The gasps on board were mirrored by the reaction in the airport waiting area as the underbelly of the climbing plane seemed to skim just overhead.
The remarkable thing about the aborted landing of Alaska Airlines Flight 6 from Los Angeles last week was that it wasn’t remarkable at all; it happens regularly at National. Another plane was sitting on the runway, and air-traffic controllers gave the pilot prudent instructions to keep everyone safe.
National’s control tower hit the news two days after Cooley’s scary experience when the midnight-shift controller supervisor fell asleep, forcing pilots of two airliners carrying a total of 165 passengers and crew members to land on their own early Wednesday. The Federal Aviation Administration suspended the supervisor, the National Transportation Safety Board is investigating, and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood ordered that a second controller be added to the midnight shift.
Cooley’s experience, which left people on board shaken and caused a woman in the next row to say her “life flashed before her,” happens an estimated 10 to 20 times a month at National, according to controllers and FAA records.
Ten days earlier, Tamar Gutner was headed into National on a US Airways flight from Orlando.
“I could see the Potomac, the landing gear was down, and suddenly we’re going back up, sharply,” Gutner said. “The pilot didn’t say anything for several minutes, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only person worried about terrorism. The pilot finally came on and said there was an aircraft in the runway that prevented us from landing.”
Unnerving though the experience might be for passengers such as Cooley and Gutner, controllers see what they call a “go-around” as a fairly routine safety procedure that keeps planes out of greater trouble.
“Go-arounds, although not frequent, are a safety valve for the system,” said an FAA official who once worked the Reagan tower and who asked not to be named because he’s not authorized to speak for the agency. “Each controller tries to time their instructions perfectly, but it doesn’t always work because pilots and aircraft respond at different rates. So, you do the best you can, and if it doesn’t work, you send them around.”
The FAA had no immediate comment on go-arounds at National.
Last-second orders to abort a landing are not unique to National, but the heavy traffic load into a compact airport means that air-traffic controllers have to choreograph with particular skill during the busy hours of the day, cutting their calculations as finely as safety will allow. Now Congress, eager to make the most of the airport at its doorstep, wants to add flights at National. The Senate has proposed adding 10 round trips daily, while the House is working on a decision about how many more it finds appropriate.