statistical analysis because of the limitations of the data.”
This concerns some in the airline industry who believe the FAA should make better use of the system, according to an analysis earlier this year by National Public Radio.
Marty Kretchman, general manager at Landmark Aviation, which manages the private aircraft terminal at Asheville Regional Airport, said landing in Asheville is more challenging than other airports, but it is not as challenging as landing in the Rocky Mountains.
The tower, length of the runway and surrounding airspace make the approach to the airport less difficult, he said.
“I have not heard many complaints (from pilots),” Kretchman said.
A sampling of other incidents reported through the Aviation Safety Reporting System about occurrences at Asheville Regional Airport include:
- A pilot losing 1,500 feet of elevation because of a downdraft and nearly hitting a mountain.
- A plane window shattering in flight and the plane being diverted to Asheville.
- A pilot being upset that the towers at Asheville did not change his flight path after he entered a thunderstorm.
- A plane hitting a coyote on the runway during a landing.
- A pilot being confused about the proper approach to the airport.
- A pilot aborting a takeoff after another plane crossed the runway.
- A pilot deviating from the assigned flight pattern but being corrected by the tower.
- A pilot encountering visibility problems on approach to Asheville
- A plane experiencing a brief power failure after takeoff.
- A plane’s warning light coming on shortly after takeoff and the flight being diverted to Tri-Cities Regional Airport.
- A plane experiencing icing on the wings while approaching Asheville.
- A plane losing power in one engine after takeoff but being able to reignite engine.