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Whistleblower speaks out again about unsafe DTW landing system that's still being used

Former Wayne County Airport official charged for allegedly accepting over $5M in bribes, kickbacks
Posted at 5:20 PM, Dec 08, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-09 18:40:04-05

(WXYZ) — The 7 Investigators were the first to expose a dangerous landing practice at Detroit Metro Airport. Now the whistleblower who took his concerns to the U.S. Special Counsel is speaking out again.

RELATED: Whistleblower raises concerns over unsafe landing practices at Detroit Metro Airport

The 7 Investigators have also learned that the airport recently used this questionable landing system, even though they had stopped using it when the Special Counsel intervened earlier in 2020.

Congress and President Trump have had the results of that Special Counsel investigation since Aug. 6, 2020. The 7 Investigators started asking questions in late November about what Michigan’s leaders in Washington have done about this safety issue.

A veteran Air Traffic Controller says landings on Detroit Metro Airport’s westernmost runway in recent years have been far too risky. Pilots have to approach at an angle using an antenna system that’s supposed to provide course information during landings.

That antenna system is called an Instrument Landing System, or ILS, Yankee offset localizer.

Radar playbacks obtained by the 7 Investigators capture radio traffic that reveals pilots and air traffic controllers alike want this problem fixed.

In one recording, you can hear a pilot asking, “Do you guys have any issues with the localizer on 22R tonight… that’s part of why we had some issues with the course, we were getting some intermittent signal with the localizer on final there.”

In another recording, a pilot urges the tower to change runways after a troubling approach in bad weather.

“You guys need to be off of Yankee (Y runway) and go to Zulu (Z),” the pilot said.

“Trust me, that’s a constant discussion,” the controller said.

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

“You guys can call the tower and talk to the supervisor about that, it’s out of my control, and I agree with you,” the controller said.

“I need a phone number,” the pilot said.

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 signal interference can cause pilots to have to abort their landings, and that can cause a lot of confusion in the air and on the ground.

“We’re going around, we’re unstable,” one pilot told the tower on a windy day in March 2019. That go-around and similar call signs with other planes led to some tense exchanges between the tower and the radar room as controllers tried to keep track of everyone.

“3181’s going around, what do you want,” said a controller in the tower.

“3101 – this is Yankee heading 270 maintain 4000… left turn” said a controller in radar.

“I’m talking to 3181. This is the tower,” said the tower controller. “31-81 is going around! I got him on 10 heading…”

“Left turn, heading 3-3-0, 4000,” said the controller in radar.

“Thank you. 3181, turn left heading 3-3-0 maintain 4000… Jesus!”

“I was concerned for the safety of the flying public and the pilots,” said veteran Air Traffic Controller Vincent Sugent when asked why he blew the whistle on the ILS Y offset localizer problems.

In August, after a high-level federal report was released, we were finally able to let you hear directly from Sugent, who had agreed to be interviewed in 2019 pending the release of the report.

Sugent says he started warning Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) officials about the problems with the offset localizer five years ago.

“What’s the danger,” asked 7 Investigator Heather Catallo.

“[The planes] could actually hit in poor weather,” Sugent said.

Federal records show the FAA did stop using the procedure back in 2015 “due to safety concerns.” But in August of 2018, the FAA started using the “ILS Y approach” yet again. Records show the “FAA stated that ‘this effect has been deemed an acceptable risk.’”

Sugent says that’s when the missed landings and go-arounds started again, like with this SkyWest flight:

Pilot: “Tower- SkyWest 3650 is going missed.”

Tower: “SkyWest 3650, you say you’re going missed?”

Pilot: “Going missed.”

So Sugent filed a federal whistleblower complaint with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, alleging “the FAA has prioritized airport efficiency and capacity over the safety of the flying public…”

The FAA said Sugent’s allegations were not substantiated and said the location of the offset localizer does not create “imminent danger.” But the U.S. Special Counsel disagreed, and wrote a letter to the President saying, “the agency’s findings do not appear reasonable.”

U.S. Special Counsel Henry J. Kerner went on to say, “I urge the FAA to further review the safety issues associated with the ILS Y approach procedure and take the steps necessary to resolve them.”

Sugent says the FAA stopped using the offset localizer again in early March of 2020. In records, the FAA said that was because of reduced air traffic from the pandemic. Sugent said they actually stopped before COVID-19 slowed air travel, just as the Special Counsel was informing the FAA of their findings in late February 2020.

And then suddenly on Nov. 22, 2020, Sugent learned the FAA used it again to land about 16 aircraft.

“You’re putting the flying public, number one in harm’s way, and number two, you’re putting the pilots in a very compromised position, and the controllers in the tower,” Sugent told Catallo in a new interview.

The Special Counsel report was also sent to Congress, but Sugent, who recently retired, says he hasn’t heard from any of Michigan’s elected leaders.

“If the politicians are not willing to do something about this, then there’s really not much that can be done. The FAA’s clearly not going to do it,” Sugent said.

The 7 Investigators reached out to Congresswoman Brenda Lawrence, who sits on the Appropriations Transportation Sub-Committee, on Nov. 24 to request an interview.

Rep. Lawrence would not talk to us on camera about what she plans to do with the Special Counsel report, only issuing this statement:

“Pilot and passenger safety should be of the upmost importance. Such allegations should not be taken lightly, as landings and takeoffs are the most critical aspect of flying. It is my hope that President Trump also takes this seriously and looks into it further to ensure that no American lives are adversely impacted by this potentially dangerous system.”

When we pressed for specifics about what Rep. Lawrence would do about the situation, Lawrence’s spokeswoman refused to answer additional questions.

Sen. Gary Peters is on the Aviation subcommittee. After the 7 Investigators requested an interview, Sen. Peters asked for an official briefing from the FAA. That briefing is scheduled for Wednesday morning.

“We’re in discussions with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association as well as FAA to get an update on the path forward that ensures safety issues are fully addressed,” Sen. Peters said.

We asked to speak to someone from the FAA both in August and again on Dec. 3, 2020. Despite contacting two different Public Affairs units of the FAA, no one responded to our request for information.

UPDATE: Rep. Brenda Lawrence has agreed to an on-camera interview about the Special Counsel report and use of this landing system. That interview is scheduled for Monday, Dec. 14, 2020.