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Detroit Metro Airport still using controversial landing system; new federal probe underway

'I think it's unsafe.'
Posted at 11:46 PM, Feb 10, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-10 23:46:04-05

(WXYZ) — The 7 Investigators were the first to expose a risky landing practice at Detroit Metro Airport.

The U.S. Special Counsel already told Congress and the President that the FAA needed to address the safety issues with this landing system.

Now the 7 Investigators have learned the airport is using that landing approach again, and another federal probe is underway to determine why.

When Detroit Metro Airport is landing three planes at once, pilots sometimes have to abort their landings.

The planes on the western-most runway have to approach at an angle, using something called the Instrument Landing System, or ILS, Yankee Off Set Localizer. It’s an antenna system – but Air Traffic Controllers say it’s placement at Metro results in the signal getting interrupted – especially when other planes taxi right in front of it.

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The 7 Investigators obtained radar playbacks of pilots communicating with the Air Traffic Control Tower after having issues with the signal:
“We’re going around, we’re unstable,” said one pilot on a SkyWest flight in December of 2020.

“SkyWest 3650 - you say you’re going missed,” asked an Air Traffic Controller.

“Going missed,” said the pilot.

“You guys need to get off of Yankee and go to Zulu,” said one pilot to the tower in March of 2019.

“Trust me that’s a constant discussion,” said an Air Traffic Controller.

“No it’s not a discussion, it’s a safety issue coming from the pilots,” said the pilot.

“The aircraft can get very close together,” said veteran Air Traffic Controller Vincent Sugent. “The worst-case scenario, of course, is collision.”

“Is that approach safe,” asked 7 Investigator Heather Catallo.

“In my opinion no. And in the Special Counsel opinion – no it is not,” said Sugent.

Before he retired in 2020, Sugent filed a federal whistleblower complaint with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel. The Special Counsel agreed with Sugent and wrote a letter to the President, urging a “review of the safety issues associated with the ILS Y approach procedure.”

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The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) says the approach does “not create imminent danger,” but they stopped using it during the first Special Counsel investigation. Then they used it again last summer, so an Air Traffic Controller who’s still on the job agreed to talk to the 7 Investigators.
“Why are we using it again after the special counsel asked us not to,” said the Controller.

And now a third whistleblower is speaking out. Both controllers say they could be fired if the FAA knew their identities, so we aren’t revealing their names or faces.

“These are all complaints from the larger mainline airline pilots. They’re saying why are we using this? And that’s always the question – why,” said the new whistleblower.

The controllers say the Yankee approach is especially risky during bad weather.

“They have to turn right at the last second, and when they’re coming out of the clouds in that very critical phase of flight – they’re having to correct. And if you’re doing that in a crosswind, it’s added complexity for them,” said the controller.

The 7 Investigators obtained radar playbacks of the FAA using the Yankee offset localizer yet again, this time on a rainy night in September. During those triple approaches, wind gusts were up to 35 knots at one point.

During those approaches one pilot appears to veer off course as he tries to intercept the offset localizer signal. It’s not clear yet whether the signal was blocked, but air traffic controllers say this exchange is concerning:

Air Traffic Control : “Endeavor 4996, verify you’re intercept of the localizer?”

Pilot: “Intercepted now, late to capture.”

Air Traffic Control: “Endeavor 4996 verify the ILS Yankee PRM runway 4L.”

Pilot: “That’s right it is.”

Events like this are why Sugent filed a new charge with the U.S. Special Counsel, alleging “gross mismanagement and a substantial and specific danger to public safety by employees of.. the FAA…” at Metro Airport.

“I think it's unsafe. I think that the conduct of the people that are in charge – for the purview of the safety of the flying public and the pilots and the controllers – are failing them,” said Sugent.

Those allegations cannot be substantiated until the investigation is over, but the Office of Special Counsel told Sugent they “found a substantial likelihood of wrongdoing based on the information [he] submitted…”

“They don’t take this stuff lightly – they don’t,” said Sugent.

In a statement a spokeswoman from the FAA told us, “The FAA cooperates with all Office of Special Counsel investigations…” and said “the FAA has put mitigations in place … to ensure safe operations.