Officials with the Federal Aviation Administration confirmed Tuesday that the first lady was aboard the plane and said that “the aircraft were never in any danger.” The White House referred all questions to the FAA.
The FAA, already dealing with a series of controversies involving controllers sleeping and watching a movie on the job, sent a team of investigators Tuesday to the Warrenton radar control center, where the mistake was made.
The number of air traffic controller errors where planes come too close to each other have increased dramatically in the past year. They still account for only a tiny portion of all flights, and very few of the errors put passengers at risk. The FAA classified Monday’s error as an “A,” the most serious type.
The first lady was returning from a television appearance and other events in New York with Jill Biden, the vice president’s wife, and was aboard a Boeing 737 that is part of the presidential fleet when the error occurred on the plane’s final approach to the base.
The FAA controllers in the tower at Andrews recognized that the massive C-17 and the Obama flight were far too close when the Warrenton controller handed off responsibility for the two aircraft.
They ordered the Obama plane to execute a series of S-turns in an effort to create a safe distance between it and the C-17, federal officials said. When those maneuvers failed to achieve the required distance between the two planes — and the Andrews controllers realized the cargo jet would not have time to get off the runway before the presidential plane arrived — they aborted the landing of the Obama plane and ordered it to circle the base.
The correct distance
Because an airplane’s wake causes severe turbulence and, in extreme cases, can cause a plane that enters into it to crash, the FAA has strict standards on how much distance controllers should maintain between planes.
A fully loaded C-17 can create such turbulence that the FAA requires other planes to remain at least five miles behind it. The presidential fleet 737 already was far closer than that when the handoff took place from the Potomac Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) facility in Warrenton.
“The manager and tower controller at Andrews did several things to try to increase the separation on final [approach] before ordering a go-around,” said a senior FAA manager familiar with the incident.
The FAA manager said the Warrenton controller exhibited “really bad controller technique.”
“Not only did he get them too close, he told the [Andrews controller] that they were farther apart than they were,” he said.