Three jets narrowly avoid collision at D.C. airport
The inbound plane and the first of the outbound planes were about 12 seconds from impact when the tower controller recognized her mistake.
The Washington Post
Three commuter jets came within seconds of a midair collision at Reagan National Airport on Tuesday after confused air traffic controllers launched two outbound flights directly at another plane coming in to land, according to federal officials.
The three planes, all operated by US Airways, carried 192 passengers and crew members, the airline said. All of the flights reached their destinations without mishap, but the near collision was another among several thousand recorded errors by air traffic controllers nationwide in recent years.
National has been the site of some of the most notable problems, including one revealed last year in which the lone controller supervisor on duty was asleep and didn't respond when regional controllers sought to hand off planes to National for the final approach.
The problem Tuesday occurred about 2 p.m. as some inbound planes were lined up to fly north over the Potomac River and land on National's main runway. But an approaching storm caused a significant wind shift, and the air traffic control center in Warrenton wanted to reverse the flow of planes into the airport, routing them south along the river to land from the opposite direction.
The Warrenton controllers communicated the plan to the controller tower at National.
"The tower agreed, but they didn't pass it on to all the people they needed to pass it on to," said a federal official who was not authorized to speak publicly.
As a result, an incoming flight that had been cleared to land was flying head-on at two planes that had just taken off. The inbound plane and the first of the outbound planes were closing the 1.4 miles between them at a combined speed of 436 mph, a rate that meant they were about 12 seconds from impact when the tower controller recognized her mistake.
The Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) public-affairs office issued a statement saying it is investigating the matter.
The confusion is obvious in one exchange involving the tower controller and one inbound pilot.
"Are you with me?" the tower controller asked the inbound pilot, checking to see whether he was tuned to her radio frequency. When the pilot acknowledged her, she ordered him to make an abrupt turn to the south to avoid the other two planes.
"We were cleared (for landing) at the river there," the pilot said after breaking off the approach northwest of the airport. "What happened?"
After a pause, the controller said, "Stand by, we're trying to figure this out."
As she directed him to make a loop around the airport for a second landing attempt, the pilot cautioned: "We really don't have enough fuel here for this. We have to get on the ground pretty quick."
The federal official who reviewed the incident said what appeared to be a basic failure to communicate the planned change to everyone in the National tower was compounded by sloppy procedures.
"This is a pretty big screw-up for a major airport," the person said.
The world governed by air traffic controllers is split into three layers. Control centers handle planes at cruising altitude; terminal radar approach control, or Tracon, facilities work with pilots at lower altitudes; and airport control towers handle final landing approaches and takeoffs.
Commercial flight is a sequence of handoffs among controllers working the three levels. On Tuesday, Potomac Tracon in Warrenton contacted the National tower to suggest planes land in the opposite direction to accommodate the wind shift.