On the 'occurrence' at Owen Roberts: Just roll the tape

On Sunday, March 22, an inbound Cayman Airways aircraft abruptly aborted its landing approach in order to avoid an outbound United Airlines aircraft that was still on the runway. Did the “occurrence” amount to a serious but unexceptional situation, unworthy of second-day scrutiny?

Maybe — but maybe not. The Compass has heard from multiple sources who are telling remarkably similar stories of what actually took place as the CAL flight approached the occupied runway.

We are dealing with, we believe, a “tale of the tape” — that is, the truth is contained on the recordings of communications between Owen Roberts air traffic controllers and the pilots.

Here’s what we know about what occurred that Sunday afternoon:

United Airlines flight 1495 (from Grand Cayman to Houston) has a regularly scheduled departure time of 4:38 p.m.

Cayman Airways flight 505 (from Chicago to Grand Cayman) has a regularly scheduled arrival time of 5:25 p.m.

At 4:45 p.m., UA1495 was occupying the Owen Roberts runway, in preparation to take off.

At the same time, KX505 (coming in more than a half hour ahead of schedule) was passing over the Cayman Islands Hospital on its final glide path to the runway.

As KX505 crossed the Huldah Avenue cricket pitch, the pilot pulled the aircraft up to avoid collision with UA1495 on the runway, and circled around over Bodden Town to make a second landing approach.

In the meantime, UA1495 cleared off the runway to allow KX505 to land safely. Afterward, UA1495 took off without further incident.

There is little dispute (none actually to our knowledge) about “what” happened at the airport on the afternoon of March 22.

However, the key question is not “what” but “why,” and to get at that truth we need to know what went on inside the control tower and the cockpits.

While a United Airways spokeswoman, located in Chicago, readily shared with a Compass reporter what information she had on the “occurrence” (unfortunately, not much at all), our own Cayman Airways has thus far refused to comment publicly on the incident. The statement issued by the Cayman Islands Airports Authority (and quickly “endorsed” by the Civil Aviation Authority) contained almost no information — apart from the admission that this was “not a frequent occurrence.” It didn’t even mention which airlines were involved or how many passengers were on the planes.

The account from the Cayman Islands Air Traffic Controllers Association, however, is of far greater interest. Rather than using radar data to ensure safe separation between aircraft, Cayman’s air traffic controllers rely on pilots to report accurately their positions. According to the association, “conflicting position reports resulted in the arriving aircraft turning final approach sooner than expected.”

In other words, according to the association, the Cayman Airways flight was considerably closer to Owen Roberts than had been reported to the controller. (The position of the United aircraft — on the runway — was obvious.)

Again, we are back to the “why” question: Why did the Cayman Airways aircraft get so near to landing on an already-occupied runway?

The controllers have volunteered their version of events, and presumably by now everyone has shared with authorities the relevant audio recordings from the tower and flight decks. Now it’s time for the authorities to share those recordings with the public — as is “routine” procedure in countries under such circumstances.

The release of the unedited recordings and the results of the formal investigation should dispel any doubts about this “occurrence” once and for all.

Just roll the tape.

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  1. After reading the shared assumptions above I see that the United air craft was seven minutes behind schedule take off and Cayman Airways was ahead schedule landing. Truly some one somewhere was not paying enough attention, whether it was on the ground or up in the air.
    I look at it as being very serious, when it comes to controlling the incoming or outgoing of aircrafts, and truly would not be satisfied to hear anyone say, its just a human error. People don”t want to hear that.
    I have had the opportunity to travelling on many different airlines and trust me when I say Cayman Airways is among the best when it comes to piloting and maintenance. What went wrong this day maybe we will never know, but just continue to give thanks that nothing serious took place.

  2. My opinion on this is changing as the saga unfolds because the fact that the departing United a/c was repositioned off the runway to allow the CAL flight to land rather than just throttling up to complete the take off rather suggests that this is a far from routine incident. In fact it is beginning to sound like the CAL jet had declared an emergency.

    As I posted yesterday maybe you should ask CAL what the aircraft fuel state was.

    While you are at it why not also try to get some straight answers about the recent CAL Express engine shut down and also some stats for previous incidents involving the Twin Otters. Based on what I was told last night you might find it rather interesting.

  3. I feel that it’s time Government to stop covering up , and start acting more professional. Cause these kind things are nothing to play with . I wonder what will happen if we got 5 more planes working out of Cayman.