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I recently received an email from a gentleman associated with an Eastern 401 memorial group. At theirthey have a passage referring to EA401’s route of flight and he asked, “I was wondering if you can shed some professional light on what Jet Airway 79 is. I’ve tried to find it on aeronautical charts but haven’t found it. Did the numbers change? I’d appreciate any professional ATC observations you can add to this, or any other aspect of the accident.”
I replied that this was his lucky day, as not only could I help him with the “J-79” question, I could offer some other insights unlikely available anywhere else. I continued with the explanation below.
J-79 is an airway (FL180—or 18,000’—and above—as are all J designated airways) which runs from ORF (and points north, although I don’t know which fixes, nor how far—ORF is in ZDC’s airspace, well outside of my expertise) to ILM to CHS then toward JAX (but not to JAX) turning south of SAV toward DAB (and now OMN), then on to VRB. I don’t remember if it actually went over PBI before continuing to MIA, or if it went directly from VRB to MIA. As with the referenced ZDC above, VRB and south was ZMA’s airspace, and beyond my expertise.
To better visualize the airway as it goes from CHS to DAB, draw a line from CHS to JAX (which is actually J-77) and another from SAV to DABwhich is actually J-51). J-79 went from CHS to the intersection of J-51 and J-77 south of SAV and then went down to DAB (which, as mentioned, is present day OMN—same location it’always been—just the name change).
Most of the above discussion is unimportant because the J-79 portion of the flight only applied to the flight to ILM. From that point, it was filed C-1150 (Control 1150), a LF (low frequency) airway almost straight south of ILM, passing through the Azalea intersection (east/southeast of CHS), the Gateway intersection (due east of JAX), the Barracuda intersection (roughly east of VRB) and then direct to MIA. I do not recall those “ocean” flights (as we called them) going over PBI. Those Control airways are now named something else and no longer exist in either the designation or with the associated numbers I knew.
All along the East Coast were Warning Areas which were large chunks of airspace extending from the coastline out to C-1150 and reaching from the surface all the way up. They were controlled by the military—some by the Navy/Marines and some by the Air Force. There were a lot of "live fire" exercises conducted in those areas, and in the time I was at ZJX we were rarely able to get permission to run flights through them.
Now is the part where I alleged the inquirer hit paydirt. On the day that the fatal EA401 went through, we had a release of the Warning Areas east of Jacksonville for our use and the controller working the sector at the time was giving a vector to all the MIA area flights (which includes FLL and PBI) so they wound up west of Barracuda. So, literary artistry notwithstanding, what very few people would know is that EA401 never actually went over Barracuda that day—passing somewhat to the west of it. And since MIA was landing East (the usual direction although not always), the flight would likely have been vectored somewhat west of PBI and FLL in order to facilitate the turn on to the ILS (instrument landing system) approach to runway 9L.
I told the enquirer that for his purposes, the tale gets even better. I don’t remember the reason, but for a brief period of time, I was assigned to “F-Troop” (named after the TV show popular at the time) which was a sort of temporary staff assignment for controllers unable to work positions for a variety of reasons. I don’t even remember why I was there but the assignment given me was to transcribe the tape of the Ocean sector as part of the ZJX accident package prepared for the EA401 accident. If you are able to obtain the package, the entire transcript for the ZJX portion was done be me. Doing a transcription requires listening to the tape of the sector and typing up all pertinent exchanges between the facility and the subject aircraft. The process involves listening to parts of it several times. I was intimately familiar with EA401’s progress through ZJX’s airspace.
The thing I remember, which still sort of sends chills up my spine, was when the controller assigned a 200 heading to EA401 for vectors to MIA (virtually the same instruction given to several aircraft preceding EA401), the 401 pilot (whichever one was handling the radio on board, and from reading the website referenced above, appears to have been the captain) replied, “200 heading—lining us up like ducks in a row,” (or words to that effect). It struck me at the time that the voice was so very much alive at that point but had been silenced forever only an hour or so later.
I worked that sector many times before and after, and, as can be seen elsewhere in the Tales… section, had my own adventure there myself. That adventure was just a week before EA401 and roughly two months prior to my transfer to ORD which ended my association with the Ocean sector for good.
I hope this information is useful to you.
Last updated: 23 September 2011