Three Plane Collision Narrowly Averted At Reagan National Airport

A truly horrific air disaster was narrowly averted yesterday just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C.:

The National Transportation Safety Board said Thursday that it will investigate an incident at Reagan National Airport in which three commuter jets came within seconds of a midair collision Tuesday after confused air traffic controllers launched two outbound flights directly at another plane coming in to land, according to federal officials with direct knowledge of the event.

The NTSB said it had done a preliminary radar review of the near-collision and expected the Federal Aviation Administration to deliver detailed information later Thursday.

On Capitol Hill on Thursday, U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.) expressed frustration with the pace of a transportation committee hearing on Amtrak, and said, “We should be having a hearing about two planes being put on a collision course trying to land” at National.

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 incidents, 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 a number of inbound planes were queued up to turn above Mount Vernon, 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, turning them north of Rosslyn and 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 familiar with the incident 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.

Hours after being alerted to the incident by The Washington Post, the FAA’s public affairs office issued a statement Wednesday night saying that it is investigating the matter and will take appropriate action to address the miscommunication.

“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 the article goes on to note, what he had here was a basic failure to communicate. Why the controllers never passed the necessary information on to the pilots of the three planes is a mystery, but one I’m sure the NTSB will be looking into.

 

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. DC Loser says:

    Well, it’s human error, and it regrettably happens. That Air Traffic controllers experience information overload during peak traffic times in busy airspace is not a surprise. No matter what the finding and remedial fixes, things like this will happen again. It’s just the nature of the beast. I’ve been in the approach into National from the south (like the article states) and was on one plane that was ordered to go around and approach from the north just as we were lining up for final approach on the southerly landing route. It’s a very delicate dance to all of a sudden send all the inbound aircraft around following the beltway around Virginia and then have your aircraft lining up for takeoff taxi to the other end of the runway.

  2. Bill says:

    For two years in the 1980’s, I lived in the DC area. Only once did I fly in and out of Washington National. My opinion- It was less stressful than flying through San Diego which I lived in for two years after I PCSd. Both airports are wedged into heavily built up areas and airspace is limited. National because of security reasons, Lindbergh because of terrain.

    Anyway, there has been only 1 fatal air accident at DCA 1950. Air Florida Flight 90. There were three fatal crashes at DCA in the 1940s.

    I agree with DC Loser. Human error will always occur with ATC. The US hasn’t had a major midair in 26 years. Other parts of the world(Germany, India, Brazil) haven’t been so fortunate.

  3. Console says:

    The traffic management unit metaphorically fell asleep on the job. The only thing I’m wondering is what runway the plane read back in his landing clearance. I assume he was cleared for an approach to one runway, then cleared to land another. A lot of times, what you expect to hear, becomes what you hear (that goes for pilots and controllers both). Pure speculation on my part, but I’m assuming someone misheard a runway.

    Don’t let the media sensationalism get to the story though. The controller had 12 seconds to act… welcome to being an air traffic controller in the tower environment.

  4. Console says:

    The three plane collision thing is also a bit ridiculous. Was the plane in trail magically going to catch up to and hit the guy launched in front of him?