THE ESSENTIAL FOIA

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In every aviation case, it is critical to find out what the airplane was doing and what was going on in the cockpit. Tragically, in most accidents, the pilots and occupants of the aircraft are deceased and can provide no first hand account of the flight. Therefore an immediate Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) seeking information on the flight path of the aircraft and en route communications is an essential starting point in any investigation.

RECONSTRUCTING THE ROUTE

In most accident investigations, the NTSB conducts a review of radar data and voice communication, and this can be obtained through a FOIA request or is made part of the final accident report. However, this data is parsed and could omit some of the material that is relevant to any legal action. For that reason, it is beneficial to request original data from the FAA traffic facilities that handled segments of the flight.

In order to direct the FOIA to the relevant facilities, it is important to understand how different air traffic control facilities govern the route of flight.

There are three main types of air traffic control services: air route traffic control centers, (ARTCC), terminal radar approach control (TRACON), and air traffic control towers (ATCT). Centers control the largest airspace and usually cover en route traffic across the nation except around larger airports. TRACONs control airspace within a 50 mile radius of a busy airport, and then, if applicable, coordinates with the individual towered airports for arrival and departure of traffic. Finally, the towers control the airport surface and the airborne traffic within a 3 to 5 mile radius of the airport, or, in the case of a larger airport, with the associated approach facility.

By specifying in the FOIA the data to be supplied by each entity controlling a segment of the flight, the final fateful journey can be reconstructed. Currently, there are 23 ARTCCs, and 185 TRACONs in the United States. It is normal for an aircraft to be in contact with several of these facilities throughout the trip. While the last ARTCC, TRACON, or ATCT to control the aircraft prior to the crash will usually hold the flights crucial final moments, obtaining all sections of the flight provides a complete picture of the aircraft’s movements and may supply vital facts on fuel consumption and other operational or mechanical issues.

DATA CATEGORIES AND FORMATS

Once the route of flight has been established, it is important to accurately and succinctly request the data by category and format to provide the most guidance to you and your experts. In most instances, time is of the essence. All FAA traffic facilities are not required to maintain radar or voice communication data indefinitely, and in many cases the storage media being used is erased and reused after a varying time frame.

Most air traffic communication is either recorded on older analog tapes or more modern digital equipment. If analog tapes are used, the original tapes are held for slightly more than two weeks after the accident. Requesting a copy of these tapes to be made will usually result in a certified copy being produced. The more modern digital tapes are usually retained for longer periods, but in order to listen to all the communications (not just those portions excerpted by the NTSB), it is imperative to request the tapes as soon as possible.

TRACON radar data is preserved along the same timeline as the communication tapes. Following an accident, radar data is printed and then archived on optical media. This optical media contains the Continuous Data Recordings (CDR), which plots the position of the aircraft as radar inputs. This is displayed by altitude and transponder code. The parameters of the data that is recorded can be different for each radar facility, and also depends on the type of radar that is being used. Most facilities are using the Air Surveillance Radar 9 (ASR-9). This is a fully digitized version of data radar and should provide more consistent and detailed radar returns than it’s partially analog predecessor, ASR-8.

The most basic form of CDR radar data is the primary track, which is simply a return off of the hull of the aircraft commonly referred to as “skin paint”. The second data stream on the CDR is the transponder readout or what the aircraft is “squawking”, and its associated encoded data. Most airplanes are equipped with a transponder that will pass along certain information to the ATC facility. A discrete beacon code, altitude, and in some cases other information is encoded into the radar return and then captured in the CDR. Also, the CDR will contain any keyboard entries made by the controllers for inputting new tracks, issuing warnings or conducting handoffs. The CDR will also contain any inter-facility data or flight plan information.

The CDR is raw data and is used for each facility’s specific needs. Each TRACON has an automated radar tracking system (ARTS). The ARTS is a digital tracking system that is structured to allow variations to be input into the program for site-specific requirements. An example of this would be low altitude alert capture boxes which define at what threshold a low altitude alert will be activated. The adequacy of controller conduct can be reviewed against this framework.

A supplemental source of information is the data maintained by controlling centers which is the National Track Analysis Program or (NTAP). This category of data is a collage from multiple radar sites encountered by the aircraft en route.

Another data file that needs to be requested is the System Monitor Control (SMC). This is used primarily for maintenance, as it displays when the scope is operating. This is not a diagnostic, but will show low altitude alerts and conflict alerts. The SMC file will show all alerts that were displayed to the controller.

Using this background information on radar operations, a detailed FOIA can be prepared. The following is a general form FOIA, with some explanatory annotations in parenthesis:

VIA CERTIFIED MAIL

FOIA Coordinator
FAA (Geographic) Region (and designation)
(Can usually be found on the FAA’s website:
http://www2.faa.gov/foia.cfm)

Re: Aircraft Accident: (N number and model aircraft)
Location:
Date:
Time:

Dear Sir/Madam,

We represent clients regarding the above. Pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act, we request copies of the records and items listed and described below pertaining to the above referenced aircraft accident.

FROM: FAA (APPLICABLE) REGIONAL HEADQUARTERS

  1. Copy of the FAA Aircraft Accident package involving (N number) on (date).
  2. Copies of any and all correspondence between (Specific controlling tower) TOWER/TRACON and FAA (Applicable) Regional Headquarters pertaining to the aircraft accident involving (N number).
  3. Copies of FAA Facility Evaluations of (subject) TOWER/TRACON for calendar years (several years prior to crash).

FROM: FAA (departure city) AFSS

  1. Certified recording of the briefing position that received the IFR flight plan and provided the weather briefing to (N number) on the above date. Include at least ½ hour overlap on both sides of the briefing. Please provide this in digital audio tape (DAT) format.
  2. Copy of the FSS Event Reconstruction of the aircraft accident involving (N number)

FROM: (departure) TOWER/TRACON

  1. Copies of the original DAT (on DAT tape in DAT format) voice tapes of all recorded positions in the TOWER/TRACON for the period of (relevant time period) UTC on (date)
  2. Target Reports (TG) and Tracking Data (TD) on separate text files with the following filters:

Date = (date of crash)
Time = (relevant time period) UTC
Range = 001055 (one mile to 55 miles from the radar site)
Azimuth = no filtering (full 360 degrees)
Altitude = 000-310
Beacon = no filtering (all transponder codes)
ACID = no filtering (aircraft ID)
Sensor = 0 (only one radar set – big airports like DFW have 4 different stations so you would set the parameter at 01-04).

Please provide the data requested from (departure) TOWER/TRACON in (here specify format based on your and your experts capacity to download and display i.e. – digital (ASCII) format on 3 ½ inch discs, 100 mg. Zip discs or CDs). These methods of extraction and transmission will allow the facility to provide computer disks containing the information in a format more desirable in saving time and effort on the part of the facility staff and total cost for the material.

FROM: (approach) TOWER/TRACON

  1. Copies of the original DAT (on DAT tape in DAT format) voice tapes of all recorded positions in the TOWER/TRACON for the period of (relevant time period) UTC on (date of crash).
  2. Target Reports (TG), Tracking/Associated (TA), Tracking/Unassociated (TU), Beacon Target (BT), Radar Target Reports (RT), and Radar Reinforced Target Reports (RB) separate text files with the following filters:Date = December 9, 1999
    Time = 2030 to 2130 UTC
    Range = 001055
    Azimuth = no filtering
    Altitude = 000-180
    Beacon = no filtering
    ACID = no filtering
    Sensor = Separate files for the above categories for each individual sensor including any ARSR inputs as a separate file.
  3. The ARTS IIE System Monitor Control (SMC) printout for (the time and date).
  4. The type, latitude/longitude, magnetic variation, and height (MSL) of the (approach) radar or radars.
  5. Auto Functions Reports (AF) for the period of (relevant time and dates).
  6. Keyboard Function Reports (KF) for the period of (relevant time and dates).
  7. Conflict Alerts (CA) for the period of (relevant time and dates).
  8. MSAW Alarm and Display Reports (MA & MS) for the period of (relevant time and dates).
  9. Interfacility Message Reports (IF) for the period of (relevant time and dates).
  10. Sign-ON/OFF data (SO) for the period of (relevant time and dates).
  11. The ARTS IIE System Monitor Control (SMC) printout for the period of (relevant time and dates).
  12. Readable copies of the “MINIMUM IFR ALTITUDE/MINIMUM VECTORING ALTITUDE OBSTRUCTION DOCUMENTATION”.
  13. A copy of the (approach) TOWER/TRACON Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) order.

Please provide the data requested from (approach) TOWER/TRACON in (same data recording specifications). These methods of extraction and transmission will allow the facility to provide computer disks containing the information in a format more desirable in saving time and effort on the part of the facility staff and total cost for the material.

FROM: (applicable) ARTCC

  1. NTAP data pertaining to all aircraft, especially (N number) on (subject date) particularly for an area bounded on the northwest (here provide control area geographic coordinates for route of flight)
  2. LST 3 (a new LST 5 may be available) printout of (N number) for the duration of the flight in the (applicable) ARTCC airspace.
  3. A Certified re-recording (on DAT tape in DAT format) of communications recording of the (applicable) ARTCC of the radar, associate, and supervisory positions associated with (N number) on (subject date).
  4. MSAW Alarm and Display Reports (MA & MS) for the period of (relevant time and dates).
  5. A readable copy of the “MINIMUM IFR ALTITUDE/MINIMUM VECTORING ALTITUDE OBSTRUCTION DOCUMENTATION” and/or a MINUMUM VECTORING ALTITUDE MAP.

Please provide the data requested from (applicable) ARTCC in (same data recording specifications). These methods of extraction and transmission allows the facility to provide computer disks containing the information in a format more desirable in saving time and effort on the part of the facility staff and total cost for the material.

In compliance with applicable regulations, I agree to pay reasonable charges incurred for search and copying costs. If you have any questions regarding this request, contact me immediately. I look forward to your response as soon as possible.

FOIAs are a powerful tool in the investigation process. The type of data available may very greatly depending on the radar capabilities of the facilities encountered from departure to crash. By issuing immediate, detailed and specific requests, you and your experts can retrace the events leading up to a crash and identify those responsible for the tragic conclusion.