It was shortly after 10 p.m. on April 14 when the pilot of a JetBlue Airbus A320 flight out of Port of Spain, Trinidad, asked air traffic controllers at John F. Kennedy International Airport how long it would be until he could land.
“I — I don’t know,” the voice of an air traffic controller came over the radio, panic creeping in. “I’ve got this guy, disoriented, just about completely out of fuel, [he] tried four approaches at Farmingdale. This is his second approach at Kennedy.
“Right now, Kennedy is shut down for this emergency aircraft,” the controller continued, according to a recording obtained from LiveATC.net.
The pilot the controller was referring to was 27-year-old Dongil Kim, from Flushing, Queens, who, while returning to Long Island from a day trip at Niagara Falls in a single-engine rental Cessna 172 Skyhawk, made six landing attempts in a deep fog at two airports before running out of fuel and crashing in Valley Stream.
Kim and his two passengers survived the crash, virtually unscathed after the Cessna became entangled in power lines outside a Clarendon Drive home, and was suspended roughly one foot off the ground.
The frantic interaction with the Jet Blue flight was just one in a series revealing the chaos unfolding at one of the world’s busiest airports, as controllers quickly rerouted jetliners to make way for the small propeller plane. Among more than a dozen aircraft that had to be kept in the air were an Eva Air Boeing 772 arriving at JFK from Taiwan after a 14-hour flight; an American Airlines flight coming from Heathrow, in London; and a Delta Bombardier CRJ-900 out of Nashville, Tenn.
Despite the controllers’ efforts and directions, Kim was about three miles from the runway on his third landing attempt at JFK when he announced over the radio that he had run out of fuel, and his voice cut out.
“Say again? You said you’re out of fuel?” a controller asked.
The question was met with silence, as the controller reported the plane’s plummeting altitude before announcing that radar and radio contact with the Cessna had been lost.
It was the end of a nearly two-hour ordeal, as Kim wandered the Long Island airspace, that some aviation experts say could have easily resulted in catastrophe and should never have happened in the first place, laying bare weaknesses in the Federal Aviation Administration’s enforcement of its own regulations.
Avoidable mistakes and the FAA
“Compliance is based on an honor system that’s easy to abuse,” longtime pilot and flight instructor Robert Katz said of FAA guidelines and the pilots who must follow them. “Or as I call it, the fox guarding the chickens.”
Katz noted that the agency lacks the resources to enforce its regulations in real time, instead entrusting licensed pilots to follow the rules, investigating and doling out punishment only after an accident occurs.
Katz, a 38-year pilot, said that Kim may have violated a number FAA regulations that Sunday evening, most notably by attempting to land at airports where the visibility requirements for his type of plane were not met.
At East Farmingdale’s Republic Airport, where Kim originally took off, and attempted to land four times on his return, fog had reduced visibility to a quarter of a mile, according to the airport’s weather reports.
Republic requires that a pilot flying a plane such as Kim’s to be able to see at least a half mile in front of him at 200 feet in the air in order to land.
At JFK, the requirements are the same — Kim needed a half mile of visibility, but there the weather was even worse, with air traffic controllers repeatedly telling him that he would only see one-eighth of a mile in front of him at 200 feet.
At that point, however, it was too late to try another runway.
Fog and ‘get-there-itis’
Katz said that Kim’s repeated attempts to land instead of turning around and landing at an airport upstate or in Connecticut, where visibility would have been better, could be attributed to a phenomenon known as “get-there-itis.”
“It’s killed more pilots over the decades than likely anything else,” Katz said, describing it as a mindset in which a pilot seeks to land at a planned destination despite adverse conditions that should prompt consideration of another site.
Michael Barasch, managing partner of the Manhattan law firm Barasch McGarry, who has represented clients involved in a handful of aviation accidents, including the deadly 1990 Avianca Flight 52 crash in the village of Cove Neck on Long Island’s North Shore, agreed that it was likely an error in judgment to attempt a landing under such conditions.
“Just because someone is licensed doesn’t mean they should be flying a plane in this kind of weather,” Barasch said. “It’s incumbent on the pilot to look carefully and be honest with his own ability.”
Barasch said that because there were no injuries, and because pilot insurance would likely cover any damage to the power lines, he did not anticipate any lawsuits emerging from the crash.
Still, he maintained, it was an incident that likely never should have happened.
Investigations and consequences
Katz said he believes that in addition to FAA regulations dictating landing procedures, Kim may have violated a number of other regulations during his flight, including fuel requirements, safe altitudes and compliance with air traffic controller instructions, and could have his pilot’s license revoked.
Additionally, Kim’s medical certificate, which must be renewed every five years, and which FAA records indicate was issued in 2011, had expired.
A National Transportation Safety Board spokesman confirmed that the incident was under investigation, and that the board would look at a number of factors involved in the crash, including the pilot’s records. The findings will be relayed to the FAA, which will determine what, if any, punitive actions will be taken. The NTSB expects to release a preliminary report in the coming weeks.
Despite repeated attempts, Kim could not be reached for comment.
Barasch and Katz agreed that all involved, including the Valley Streamers on the ground, were extraordinarly fortunate. “For him to end up where he did,” Katz said of Kim, “was a one-in-a-million shot.”
For the full recording of Kim's radio communications with air traffic controllers follow this link to download the Mp3 file.