Air Force One - GO AROUND !!!

Time: During the Nixon Administration fuel Crisis of 1973

Place: Indianapolis International TCA (Terminal Control Area)

Players: President Nixon, the command pilot and co-pilot of AF-1, Eastern Airline pilot and co-pilot, Local controller Bob Farnum, Myself as observer

This story requires a lot of background.  From the title: "go around" is a command that is given by a controller to be executed immediately by a pilot. When the command is given by a controller during a landing sequence the pilot is to immediately terminate the approach.  The command is used when an approach becomes impossible for any number of reasons.  That might be another aircraft on the runway unexpectedly, a vehicle on the runway, a departing aircraft delayed on the runway for some reason, etc.  The pilot executing the "go around" will then be instructed to enter a pattern for another approach to the active runway. A "go around" is a very bad thing.  It indicates poor planning or violated procedures.  It is an indication that something has gone very, very wrong and, as a result, some airliner will be late and burn a huge amount of jet fuel getting on the ground in an unplanned way.

When Air Force One enters the TCA on his way to any airport special procedures are followed.  At a set range from the airport ALL traffic (on the ground) stops. Aircraft on approach are placed in a holding pattern in flight.  All aircraft and vehicles are instructed to hold in position wherever they are on the ground.  All movement on the airport stops for security and safety.  Air Force One is then given full use of the active runway (cleared of all aircraft and vehicles) and use of the entire airport surface to land and taxi to the secure ramp area arranged for their arrival.  When Air Force One is stopped in their secure area normal activity on the airport and in the TCA resumes.   Simple.....right ?

I was on duty in the RADAR Equipment room and someone advised us Air Force One was on approach.  While he (Nixon) is in the area, we touch no equipment and disturb nothing.  I had been working for the FAA for about three years at that time, and I thought since we go into a hands-off-everything mode I would go up to the Air Traffic Control Tower and watch the approach of Air Force One with President Nixon on board.  Up the elevator I went to the Tower Cab level.  When I got there and looked out the window it was a chaotic scene.  What had happened is AF-1 got into the TCA during a very busy part of the day.  Aircraft were everywhere on the airport, parked as required, engines running on idle.  Nothing was allowed to move, all were required by AF-1 SOP to remain in place. All the engines were burning huge quantities of jet fuel, with nothing moving anywhere on the airport.

One of the little known causes of some aircraft accidents is what I call "letting the passenger fly the airplane".  Trust me, it happens.  Not literally of course.  The passengers are in the back and do not have direct access to the controls.  What actually happens is some passenger in the back gets some great little idea and asks the pilot to deviate from routine flight procedures.  An example might be: "Hey, can you turn out over there to the left so I can show the guys my house when we get off the runway?".  The pilot looks out, figures there is no traffic in the pattern and takes off.  He turns to make the passenger happy and plows into another aircraft entering the pattern he didn't see on the take off roll.  Another possibility would be: "We really need to make that meeting - do we really need to top off the fuel?".  The pilot looks at the fuel, got enough, takes off.  They get to the airport and it is fogged in and approaches are difficult.  The pilot does a go around or two, using takeoff power (and fuel).  On the LAST attempt the fuel runs out, you can guess the rest.  For another example see:

This above was a case of the pilot letting the cargo (not even a live passenger) tell him he had enough gas to make it.

If you have a lot of experience reading NTSB reports you can sometimes see this contributing factor peeking out.  Letting the passengers (or even the cargo) fly the airplane.

Back to the story.  Nixon wasn't a bad president.  He got in some trouble, but he was a good administrator while in office, and sensitive to the needs of the American people.  He was in the back of AF-1 and found out this was going on (many aircraft wasting fuel). Well there he was, jetting around in AF-1 and causing huge amounts of jet fuel to be wasted following the SOP for AF-1 arrival.  He ordered the pilot to advise the local controller (a guy named Robert Farnum) to ignore the SOP and resume normal operations. In other words, bring AF-1 into the airport as they would any other large aircraft. This is an example of letting a passenger fly the airplane.

In a situation like this it takes some time for an order to propagate through the chain of command and be delivered to the appropriate controllers.  Nixon didn't fully appreciate the chaotic situation his command would create.  During that time lag AF-1 was charging into the airport at 140 MPH. When the command to conduct normal movements actually activated AF-1 was about 100 yards from the threshold of the active runway still doing about 140 MPH.  In that instant everything that was parked was released to move.  Holding in position, waiting to cross the active runway, was an Eastern Airlines flight.  Controller Farnum pointed at the ground controller and yelled "CROSS EASTERN!".  My first thought was what the hell is that idiot doing?   AF-1 is about two seconds from touching down and aimed right at the Eastern flight.  As I leaned to look out the window, I saw debris blow out behind the Eastern flight.  The pilot had firewalled the throttle levers to try to cross in time as ordered by controller Farnum.  I could imagine the pilot in AF-1 grabbing the throttle levers and silently reciting the Lord’s Prayer, hoping the Eastern flight would clear the runway in time.  If he didn’t, we were all going see the very first (and only) "go around" of AF-1 in aviation history. 

It was close.  The Eastern jet blast threw debris all over the place, and AF-1 went by the back of the Eastern flight just clearing the wing tip of the president’s airplane.  Controller Farnum, who was usually wrapped up in his self-perceived importance, never saw the situation.  He was busy creating more chaos across the airport telling others to move.  To this day,  he never knew it happened (unless he reads this).  As far as I know, only five of us were aware of the incident.  I saw it.  There was an Eastern Airlines captain firewalling the throttle on his passenger airliner and his co-pilot probably looking out at the huge looming AF-1 going “OH S**T!”  There was a captain in AF-1 grabbing a handful of throttle controls thinking “WHOOOA NELLIE!  This is going to be close!” and his co-pilot probably thinking that the president will be really pissed about this.  He was probably wondering what driving a snow plow in Dead Horse, Alaska, was going to be like as he pondered the end of his flying career in the Air Force.   When it was all over, it was as if nothing happened and is being told here for the first time.

The moral to the story is obvious:  never let a passenger fly the airplane, even if he’s the President of the United States!