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DTW using controversial landing system once again, more air traffic controllers sounding alarm

Posted at 3:36 PM, Jun 30, 2021

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

So why is the airport using the system again right now?

Related:

For certain landings at Detroit Metro Airport, some pilots have to approach at an angle on the western-most runway.

To do that, they use an antenna system called an Instrument Landing System (ILS) Yankee offset localizer. It’s most often used when the airport is trying to run triple approaches on its runways to increase capacity.

Pilots have been complaining about the system for some time, as heard on radar playbacks obtained by 7 Investigators:

“You guys need to get off of Yankee and go to Zulu,” said one pilot back 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 pilots.

Air traffic controllers say the placement of the ILS Y offset localizer at Metro Airport results in the signal getting interrupted, especially when planes taxi right in front of it. That causes some pilots to have to abort their landings.

Controllers say those go-arounds can increase the chance of a collision in the air.

“It’s a safety issue. It has to be addressed,” said Vincent Sugent.

Before he retired last year, Sugent worked for decades as an Air Traffic Controller at Metro Airport. His whistleblower complaint to the U.S. Special Counsel made it all the way to the president in 2020. After a multi-year investigation, the U.S. Special Counsel agreed with Sugent and urged a “review of the safety issues associated with the ILS Y approach procedure.”

“It’s no longer an allegation, it’s all been substantiated,” said Sugent.

With air traffic down due to the pandemic, the use of the ILS Y offset localizer had mostly stopped.

But earlier this month, controllers say Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) leadership at Metro Airport started using the approach once again because one of the other runways is undergoing maintenance.

“It just now blows my mind that they have other options: staggering airplanes one mile apart without using that localizer, and going straight in… [for] the same capacity and efficiency,” said Sugent. “With all the other options why take that risk?”

And now another Air Traffic Controller is speaking out.

“I question two things: One, why are we doing it, because we have the ability to run to those runways without using it. And two, why are we using it again after the Special Counsel asked us not to,” said the controller who’s still on the job, so we’re not revealing their identify out of fear they could lose their job for speaking up.

“Are you concerned about the use of this when it gets busier,” asked 7 Investigator Heather Catallo.

“Yes, I’m sure we’ll be using it 4-5 times a day like we were before,” said the controller. “And the longer we do it without realizing the potential problem, the more that problem appears to have gone away. But I think much like that apartment complex in Florida, we’re here saying there’s something wrong, it’s clearly wrong, and they’re not doing anything about it. And that is the concern.”

An FAA spokesperson sent us this statement about the use of the ILS Y offset localizer:

“The FAA took steps to mitigate the potential for interference with the Instrument Landing System (ILS) signal at Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport. An FAA safety panel was held in May of 2018, which included representatives from the National Air Traffic Controllers Association and Delta Airlines, and determined there are multiple and redundant procedures in place to mitigate any potential interference. In March 2019, the FAA updated the surface surveillance tool used by the DTW controllers, to display the hold lines on a taxiway to keep aircraft out of the ILS-critical area near Runway 4L/22R when reported ceiling is less than 800 feet or visibility is less than 2 miles.”

But pilots have still had to do go-arounds after those alleged improvements were made because planes still block the signal.

“Go around, climb maintain 4000, right 20 degrees Delta 833,” said a pilot on the radar playbacks on December 14, 2020 as he had to make a second landing attempt.

“There is not one shred of evidence supporting that adjusting a hold line [on a runway] would achieve the same results as moving a piece of equipment. Not one meeting note, email, or engineering document,” said Sugent about the FAA’s statement.

Related:

“It’s difficult when the tools you use to do your job aren’t as good as they could be. It’s difficult when the people that you bring problems to don’t listen and tell you ‘just to deal with it.’ And it’s honestly more difficult to work that position a lot of times, because it’s busier because of it: extra chatter from the pilots, questions, complaints, things that when you’re a busy Air Traffic Controller aren’t necessary,” said the anonymous controller. “You’re removing the controller’s attention from planes in the air potentially.”

“Congress has been made aware of this; the President’s been made aware of this. What would you like to see them do,” asked Catallo.

“Take action. Move the localizer. Pretty simple,” said the controller.

Both Senator Gary Peters (D-Michigan) and Congresswoman Brenda Lawrence (D-Southfield) have met with the FAA in the past about the ILS Y Offset Localizer.

In statement Rep. Lawrence said, “I’ve discussed the need to modernize our aviation infrastructure with U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg during a one-on-one meeting and specially brought up the issue of the ILS Y Offset Localizer at DTW. As the Vice Chair of the House Appropriations Committee, I’ve prioritized an additional $1.5 billion in aviation funding through the Fiscal Year 2022 appropriations requests. I will continue to advocate for aviation modernization funding Congress works on an infrastructure package and on any subsequent supplemental measures.”

“Senator Peters has reached out to the FAA for an update. He will also continue to support modernizing and upgrading aviation systems and airport infrastructure to improve safety through his role on the Senate Commerce Committee,” said Caroline Stonecipher, spokesperson for Sen. Peters.

Sugent has sent letters to the multiple Senators and House Representatives urging them to take action on the use of the ILS Y offset localizer.

If you have a story for Heather, please email her at hcatallo@wxyz.com