THAT’S WHAT A HAMBURGER… AND WAKE TURBULENCE… IS ALL ABOUT

Most of us that have spent any time in California know about In-N-Out burger.  For pilots, In-N-Out should have a special place in your heart.  It certainly does for me.  I grew up in Orange County and learned to fly at John Wayne Airport (SNA).  I soloed on 9/11/1993.  It was a cold December day of that year when and I was headed to the airport for another flight.  That’s when I heard the news.  An aircraft had crashed just short of the runway and it was pretty bad.  

In-N-Out was founded by Harry & Esther Snyder in 1948.  They had two children, Harry (Guy) and Richard.  When Harry Sr. died in 1976 from lung cancer, a very young Rich Snyder took over as president.  He continued to grow the company until his death in 1993.  Guy took over as President from his now deceased brother but his reign in the top position didn’t last long, however, and Guy died in ’99 from an accidental overdose.  A tragic end to an amazing legacy.  Esther, the matriarch of the Synder clan took over as President as she now outlived all of the men in her life.  Once Esther died, the entire In-N-Out ownership transferred to her only grandchild, Lynsi who continues to own and run the company to this day.

Once the dust settled, I learned that the jet that crashed was a Westwind that had been charted by Rich Synder returning from opening the 93rd In-N-Out restaurant in Fresno.  Rich was accompanied by two friends, one being the Executive VP of the company.  Breaking a company rule that did not allow corporate executives to travel together, this crash took the lives of five people, including the top company officials.

Coast TRACON (still at MCAS El Toro at this point) had been vectoring United Flight 103 onto the final approach course at John Wayne’s 19R while the Westwind was coming from KPOC and being vectored behind the United 757.  Because of the entry from the downwind to the final on the visual approach, the 757 was flying a nearly 6 degree glideslope.  The Westwind, however, was tracking the ILS on a normal 3 degree glideslope and closing in on the 757.  On about a 4 mile final, the Westwind was only 2 miles in trail and 400′ below the 757.  The wreckage was analyzed and when the report finally came in, it was determined that the Westwind crashed at an 45 degree nose down attitude and the flight path showed 80 degrees downward.  

The FAA utilizes the airplane categories as a basis for their IFR separation standards.  As of the date of the accident, the FAA separation standard between a large and heavy airplane was 5 nautical miles.  The standard between large airplanes was 3 nautical miles.

The FAA Air Traffic Handbook 7110.65H, 7-10(a)(2), Change 1, Visual Separation states in part, “…The tower shall not provide visual separation between aircraft when wake turbulence separation is required or when the lead aircraft is a B-757….”  Change 1 was to become effective January 6, 1994.

An excerpt from the NTSB report “The National Business Aircraft Association (NBAA) provided the Safety Board with data reflecting fly-by and other engineering tests conducted by the FAA through independent investigators and by the British Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) in 1992.  These data, some of which was generated in 1991, showed several instances in which large turbine jets, i.e., Boeing 737, McDonnell-Douglas DC-8, and other corporate jet aircraft, encountered a loss of control when following Boeing 757 aircraft.”

As a result of this accident, as well as several others between 1983 and 1993, the NTSB conducted a special investigation that resulted in Wake Turbulence being added to the NTSB’s Most Wanted list in 1995.  After a series of improvements implemented by the FAA, Wake Turbulence was removed from the Most Wanted list in 1998.  

In 2014, the FAA released an updated Advisory Circular 90-23G, that provides a wealth of information on wake turbulence and avoidance procedures.  Additionally, the Pilot & Air Traffic Controller Guide to Wake Turbulence details several of the accidents referenced above.  Additionally, it provides valuable information for both pilots and controllers alike.  It is important to remember that most air traffic controllers are not pilots and may only have a rudimentary understanding of things we take for granted.

While the separation minimums changed in 2016 with the Wake Turbulence Recategorization order, the fundamentals are still the same.  You’ve heard your instructor beat it into your head many times in the past, when following a heavy or jet aircraft, stay above his glide path and land after his touchdown spot.  Learning to fly out of John Wayne solidified my understanding and appreciation for these procedures. 

The “In-N-Out” accident was a tragic end to a legacy while at the same time, jump-starting a new legacy of understanding, research and additional safety procedures to prevent these incidents from occurring again.  So the next time you are eating a Double-Double, no tomato, grilled onions with extra spread and animal fries, say a quick thank you to all of the people that lost their lives in pursuit of a safer aviation experience.  

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