When a MITRE team learned of a possible hazard at an airport serving the Super Bowl’s host city, they leapt into action. Their quick-turn analysis and outreach is giving pilots the advance awareness they need to keep travelers safe.
The Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers aren’t the only teams preparing for Super Bowl LVIII. In advance of this year’s big event—at first-time host city Las Vegas—the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), airports, airlines, and pilot organizations worked to ensure that the tens of thousands of football fans descending on “Sin City” would have the safest and smoothest travel experience possible.
That included informing pilots about everything from temporary flight restrictions and the likelihood of extended holding patterns during peak traffic periods, to the locations of overflow lots where they’d need to park their planes.
Operator Reports a Concern
It was in that context that MITRE received a call about a possible hazard pilots might need to be alerted to when flying into Henderson Executive Airport—a common Las Vegas destination for business jets.
The caller, a business aviation operator, said their pilots were experiencing a high number of alerts when using a particular approach path to Henderson. The alerts were telling the pilots they were getting too close to the area’s mountainous terrain and needed to “pull up.”
They wanted to know whether these were one-offs or whether the issue was systemic. And they wanted MITRE to find out.
The call was from a member of the Aviation Safety Information Analysis and Sharing (ASIAS) program, a public-private partnership through which the FAA, airlines, business and general aviation operators, and other aviation stakeholders can share their data for analysis. The goal? To identify and address safety issues before they result in accidents or other serious incidents.
“MITRE serves as the objective third-party data steward and analytics expert for ASIAS,” explains aviation systems engineer and ASIAS analyst Michael Crane, “so when this partner had a safety concern, they immediately reached out to us.”
These alerts are essentially a last line of defense for pilots, so this was a serious finding.
MITRE Completes Rapid-Turn Analysis
With game day just a couple of weeks away and air traffic already accelerating in the complex airspace around Las Vegas, a MITRE team sprang into action, partnering with the FAA and industry to scope the potential hazard. They knew they needed to get answers fast.
MITRE analysts Kunal Sarkhel, Jeremy Knaggs, and Seth Ransohoff worked tirelessly—often late into the night—to get those answers. Within a couple of days, they had them: The issue was systemic. Pilots had to be warned.
“Our analysis revealed that a significant proportion of flights approaching Henderson received Ground Proximity Warning System [GPWS] alerts,” Knaggs says. “That meant they were either on a trajectory toward terrain in front of them or they were descending too quickly toward the ground as they approached the airport for landing.”
“These alerts are essentially a last line of defense for pilots, so this was a serious finding,” adds Ransohoff.
The team also knew the issue would be exacerbated by the heightened Super Bowl traffic, when many pilots flying into Henderson might be experiencing the flight path and its hazards for the first time.
“Without prior knowledge of the GPWS warnings, flight crews could be caught off guard,” says Sarkhel. “And that could potentially lead to unstable approaches or even accidents.”
Partnering to Enhance Safety
Those realizations launched yet another urgent effort—empowering the ASIAS members to get the word out to as many aviation organizations as possible to alert pilots to the terrain hazards they might face on approach to Henderson.
MITRE’s role as the operator of the FAA’s federally funded research and development center helped. So did our standing as the ASIAS trusted third party.
“Through those roles, we’ve developed close relationships with government and industry stakeholders,” says Ed Walsh, former ASIAS program manager. “So, we had a good network to reach out to with our findings.”
Partnering with the FAA, the team quickly created a fact sheet about the hazard—complete with illustrations of the hotspots along the flight path. They got approvals from ASIAS’s FAA and industry leadership for its use. And then they got it posted on a venue where pilots carrying passengers to the Super Bowl were most likely to look: an FAA site designed to prepare pilots for exactly that.
“Every flight crew is expected to brief before they fly to make sure they understand what they might encounter,” Sarkhel explains. “With the ASIAS fact sheet now on the FAA’s official Super Bowl preparedness site, they have a more complete picture.”
For added measure, the team reached out to controllers at Henderson Airport and the FAA’s Las Vegas-area air traffic control facility. And they informed the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) and the National Air Transportation Association (NATA) of their findings as well.
“Our goal was to enable the ASIAS partners to get the message out through as many venues as possible,” says Jason Ice, who coordinated many of the team’s outreach efforts. “NBAA and NATA represent large swaths of the aviation industry, so we wanted to give them the chance to communicate our findings to their members.”
“Our hope is that this work results in smooth operations for the Super Bowl and perhaps a longer conversation about how we might contribute to identifying possible mitigations for the Henderson hazard,” Ransohoff says.
“If possible, we’d like to help the airport and the FAA resolve it before the next big event in Vegas.”