Susan Walsh, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — None of the commuter jets that flew too close together near Washington this week was ever on course to collide head-on with the others, federal officials said Thursday.
During a news conference, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood strongly disputed media reports characterizing what happened as a near-miss.
"At no point were the three aircraft on a head-to-head course. They were not on a collision course," said Michael Huerta, administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration.
The jet problem occurred Tuesday after a miscommunication between a manager at Potomac Consolidated Terminal Radar Approach Control and two traffic management coordinators at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, Huerta said. Officials are investigating. The exact nature of the miscommunication was not immediately clear, but there was apparently a failure on both ends to follow standard procedure.
Air traffic controllers at the time had been changing the direction planes were landing and taking off at the airport because of bad weather including several thunderstorms, the closest about 6 miles south. Controllers cleared two outbound flights to head in the direction of an incoming plane.
Both LaHood and Huerta praised the work of air traffic controllers to quickly set the US Airways-operated commuter planes on another path once they learned they were too close together. Huerta said the planes were on different headings at different altitudes and thus never would have crashed.
All of the planes were equipped with collision avoidance systems, but none was activated Tuesday, Huerta said.
When asked by a reporter, LaHood refused to discuss what may have happened if the planes had not been diverted by the air traffic controller.
Federal guidelines require that commercial jets remain separated by at least 1,000 vertical feet and 3.5 lateral miles.
The agency said the landing plane, which departed from Portland, Maine, came within 800 vertical feet and about nine-tenths of a lateral mile of one departing plane and 800 vertical feet and 2.4 lateral miles of a second outbound plane. The outbound planes were bound for Kansas City and Columbus, Ohio.
A former pilot and air traffic controller, who now heads the non-profit Flight Safety Foundation in Alexandria, Va., said the fact that onboard collision-avoidance alarm systems did not go off is "telling." If two planes are on an imminent collision course, that alarm would have sounded, and that system is very reliable, William Voss said.
"It's kind of like the difference between a speeding ticket and reckless driving. It's definitely more in the speeding ticket category," Voss said of Tuesday's incident.
Voss said changing the arrival and departure directions at an airport is a "complicated situation," one of the most difficult procedures air traffic control does. That's especially so at Reagan National, in part because it's such a busy airport.
The National Transportation Safety Board said Thursday that it would be investigating the incident.
An audio recording of communications between the landing plane and the air traffic control tower indicates confusion as the flight is given instructions on landing.
"We were clear at the river back there. What happened?" someone in the plane's cockpit says on the recording, obtained from LiveATC.com, a website that records air traffic communications.
The tower responds: "We're trying to figure this out, too. Stand by."
The landing flight then advises the tower that the plane doesn't have much fuel left: "We gotta get on the ground here pretty quick," a man says.
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