The Most Dangerous Airports in Texas
Flying is a safe way to travel, provided yu don’t take off or have to land.
“Coffee, tea, or milk?”
“We don’t have time for coffee, tea, or milk. We’re doomed.”
“Well, then, how about a martini?”
If memory serves, the cause of comedian Shelley Berman’s alarm was the wing outside his window—“a sheet of flame,” as he so desperately reminded the blasé stewardess. His famous comedy routine of the Fifties succinctly captured everyone’s implicit fears about airplanes and the pilots who flew them. (When today’s loudspeaker comes on, a generation of air travelers still remembers Berman’s pilot drawling, “Good aftahnoon, ladies and gennlemen. We’ll be fly in’ at an altitude of… uuuhhh… aww, I dunno… twenny thousand feet, thirty thousand feet…”)
Aircraft and pilots, however, have at least been subject to supervision by the Federal Aeronautics Administration since the Thirties, a system that ensures Berman’s fears will usually (not always, but usually) remain on the funny side of comedy. Airline mechanics, too, have long been certificated by the FAA. For most of the history of American commercial aviation, in fact, only one major factor in air safety escaped such scrutiny: the airports themselves. Not until 1973 were airports required to meet basic federal safety standards; until then, for all practical purposes, there just wasn’t any federal airport safety law.
Nor were the states falling all over themselves to do the job. Airplanes have been carrying passengers around Texas skies for a good half-century, but not until 1966 did the Legislature bestir itself to create the Texas Aeronautics Commission—and even then did not give the TAC any jurisdiction to enforce airport safety. Everything was left up to the hundreds of petty fiefdoms that comprise America’s private and municipal airport system. Some were conscientious, some weren’t; some were rich enough to be conscientious, some weren’t. Either way, the public flew into their airports.
One of the ablest airport managers, Austin’s Roy Bayless (president-elect of the American Association of Airport Executives, the national airport managers’ association), continues to doubt federal airport certification was needed. “We believe in the home rule concept,” he said. “We think we know what is needed better than the people at the federal level do. And the proof of the pudding is all around you: look at the New Federalism, where the federal government is trying to get out of all sorts of things.”
For decades airport managers and airline companies lobbied against federal airport certification bills that ALPA, the Air Line Pilots’ Association, supported. Not until the Nixon presidency was anything done. In the spare moments; between his dark deeds, Richard Nixon found time to take a personal interest in airport safety, and the Airport and Airways Development Act of 1970 was the result.
One special proviso, however, helped as much as anything Nixon did. The airline companies had always opposed federal airport safety standards because they knew the airports might finance the expensive changes by raising their landing fees. The 1970 act imposed an eight per cent tax on airplane tickets, put the money in an Airport Trust Fund, and arranged to pay for many of the newly required improvements with it. Once the airlines discovered that the public would foot the bill for airport safety, they relaxed.
Although the certification standards are riddled with enough compromises to make plain they are nothing more than minimums, they have forced reluctant airports to shape up or lose their air-carrier service altogether. A 1971 ALPA study of emergency crash, fire, and rescue equipment found that 203 of the 488 U.S. airports had inadequate emergency resources—some, like Laredo, had no equipment at all. Since the law went into effect in 1973 the FAA has required all airports to have safety equipment on the premises, and the equipment must be capable of reaching the scene of an accident within three minutes. (The rules do not take care of all foreseeable disasters, though, as a recent pair of crashes at Houston International has shown.)
Safety is a touchy word for airlines. Even in a knock-down-drag-out competition for routes, like the February TAC hearing on Rio Grande Valley air service that pitted Texas International against Southwest Airlines, neither combatant mentioned its respective safety records. “They just won’t air their safety laundry in public,” said TAC official Tony Bingelis. “It’s almost sacrilegious.”
Nevertheless, the airlines know safety is a problem—and so, especially, do the pilots. As the chairman of ALPA’s Airport Evaluation Committee for the past four years, Braniff captain William Alford is the closest thing to an expert on airport safety to be found in Texas. From his cluttered home office in a suburban section of Denton, surrounded by blackboards and filing cabinets, with horses grazing in the pasture outside his window, the graying, 55-year-old Alford drafts and critiques safety plans affecting airports all over the world. Every three months he flies to Montreal for meetings of ICAO, the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization, where he represents the world’s 56,000 pilots on the Obstacle Clearance Panel and the Visual Aids Panel. In the 65-nation International Federation of Airline Pilots, he chairs the Aerodromes and Ground Aids Committee.
“You might say the airline pilots have their foot against a door that has a lot of skeletons inside it,” Alford said. “This whole area is highly controversial. The airlines don’t really like for us to talk about it because we’re critical of specific airports.
“Texas has the world’s finest airport, as nearly perfect an airport as there is today. It also has some airports that we shouldn’t even be flying planes into. But I prefer to use the term ‘risk’ rather than ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe.’ It’s not perfectly safe to walk out your front door in the morning, or to drive down the freeway. What we’re talking about is not whether something is ‘dangerous’ or ‘safe,’ but what degree of risk it involves. We define safety as the art of decreasing risks to the air traveling public, and once you say that, you can say one airport is a higher risk than another, or that one is an unacceptable risk, and so forth.”
A few airports, like the one in Santa Fe, New Mexico, ALPA has anathematized as “unacceptable” because of bad runways or other problems. When they fall under the pilots’ ban, air service promptly stops; the pilots don’t mess around. Other airports, like Los Angeles International and Washington National, are near the top of the “high risk” list. At Los Angeles, noise-restrictions force planes to land and take off over the ocean regardless of wind conditions. Incoming and outgoing planes simultaneously using the two parallel runways pass in opposite directions only a short distance apart, a potentially deadly situation in bad weather. At Washington, noise restrictions and obstacles force planes to follow the Potomac until they are practically at the airport, where they must then make a steep turn at low altitude and low speed. For years, the pilots have contended that National should be turned into a park and its air traffic diverted to Dulles Airport, probably the country’s second-safest after Dallas-Fort Worth. But Congressmen who cherish the ten-minute proximity of National to their Capitol Hill offices will have none of that. So the risk remains.
It remains even at Dulles, of course, as the fatal December 1 crash of a TWA jet so pointedly reminded air travelers. Evidence in that mountainside crash points to confusion on the part of both the pilot and the air controller, both of whom assumed that the other had checked the approach path for obstacles. But the airport itself—supersafe Dulles—was a contributing factor. While readily admitting the human failings that caused the accident, Alford recalled past battles over airport safety there: “We have begged, we have pleaded to please put an instrument landing system [ILS] with vertical guidance on this runway to keep us out of the snow. Dulles says, ‘We have a low utility of this runway. It doesn’t warrant an ILS.’ They took the money we think they should have spent on it and used it on the terminal; they also built a motel up there and leased it out. That’s giving pretty low priority to that runway.” Ninety-two people died in the crash.
Less-than-ideal instrument landing systems are only one of the safety hazards that many of the fifteen or twenty major Texas airports have in common with Dulles. Now that FAA certification has required them to maintain emergency crash, fire, and rescue equipment, none of the major Texas airports is totally deficient on that count. But several other risks remain, which can be grouped into four general categories: navigable air space, approach aids, air control, and the condition of the runways.
• Navigable Air Space, or, Getting There is Half the Risk. This is the number one element. Is the runway approach pattern studded with tall buildings, power lines, or other obstructions? How much margin of error is left for evasive action in case of emergency? Do the surrounding communities strictly enforce their airport zoning ordinances?
• Visual and Electronic Approach Aids, or, Off We Go, Into the Wild Black Yonder. Does the airport have an instrument landing system (ILS) from each direction, or only from one end? Does it provide vertical guidance as well as horizontal? Nationally, only about half of the larger airports have ILS from each end; in Texas, the ratio is even lower. On landings in bad weather with low ceilings, how much electronic help does the pilot have?
• Air Control, or, Is That a T-38 I See Before Me? Are the air controllers understaffed or undertrained? Do military aircraft interfere with commercial flights?
• Runways, or Welcome—BUMP—to Hobby—THUD—Airport. Bad runways create a variety of risks. Are they long enough for safety even in hot weather, when jet engines are less efficient? Many things affect the adequacy of runway lengths: high altitudes, high temperatures, heavy loads on long-haul flights, larger aircraft, an upward runway gradient—all call for greater length. By any standard, most Texas runways are not a bit too long. What about the width? Is there room for maneuver under adverse conditions of cross winds, blowing wind, rain, snow, and ice? Are there paved shoulders to prevent a plane in trouble from slipping into the mud, and to reduce the likelihood that trash will be sucked into the jet engines, a major cause of engine failure? Are the runway surfaces grooved to counteract hydroplaning and skids like those your automobile experiences on a slippery highway during a rain? Are the pavements themselves smooth or rough? A rough runway actually causes far more vibration and metal fatigue to an airplane than does turbulence aloft; since 1958, at least 23 airplanes have come “unglued” in flight, and a study of the metal fatigue in each accident indicated the plane had been subjected to harsh, hostile runway surfaces. Rough runways can also produce aerodynamic problems, causing the plane to bounce into the air prematurely with the risk that it will thud back down to the runway because it lacked sufficient air speed.
These risks exist at Texas airports right now, though in varying degrees. They become more acute under bad flying conditions, or when emergencies occur—as, statistically, it is certain emergencies will. Even though air travel is a good bit less risky than, say, skydiving, it is riskier than it has to be.
An airport manager like Roy Bayless does not deny that these risks exist. But when improvements are made, he and his fellow managers must find a way to pay for them, and that is something they do not enjoy doing. The burden can sometimes be heavy: a typical ILS without lights costs $25,000. The FAA will pay 82 per cent of the cost of fire equipment, but the local airport must pay the firemen’s salaries. Caught between those who want the risks reduced—the FAA and the pilots—and municipal owners who don’t want to raise taxes or landing fees to pay for reducing them, it is easy for managers to dream of a New Federalism that will make the pressures diminish.
An obvious alternative—state government aid for safety improvements—has been largely ignored in Texas. The TAC has only $600,000 a year to hand out, in chunks no larger than $50,000, and it is prohibited by law from giving anything at all to airports in cities larger than 75,000 population. Nor is the TAC in any hurry to take on airport safety responsibilities. “Government has gone so far in the safety business that some people would probably say kitchen knives ought to be abolished,” said TAC Airport Facilities Supervisor Bingelis, cheerfully speculating that such thoughts might qualify him as an anarchist. “You can’t eliminate every danger by law, so where do you draw the line? It all comes down to a question of economics.”
So it does. But the airline passenger several hundred feet above terra firma on a wet and blustery night has his mind on something besides economics… or a martini. At Texas airports he faces certain known risks. Whether it is worth it for a city to pay to change them is, admittedly, another question.
But these are the airport risks at the fifteen busiest Texas cities:
ABILENE: Abilene Municipal Airport
102 passengers per day; ranks 15th. Medium risk.
Abilene is really two airports in one: a 6000-foot north-south runway for private planes (general aviation) west of the terminal, and a parallel 7199-foot runway for commercial aircraft to the east. On instrument approaches from the south, however, only 6036 feet of the main runway are usable because the pilot’s glide slope must clear obstructions. Two sets of high wires pose slight additional risks at the south end—not enough to affect Abilene’s good approach ratios, but a potential hazard to planes that veer even slightly off course.
For some reason the area south of the airport has proved attractive to builders of broadcast towers; four towers ranging, in height from 755 feet to 1100 feet protrude on either side of the southerly ILS approach pattern, making it imperative for the pilot to be perfectly aligned as he comes in. If everything is working right, he is in no trouble; if not, there is little margin for safety.
On the ground, Abilene’s excessively rough, ungrooved, asphalt runways have drawn many complaints.
AMARILLO: Amarillo Air Terminal.
486 passengers per day; ranks 8th. Low-to-high risk, depending upon conditions.
From the pilots’ viewpoint, Amarillo is (with two glaring exceptions) an outstanding airport: a “classic and beautiful operation.” From the air controllers’ viewpoint, however, it can be a nightmare if the wind is blowing from the south—as it usually is.
The airport’s principal 13,500-foot runway is shared with the Amarillo Air Base. The runway is 300 feet wide—double the usual width—and composed of deep, high-quality concrete, although grooving on at least the middle third of the runway is needed.
“If some kind of emergency arises on board an airplane,” said Alford, “Amarillo is an excellent alternate airports. With its good instrument landing system and these fine runways, it has everything—even if every other airport in the country is closed. Of course, the military provided this; the city of Amarillo gets to take advantage of it.”
The two glaring exceptions, however, make one wonder how vital air safety decisions get made. Squarely at the southwest end of the runway, practically within throwing distance on either side, two huge grain elevators have been erected. These prime candidates for the Most Preposterous Obstacles facing Texas air travelers were built after the airport, and are a direct result of inadequate zoning ordinances. As even those who love the Panhandle most will admit, it is exceptionally well-blessed with other empty spaces equally suitable for grain elevators.
These unusual features prevent Amarillo from qualifying for the so-called “Category II,” bad-weather instrument approach that a few of the country’s largest airports have. “The reason we can’t have it there,” said Alford, “is that the obstructions on each side are higher than the 103 feet they let us down to. If you’re in a canyon down between them and anything fails—the mechanical element or the human—you’re just going to clobber those grain elevators.”
The ILS, nevertheless, is aligned with the southwest approach, threading planes between the elevators. It is there because the military put it there, for reasons now lost in some obscure corridor of the Pentagon. Since the prevailing winds are from the south, commercial flights usually land from the northeast end of the runway without benefit of instrument landings. When they do, they may be in for an unwelcome surprise.
“The military uses this airport quite a bit for training on instrument approaches,” said Robert Conditt, regional vice-president of PATCO, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization and an air controller himself since 1955. “They bring in these little T-38s on the ILS, and the student pilots are supposed to change radio frequency and contact the tower before they reach the outer marker. The tower is supposed to have them in sight by the time they reach the outer marker.
“Well, I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to spot a T-38—it’s such a tiny thing, like a gnat, especially head-on to you. Even with the landing lights on, the controllers have been having a hard time seeing them at the outer mark of vision—and here they’ve got the commercial aircraft coming in from the opposite direction. Since these are student pilots they sometimes forget to change frequencies, or they change to the wrong frequency—it’s happened before. So there they are, out of nowhere, just barreling right on down the runway toward the other aircraft coming in for its final approach, and the tower can’t even talk to them. It can really get hairy sometimes.”
Assuming you miss the grain elevators and the T-38s, though, Amarillo’s new, strikingly attractive terminal building is as nice a place as any in Texas to arrive.
AUSTIN: Robert Mueller Municipal Airport.
861 passengers per day; ranks 5th. High risk.
Austin possesses one of the state’s real air travel problems, a cramped, dangerous airport that has no business being where it is.
Like National Airport at Washington, D.C., Austin’s airport is so close-in and convenient that the city fathers have been reluctant to face the obvious: it is becoming less safe by the day.
As practically every local motorist knows, airplanes landing from the northwest clear Interstate 35 at altitudes low enough to check the tread on their tires. The elevation a few hundred yards northwest of the airport is 85 feet above runway-level, and high wires along the Interstate increase the risk. The “antenna farm” on the high hills west of the city is safely aside any normal approach, but to the northwest scattered towers rising four and five hundred feet above the runway elevation are not so easily ignored.
In cool, north-wind weather, takeoffs to the northwest are required. On such days, even clear ones, the risk factor rises. “If an airplane, say a two-engine 737, lost one engine on take-off at Austin—which it can certainly be expected to do eventually—can it climb out above these obstacles?” asked Alford. “Or say it’s a calm, hot day, when the wind direction doesn’t matter, and you’ve got a heavy load. It’s harder to take off in hot weather. If you lost an engine, could you even clear those high lines?
“The pilot is confronted with this technical risk. We say, ‘No, we could not,’ and so we forecast that trouble can happen in Austin because the airport zoning ordinance has not provided us with clear zones, overrun areas, and safety areas. It’s a high-risk, hazardous environment. Why, there are houses just across the road.”
Similar problems afflict Austin’s other runway, a short north-south strip. Using it, a plane landing short or faltering on takeoff could come down squarely in the middle of the Capital Plaza shopping center. The south end of the main runway has different hazards all its own. The approach pattern brings planes in over a golf course, a very safe, clear way except for a deep gully near Manor Road. “If,” said Alford, “my brakes fail and I slide off the end of the runway there, or if something else happens which history tells us does sometimes happen, we’re going to slide through that road. And the gully, that’s very deep. If an airplane ever hits it, landing or taking off, you’ve got a fatal crash.
“It’s asking a lot of a community to keep this type of gully out of the transverse areas. But we’re worried about it because we kill so many people, historically, in those areas. At the DFW Regional Airport we have a few, but we’ve kept them in locations where we have, say, 2500 feet off the ends of the runway before we would hit one; so we have a lower risk there compared to Austin.”
The-standard approach ratio for airports is 50-1; the safest, like DFW, can be as much as 100-1. Anything worse than 40-1 is relatively rare at a good airport. But only one of Austin’s run ways is that good; the rest are 23-1, 17-1, and 15-1, an average poorer than that of any other major Texas airport except Dallas’ Love Field.
Austin’s 150-foot-wide runways are relatively short. When the University of Washington football team arrived in a DC-8 to play the Longhorns, they landed all right; but they could not get out again without leaving their fuel tanks partially empty and stopping in Denver to refuel. The main runway, 7270 feet, has only 6270 feet of usable space past the point where instrument landings touch the plane down; the other one, 5006 feet, is so short that pilots must “tamp and cram” to get a 727 in. “You’re going to land low and slow,” said Alford. “When you hit the end of the runway you’re going to slap on your brakes and put the engines on; you’re going to have to be rough. The runways aren’t grooved, so if it’s slippery or wet you’ve got a high risk operation.” This process has been known to scare the bejeezus out of unsuspecting passengers.
Just as Amarillo has its grain elevators, Austin has its own special hazard: the main runway has a hump in the middle, preventing a pilot at one end from seeing what is at the other. Although in theory on a calm day two airplanes could take off from opposite ends of the field and find themselves meeting in the middle, the people in the control tower can be counted upon to avoid that particular disaster. Realistically, the main problem is the gradient slope caused by the hump, forcing a plane taking off to the northwest to accelerate uphill. Landing too can be a problem, since the hump makes the runway look higher than it is; the pilot, misled by the optical illusion, may pull his power off and drop in hard.
Austinites who are accustomed to arriving at their airport from the northwest may be surprised to know that that approach pattern lacks a complete instrument landing system; only the southeast approach, used when north winds prevail, has an ILS with vertical guidance. Roy Bayless, the airport manager who arrived from California about a year ago, says an ILS for the busy northwest approach “will be commissioned within the next few months.”
Bayless is concerned enough about the situation he inherited that he is cranking up a Master Plan Study to review the airport’s problems. One thing that study should consider is whether to abandon commercial air service into Mueller Airport and move the whole operation to nearby Bergstrom Air Force Base—something most outside observers consider long overdue. Like Amarillo, Austin has a convenient, little-used air base fifteen minutes from downtown; Bergstrom has a 12,250-foot runway, 300 feet wide. “And you notice,” said Tony Bingelis of the Texas Aeronautics Commission, “all the military are on the east side; the west side, nearest Austin, is completely open.”
If Mueller Airport is ever closed to commercial traffic, the fight will truly be on between the private pilots, who want to keep it open for general aviation, and Austin’s avaricious real estate developers, who dream hungrily of the subdivisions that could be carved out of that big grassy spot in the heart of town. Bingelis, a general aviation man himself, is not sanguine about the outcome. “If Austin ever does move—and it should—Bergstrom’s requirements would probably exclude some of the smaller, less expensive general aviation people. The rich could use Bergstrom, but a lot of other people might find Mueller gobbled up by the developers, and themselves without an airport.”
Meanwhile the old airport continues to be a high-risk situation, to the dismay of pilots. “Something needs to be done,” said Alford. “That airport needs to be closed to air carrier service. We just don’t want to operate in there.”
BEAUMONT-PORT ARTHUR: Jefferson County Airport.
169 passengers per day; ranks 12th. Medium-to-low risk.
Beaumont is a small, excellently managed airport six miles from the seacoast. The prevailing Gulf winds usually call for an approach from the northwest; the 6751-foot major runway, equipped with an instrument landing system from that direction, is deemed adequate for Beaumont’s short-haul service at sea-level elevations. Risks increase somewhat when the area experiences a norther or one of its frequent rainy spells: against a cold wind, planes must make an over-water approach without benefit of ILS vertical guidance, and when it rains the ungrooved runways are slippery. The northwesterly flight path provides excellent navigable air space, passing well south of the city of Beaumont; the only real hazard is one 140-foot building directly under the glide slope about a mile and a half from the runway. The southeasterly path crosses the city of Port Arthur, which is in no danger of obstructing anything.
BROWNSVILLE: Brownsville International Airport.
111 passengers per day; ranks 13th. High risk.
Until recently, visitors to the Brownsville airport had the disconcerting feeling that they had wandered onto the set for the final scene from the movie Casablanca. A terminal building straight out of the Thirties, plenty of empty space, and a tempo of activity considerably more relaxed than Fort Worth’s Amon Carter Field in its declining years all said we’ve-sure-seen-better-days-around-here.
Back when airlines touted bunk beds for overnight trips on their spiffy new DC-3s, Brownsville was the jumping-off place for flights to South America; Pan Am had a major overhaul base there. It reached its zenith in the Forties and went steadily downhill for the next 30 years. By the late Sixties, pilots regarded Brownsville as a very high risk: “The runways were old World War II concrete, designed without much structural strength for World War II weights,” said Alford. “They were in terrible condition, and you were just tearing up the airplanes, blowing tires, and everything else landing there.” ALPA was seriously considering putting Brownsville on the “unacceptable risk” list.
From these depths, Brownsville has bounced back with a major improvement program financed in part by federal Trust Fund money. The runways have been overlaid with asphalt which, though smoother, is still treacherously slippery during rains. Still in need of work are the narrow taxiways, some only 48 feet wide—just fine for those DC-3s, but hardly adequate for Boeing 727s. Sooner or later one of them is going to get stuck in the mud.
The Brownsville airport is tucked into a bend of the Rio Grande. Mexico is two to five miles away on three sides, and U.S. planes are not allowed to penetrate Mexican air space on approach. Under normal conditions this poses few problems, since the prevailing southeasterly winds cause most flights to land from the northwest on the main 7400-foot, ILS-equipped runway. On takeoff, however, planes must bank sharply left to avoid Mexico. And suppose you’re flying into Brownsville in January, right into the teeth of a norther. Any time the temperature gets down below 50 degrees, in fact, there will be north-northwesterly winds and planes will have to land from the south. To avoid crossing the international boundary your flight must circle to land, making a steep turn at low altitude and low speed. And your pilot will have no instrument aids to help him on that sort of approach, since the ILS requires a straight-line that would extend into Mexican air space; he’ll just have to eyeball your flight in. All in all, not the most relaxing way to arrive.
Even less relaxing is the thought that Brownsville’s air controllers are overworked and under-trained. About three years ago the FA A stopped training new air controllers, thinking they had enough, and when later events showed they’d guessed wrong, there was a national shortage of experienced personnel. Brownsville is the hardest-hit facility in Texas: despite a busy, 24-hour operation that combines a tower, approach control, and flight service station, Brownsville limps along without a single fully experienced air controller. Three journeymen controllers and two trainees handle the whole load, usually working a 60-hour week (instead of the normal 40 hours). “The FAA was very shortsighted in its staffing policies at Brownsville,” said Conditt. “I couldn’t believe they were working around the clock, seven days a week with such an inexperienced staff.”
CORPUS CHRISTI: Corpus Christi International Airport.
469 passengers per day; ranks 9th. Medium risk.
Corpus Christi is a well-managed airport equipped with an instrument landing system from the northwest. The principal obstruction—a 123-foot building less than two miles away and slightly to the right of the runway on this approach—becomes a relatively high risk in marginal instrument landing conditions. Despite a recent extension, the asphalt runways are shorter than they should be. All lack shoulders and grooves, increasing risks in that rainy area. The surfaces have deteriorated badly in the two years since they were overlaid; the taxiways also need repair.
A continuing risk at a coastal airport like Corpus is the presence of large flocks of sea birds; if ingested into a jet engine, they can cause it to explode.
DALLAS-FORT WORTH DFW: Regional Airport and Love Field.
16,580 passengers per day; ranks 1st. DFW: Low risk. LOVE: High risk.
DFW Regional Airport has the lowest risk of any airport in the United States, and very likely of any major airport in the world. Regardless of how exasperating it may be to passengers on the ground—and it richly deserves most of the harsh criticisms—DFW is an extraordinarily safe place to land. If your Airtrans car manages to let you off at the right station in time to catch your flight, your chances of an accident-free departure are higher at DFW than anywhere else.
One reason is that DFW was planned from the outset with the advice of the Air Line Pilots’ Association’s Airport Evaluation Committee, the first time that pilots had had a chance materially to affect an airport construction. Three-fourths of ALPA’s suggestions were adopted, of which the most obvious to the casual observer is the vast amount of uncluttered space on both ends of the runways. The FAA standards for climb-and-descent corridors call for an approach ratio of 50-1—meaning that for every 50 feet of horizontal surface starting 200 feet from the runway’s end, a potential obstruction may be no more than one foot high; a 100-foot high building would therefore have to be at least 5200 feet from the end of a runway. At DFW, that approach ratio was increased to 100-1; and, in addition, distances were measured not from the ends of the existing runways, but rather from the ends of the much longer runways which are planned for the future. The result is the most favorable navigable air space any land-approach airport has.
To go one step better, communities surrounding DFW have rezoned more than 4500 acres of land to prevent encroachment by subdivisions which might later insist on risk-creating noise restrictions.
Instrument landing systems have been installed on both of the principal runways, from both directions. The shorter, little-used crosswind runway has an ILS from the southeast. To give pilots advance warning of sudden wind changes near the ground—so-called “wind shear,” which can imperil an aircraft in the last few delicate seconds before touchdown—DFW has a wind sock at the end of each runway. (At New York’s JFK airport, for example, nine jets missed their approaches in one two-hour period when a 70-knot tailwind 300 feet above the ground sheared to a 10-knot headwind at the surface.)
“Wind is not a respecter of weather reports taken from the center of the airport,” said Alford, who participated in DFW’s design. “By hanging the sock on the end of the runways, a pilot can tell by its angle whether he has a downwind or a strong crosswind. And if it’s spinning or whipping, he’s immediately made aware of turbulence.” The extra wind socks are the seemingly simple kind of detail that makes DFW such a low-risk airport.
The runways themselves are far superior to other Texas airports except those which share facilities with a military base. The lengths (11,387 for the two N-S runways, 9000 for the cross-wind runway) provide enough space for the biggest contemporary jets to take off, and they can be increased to 20,000 and 13,700 feet when the need arises. They are 200 feet wide, grooved end-to-end and edge-to-edge, and equipped with broad shoulders. The ramps are designed to permit high-speed exits if unexpected dangers arise, and they too are fully grooved. Taxiways are 100 feet wide instead of the usual 75.
The lighting and sign system is the best in the country—something that may not seem particularly important unless one recalls the incident a couple of years ago when a jet aircraft actually got lost after landing at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, and eventually wandered back onto the runway where it was hit by an arriving plane.
Dear old Love Field, beloved Love Field, is not so fortunate. Convenient it surely is; but it belongs to another era. There is room—and need—for a second airport in Dallas; few big cities in this country or abroad try to limit themselves to only one. Dallas needs to keep Love Field; but there should be no mistaking the fact that its risks are higher than DFW.
Like Austin’s Mueller Airport, Love Field is a classic example of the way a city’s growth can encroach on navigable air space. Flights approaching from the southeast must fly above downtown Dallas, a veritable pincushion of tall buildings. The situation is not as bad as San Diego, where planes actually fly between the downtown buildings to reach the cramped airport; but it is bad enough. For years the city has had a zoning ordinance prohibiting buildings higher than 1049 feet above sea level (Love is at 487 feet), but new office towers were permitted to penetrate that height on the theory that DFW would be ready before they were. Today the First International building, 1194 feet above sea level, stands as a major menace to aviation just a mile to the left of Love Field’s southeastern approach.
Other obstructions closer to the runway rival Amarillo’s grain elevators for sheer inexplicability. Along the already-perilous southeast approach, one of Love’s two parallel runways is further threatened by the Coca-Cola Bottling Company building and the 208-foot Park Cities water tower, squarely in the path of oncoming planes a short distance from the runway’s end. The pilot must stair-step his aircraft down to clear the tower; the entire situation prevents Love from having an ILS on that runway at all, although the second runway, a half-mile farther west, does have an ILS. Pilot approach charts warn of trees, poles, and signboards at various perilous locations near Love Field, but the water tower remains the champion hazard. It is incredible that the Park Cities, which have derived so much benefit from the proximity of Love, should maintain their water tower where they do.
Until DFW opened, Love Field was in a perpetual state of repair and improvement. Historically it has been an unusually well-managed airport, and bad runways usually did not stay that way for long. “There were times,” said Alford, “when the runways were actually very high risks, and then the city would come in and overlay them and we’d have a safe operation for a long time. It’s been an up-and-down thing. By the time the air carriers moved out, the runways had been grooved and repaired. Love Field was probably in the best condition it had ever been in.”
Now that Southwest Airlines is the only commercial air carrier flying into Love, the decline in traffic has given the pavements a new lease on life. They are still subject to the natural destruction of the elements, however, and it remains to be seen whether Dallas will continue to maintain Love at the traditional standards.
Love’s runways are too short for the kind of long-haul flights now serving DFW, but their 8800-foot and 7754- foot lengths are more than adequate for Southwest’s fast-hopping Boeing 737s.
When the other airlines shifted their flights to DFW, the FAA decided to cut back the number of air controllers working at Love—a superficially sensible decision, but one which failed to take account of the sudden rise in noncommercial traffic there. “They’re just inundated by small aircraft now,” said Conditt. “Not just general aviation, but all sorts of training missions and pilot schools are operating out of Love now. The actual number of aircraft has probably increased, and the work load too, yet they’re doing it with fewer controllers. It’s a bad example.”
Strange-wind currents over Bachman Lake are another potential hazard at Love Field. Suppose your flight is landing from the northwest across the lake, which closely abuts the end of both runways. Wind from the opposite direction follows the surface of the land and shears downward at the bank of the lake, pulling the plane into what is known as “Bachman’s Bounce.” The gray-haired pilot with experience ordinarily compensates for this abrupt change, but the risk is always present. “Sometimes a pilot will ride the glide slope a little bit too high on purpose,” said Alford, “so when the wind sucks him down he’ll be right on target and outsmart it—hot dog flying, I’d call it. It’s a bad thing for the pilot to do under all conditions.”
The lake also adversely affects takeoffs to the northwest, a typical pattern during the colder months in Dallas. North winds can cause turbulence at the end of both runways, producing a “prerotation” in which a plane begins to lift off the runway too soon and is hit by down currents over the lake. “He may already have sucked his gear up,” said Alford, “and then he gets a settling. The prudent pilot will hold his gear extended until he gets past this little sick feeling over the lake. The main thing is just to be conscious it can happen.”
EL PASO: El Paso International Airport.
1440 passengers per day; ranks 4th. Low risk.
At an elevation of 3956 feet, El Paso’s airport is the highest major field in Texas. The combination of high elevation and intense summer heat thin the air and make long runways a necessity; the main one, which runs northeast-to-southwest, is 12,103 feet.
Air controllers consider El Paso International one of the region’s best- staffed airports.
Like Brownsville, El Paso is hampered by the prohibition against crossing into Mexican territory; since the border is only three to five miles away, the problem is unavoidable. In addition, unlike Brownsville, the city of El Paso lies directly beyond one end of the main runway, and planes are not allowed to fly over the city at low altitudes and slow speed. Suppose, then, that your pilot is bringing the plane in along the usual route from the northeast. He will start his approach at 4143 feet. If for any reason he makes a mis-approach, he must pull up in a steep left turn to 6500 feet to avoid passing over the city or the border, and in doing so, he must thread his plane between a tall terminal and the control tower along that path. “He’s supposed to climb above them before he turns, of course,” said one pilot, “but it’s kind of a tight fit.”
Why not turn to the right, then? Because little more than a mile away to the north is Biggs Air Force Base, a shadowy copy of El Paso International on the pilot approach charts but all-too-real a hazard for meandering commercial aircraft.
HARLINGEN: Harlingen Industrial Airpark.
104 passengers per day; ranks 14th. Medium risk.
“A nice, small, community airport,” said one pilot of Harlingen’s airport. Apart from routine maintenance, the main problem at Harlingen is the 162-foot water tower directly beside the main runway. It is unusual for structures that are actually part of the airport complex to protrude into the air space needed for safe operations; Harlingen’s zoning, however, unwisely permitted this particular hazard.
Harlingen provides an instrument landing system from the north but not from the south.
HOUSTON: Houston Intercontinental Airport and Hobby Airport.
7139 passengers per day; ranks 2nd. Intercontinental: high risk for international flights; medium risk for domestic flights. Hobby: high risk.
Houston’s Intercontinental may be a passenger’s delight compared to the frustrations of DFW, but its diverse array of safety hazards should be enough to give the most seasoned traveler pause.
Take the runways, for example. Built years before the terminal was opened, apparently without much thought to the kind of planes that might be using them, they are much shorter than DFW’s: 8000 and 9401 feet. That’s still plenty of room for short-haul aircraft, of course, but there is that nagging word, “intercontinental,” in the airport’s name. According to the FAA, a jumbo jet needs an 11,300-foot runway to take off safely at sea level with a full 710,000-pound load in hot (99°) weather. Those 747s will not be leaving Houston nonstop to Europe this summer; or if they do, it will only be accomplished by leaving about 77,000 pounds of passengers, freight, and fuel behind.
Then there is the problem of the surfaces. There has been speculation that the 8000-footer was badly designed or poorly constructed from the start; whatever the cause, it was a bad pavement: so rough that pilots felt it was damaging their aircraft. As a result it has been shut down completely for repairs, leaving Houston with only one runway, trying to pretend it is a major airport. (To Houston’s credit, a 1973 bond installment included money to improve this runway; it is now being completely overlaid with Portland cement concrete, and lengthened.)
The 9401-foot runway needs a major overhaul too, but since the simultaneous closing of all runways would seriously curtail air traffic into Houston, its repairs will have to wait until the other one is finished. Houston airport officials predict that both runways will finally be back in operation by mid-1976.
Meanwhile, the east-west 9401-footer is staying very busy. On landing from the east it has a high-quality instrument landing system and is capable of “Category II’ approaches in bad weather, a safety item that most airports lack. Despite these aids, the February 1 crash of a Horizon Corporation DC-3 occurred in darkness, fog, and rain on this approach pattern. Shortly before impact, the pilot complained of difficulty aligning his plane with the ILS glide slope. Flying too low, he collided with an obstruction lying squarely on the path to Houston’s only functional runway: a 171-foot transmission tower.
FAA airport certification standards do not require removal of an obstruction—only that it be lighted and marked. “This means,” said Alford, “that even under instrument conditions on a foggy night, the pilot may be able to see it before he hits it. If it’s an obstruction, we think it should simply be removed.”
Ironically, the FAA originally decided that the Houston tower was not an obstruction at all, and exempted it from the lighting and marking requirements; it remains unlit today.
Does that mean the FAA is convinced the dead pilot was solely at fault? Said Houston aviation attorney (and former ALPA counsel) J. Raymond Needham, “When a plane goes down and the pilot is killed, there’s not much doubt about who’ll get blamed.” The investigation, however, is continuing.
Planes landing from the west (during a cold front, for example) lack the vertical guidance of an instrument landing system; Houston does have a second ILS, but it is on the inoperative 8000-foot runway. A 142-foot obstruction three miles east of the runway’s end provides a nice symmetrical balance to the transmission tower that claimed five lives on the west side. In addition, a hedge of sturdy pine trees thrives despite pilots’ efforts to have it chopped down, adding yet another challenging element to east-side approaches. “I don’t know who owns the property,” said Alford, “but we’ve complained about it. Those trees are evidently sacred because the airport management has definitely kept that hedge tall and beautiful.”
Houston’s problems do not stop there. One of the most unnerving entries to be found on any pilot approach chart is the following item, duly noted alongside a sketch of the 8000-foot runway: CAUTION: expressway lights paralleling rwy 14-32 may be mistaken for rwy lights on 14-32.
The expressway in question is the airport’s own access road, and the lights, inadequately shielded, can confuse a pilot unfamiliar with Houston Intercontinental. “It’s entirely possible for a stranger or an inexperienced pilot to land on this,” Alford acknowledged. “One high risk is, if the runway lights are out and the expressway lights are on, he may miss his cue and land right in the middle of the road.”
Another odd aspect of Intercontinental is the decision to allow short-takeoff-and-landing (STOL) equipment, such as commuter flights and air taxis, to use two 2000-foot sections of the big airliners’ taxiways for their own takeoffs and landings. The taxiways are located between the major runways and the terminals, of course; every arriving and departing flight must use them.
“They’re as busy as they can be, right there in the middle of the airport,” said Alford. “We haven’t had any collisions yet, so we can’t prove they’re high risk. The FAA says it’s not a high risk. We’re forced to wait until we kill somebody to say, ‘I told you so.’ Everybody that’s ever flown on those little metro airlines enjoys them. But they ought to be safely removed from the air carrier operations.”
On the bright side, Intercontinental’s air control facilities are outstanding. “It’s the best place in the region to work, maybe the best in the country,” said PATCO’s Conditt “They have very good staffing and good equipment.”
The swampy area northwest of Intercontinental poses unusual risks for aircraft that underrun the runway on landing. Although the airport is well equipped with emergency crash, fire, and rescue equipment, a large open drainage canal, unbridged, effectively bars access to the area directly beyond the northwest ends of both runways. “It’s pretty farfetched,” said Alford, “but if there’s an accident and the airplane is on the far side of this drainage canal, there is no way to get the fire truck over to where the airplane would be. We would like to see bridges built across this canal so that the crash, fire, and rescue equipment—which should be all-weather—can reach us in mud or whatever. We think this is a high risk to the air traveling public. The airport management and the FAA say, ‘Just don’t crash on that side.’”
Two weeks after Alford made those comments, a private plane crashed and burned on the other side of the ditch northwest of Intercontinental, killing the pilot. Rescue workers, handicapped by mud and fog, finally reached the scene by using a helicopter and a dune buggy.
The problems at Houston’s second airport (William P. Hobby) are less complicated, but in the view of pilots, potentially more dangerous.
The runways at Hobby are regarded as the worst of any major airport in the state—“beyond the point of putting patches on the patches,” said one pilot. The resulting metal fatigue can seriously damage aircraft. In addition, Hobby has poor drainage and inferior runway shoulders.
An instrument landing system exists for approaches from the southwest. Prevailing winds, however, often call for approaches from the northwest, where broadcast towers of nearly 200 feet effectively bar instrument landings. Over the years, one 184-foot tower squarely on the northwesterly approach has had a number of near misses.
LUBBOCK: Lubbock Regional Airport.
557 passengers per day; ranks 6th. Low-to-medium risk.
Lubbock has a runway length problem. On the main north-south runway, the instrument landing glide slope leaves only 7500 feet of usable runway space. From the opposite direction, a forest of obstacles and generally higher terrain in the city of Lubbock keep incoming planes so high that they cannot drop down to use the first part of the runway; by the time they pass this displaced threshold, only 7600 feet are left. Compare this to El Paso, where the elevation is only slightly higher (3956 vs. 3269) but the runway lengths are well over 10,000 feet.
These same obstructions prevent installation of an ILS from the, south, making approaches during north wind conditions potentially riskier. Nor is there an ILS on either end of the 8002 foot east-west runway.
A major facelift is now taking place at Lubbock airport: a new terminal is under construction, the runways are being overlaid and strengthened, and the ramps are being repaired. Unfortunately no one is bothering to groove the runways.
McALLEN: Miller International Airport.
176 passengers per day; ranks 11th. Low risk under current conditions.
Although Miller Airport is less than five miles from Mexico, it escapes the circle-to-land problems that haunt Brownsville because the principal 6204-foot runway lies parallel to the Rio Grande, leaving ample room for approaches over U.S. air space from either direction. The secondary runway, 3149 feet, is much too short for most commercial airplanes, although technically it is open to them if they want to try it.
Texas International flew DC-9s into McAllen before the strike shut down its operations; Southwest now flies its Boeing 737s there. Because both types of aircraft are suited to short runways, McAllen falls into the low-risk category; larger planes, however—even 727s— would make the situation a good bit more awkward.
McAllen’s unique contribution to the unusual-hazard sweepstakes is a 53-foot-high drive-in theater screen a quarter-mile to the right of the northwest approach.
MIDLAND: Midland Regional Air Terminal.
513 passengers per day; ranks 7th. Low risk.
Midland-Odessa is one of the fastest-growing air traffic centers in Texas, and the current oil boom promises to keep it that way.
The relentlessly flat Permian Basin helps make Midland’s airport one of the state’s least risky. Navigable air space is naturally excellent, and has been made even better by the decision to locate broadcast antennas far away. As arriving passengers know, approaches to Midland are characterized by long, gentle slopes—never the steep Geronimo! drop-ins that Austin and Love Field often experience.
The ILS serves the northwest end of the somewhat short 7602-foot principal runway. The opposite end lacks an ILS with vertical guidance because of an obstruction near the runway—Midland’s only serious hazard. It consists of high power lines about one-half mile away.
The same lines come even closer to the south end of Midland’s other major, runway, a 7529-foot north-south strip, trimming its usable length by more than 600 feet. Two smaller runways are reserved for general aviation private aircraft, reducing the volume of traffic on those the commercial airliners use. All of Midland’s runways are a bit rough, and could use an overlay.
SAN ANTONIO: San Antonio International Airport.
2329 passengers per day; ranks 3rd. Medium risk.
San Antonio International is a relatively safe airport—not, however, without its problems and peculiarities.
The primary northwest-to-Southeast runway, for example, is equipped with excellent electronic hardware, good enough to be a “Category II” runway usable under weather conditions that would dose lesser airports. Once on the ground, however, the pilot encounters pavements in deplorable condition, surfaces so badly damaged that the runway simply needs to be reconstructed.
Coming the other direction, an office building looms dangerously close to the approach pattern. “If you’re landing you have to skim over this building,” said Alford. “But it’s not the only one. There are obstructions around that should never have been permitted by the airport zoning ordinance, especially to the southeast of the airport.”
Unlike most Texas airports, San Antonio International has the benefit of ILS on its secondary runway for planes approaching from the southwest.
Military air traffic poses a special risk around San Antonio, one which the air controllers normally manage to cope with, but which tends to make them gray before their time. San Antonio has three air bases in the immediate vicinity; Randolph with its Intensive Student Jet Training Area around Castroville, disrupts things most. As air travelers who approach San Antonio from the north or east often notice, the shortest distance to their destination does not turn out to be a straight line.
Commercial air traffic is routed into San Antonio along elaborate patterns designed to avoid military areas. When a flight from Austin reaches the little town of Winn, for example, it is vectored out at 235 degrees into the Hill Country until the controllers bring it in. Houston flights swing well north of New Braunfels and loop back. A passenger who has nothing else to worry about can occupy his time with the thought that the pilots usually do not know where these forbidden zones, presumably filled with hotshot fighter pilots zipping around at Mach-2, are. The pilots just count on radar controllers to keep everybody apart. “It’s not necessarily a high risk,” said one pilot bravely. “The air traffic control system is responsible for keeping us separated.”
What about the stories of tired, overworked air controllers coping with far too many planes? “We pilots have always considered these controllers to be our guardian angels: literally. We have a special faith and trust in them; we have to. When their facilities are understaffed, we recognize that this human element may become tired, even irritable, and he may not watch all the traffic. That’s when we have a little anxiety in the cockpit.”
WICHITA FALLS: Sheppard AFB. Wichita Falls Municipal Airport.
177 passengers per day; ranks 10th. Low risk.
The best airports sometimes turn up in the least-expected places. Consider Wichita Falls: its runway is 13,100 feet long and 300 feet wide, longer than anything at the vaunted DFW, the longest commercial runway in the state. How do they do it? Easy, if you have an air base in the neighborhood.
Wichita shares its airport with Sheppard AFB—or perhaps it should be said the other way around, since Sheppard came first. “Like Amarillo,” said Alford, “this is another airport that’s an excellent emergency alternative for sophisticated jet operations. If we ever have SSTs flying into Dallas and one cannot get in for some reason, he can go to Wichita Falls and here is a beautiful, long runway. It’s perfect for any sort of emergency situation.”
Wichita/Sheppard provides instrument landing only from the south, a peculiar aberration in an area having as much warm southerly wind as Wichita Falls does. The beam does provide horizontal guidance to flights coming in from the north on the “back course,” but leaves the pilot in the dark about his vertical situation. “In this case,” said Alford, “I’d say the back course is pretty safe even though you can come down [on instruments] only to 303 feet. With the length of the runway, if a pilot gets over it at 303 feet and can see it, he can safely let down and land. On a shorter runway he could not take the risk of descending down the back course like that in bad weather.”
Among the major Texas airports, Wichita is unique in that it has no FAA air controllers—everything is handled by the military.
As passengers arriving at Wichita know, commercial aircraft must taxi an endless distance to the remote terminal building. Along the way they encounter some of the few risks at this exceptionally safe airport: exits sharply right-angled to the runways, and narrow taxiways.