A mystery man flying in a jetpack in Los Angeles was seen for the second time in two months, CNN reported. Both sightings were reported by airplane flight crews mid-flight near the Los Angeles International Airport. Such flights spell trouble for air traffic control.
According to CNN, a man flying in a jetpack has crowded the skies for the second time in as many months. “The man was spotted by a flight crew around 1:45 p.m. Wednesday,” the article said. “The FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] said it alerted local law enforcement agencies and are investigating the report. Similar sightings of a man in a jetpack near LAX were reported to the FAA in September.”
The article said that he was first reported on September 1, by an American Airlines flight crew at a low-flying altitude of 3,000 feet. The more recent sighting took place at an altitude of 6,000 feet and was reported by a China Airlines crew.
As entertaining as the idea is, air traffic control could have a real mess on their hands if the jetpack pilot keeps it up.
The Flow of Traffic
The roles and purposes of air traffic control are obvious, while their responsibilities are immense.
“Air traffic controllers issue instructions to aircraft, telling pilots which direction to fly; whether to climb, descend, or remain level at a specific altitude; and in some cases what speed to fly,” said Dr. James Gregory, Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at The Ohio State University. “They’re responsible for controlling an aircraft’s 4-D trajectory: latitude, longitude, altitude, and speed.”
Dr. Gregory said that in the United States, air traffic is an incredibly complicated and dynamic system, including traffic patterns that shift throughout the day. For example, he said, in the late evening, there is a surge in transatlantic flights departing from eastern cities. At dawn, a series of flights take off from US cities that are connected to package delivery companies like UPS.
“At the beginning of the work day, traffic bursts from the East Coast cities, while the west remains quiet,” Dr. Gregory said. “Soon enough, the entire US is swarming like a beehive of traffic, with a peak of between 5,000 and 10,000 aircraft in the air, at any given moment.”
On the Ground
The first step in the air traffic control process is that an air traffic controller issues instructions to a pilot, which include changes in speed and altitude adjustment, as well as adjustments to the direction of flight, the latter of which is called heading.
“After the [air traffic controller] issues the instructions, the pilot reads back the most critical elements to confirm receipt of the transmission and to ensure that the details are correct,” Dr. Gregory said. “Each aircraft uses their call sign, but the controller owns the frequency and doesn’t have to identify. Also, notice that both the pilots and the controller omit any units. In the US, and in much of the world, it’s understood that altitudes are reported in feet and speeds are reported in knots, which are nautical miles per hour.”
Massive teams work with each flight to ensure a safe takeoff, flight, and landing. Dr. Gregory said that a pilot at the gate will first speak with clearance delivery, then ground control, and finally the control tower, all before taking off. Departure control takes over for the first few minutes of the flight, followed by one or more air route traffic control centers depending on the length of the flight. The sequence is reversed for landing.
“All told, one flight could be worked by a team of dozens of controllers, all handing off responsibility, and typically with changes of the radio frequency each time,” Dr. Gregory said.
Individual flyers with jetpacks have not entered into the equation.
Dr. James W. Gregory contributed to this article. Dr. Gregory is Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at The Ohio State University. He received a bachelor of science degree in Aerospace Engineering from Georgia Tech and a doctorate in Aeronautics and Astronautics from Purdue University.