Congress, agencies investigating incident at Reagan National Airport

Two federal agencies and Congress said Thursday that they were investigating an incident at Reagan National Airport in which commuter jets headed in opposite directions closed to within about 1,650 yards of one another at a combined speed of 436 mph.

“Such near misses and any operational errors are calls to action,” said Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “I’m asking our aviation subcommittee staff and FAA to thoroughly review what happened.”

House Aviation Committee Chairman Thomas E. Petri (R-Wis.) said: “As a frequent flier, the incident at Reagan National Airport certainly captured my attention. It is alarming every time we have a close call, but airline travel in the U.S. has an excellent safety record.”

In addition to the congressional review, the incident will receive independent scrutiny from the National Transportation Safety Board and the FAA.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said that a lapse in communication Tuesday afternoon led to two commuter planes taking off from the runway at the same time that another plane was approaching from the opposite direction.

LaHood praised the air traffic controller who recognized that the planes were closing on each other at a high speed. The controller ordered one pilot to abort his approach to National and turn south. The three planes, all operated by US Airways, carried 192 passengers and crew members, the airline said. They all reached their destinations safely.

“We will get to the bottom of this, and we will take appropriate action to make sure miscommunication never happens again,” LaHood said at a news conference called to address the issue. “We need to interview these individuals to be sure before we say something definitive.”

He and Michael P. Huerta, the acting FAA administrator, said that the planes would not have collided head-on. “At no point were they on a head-to-head collision course,” LaHood said.

But LaHood twice declined to say what might have happened had the controller not ordered the inbound pilot to take evasive action.

“We’re not going to answer a hypothetical question,” LaHood said. “The answer is the controller did exactly what she should do. I’m going to call her and thank her for doing her job.”

A federal official with direct knowledge of the incident said that Huerta and LaHood were “mincing words.”

“They may not have been on a head-to-head,” said the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the incident. “But when [the controller] turned the [inbound plane], they were on a quartering collision course. If you get hit head-on in an intersection versus T-boned, does it really feel any different?”

The plane that had taken off second from National also got too close to the plane ahead of it, officials said.

LaHood said that top FAA officials and the NTSB first learned of the incident when The Washington Post contacted the FAA on Wednesday.

As the investigations got underway, a more detailed picture was provided by federal officials with direct knowledge of the incident.

It began, as LaHood and Huerta acknowledged Thursday, with a failure to fully communicate a routine but critical piece of information.

A storm cell blowing toward Washington changed the wind direction. Controllers in the Warrenton facility that guides planes to and from cruising altitude conferred with their counterparts in the control tower at National. They decided to reverse the direction in which planes were arriving and departing.

Planes had been coming northbound up the Potomac River to land on National’s main runway. With the wind shift, it was decided that they instead should approach National from the opposite direction.

Someone failed to tell one of the controllers in the National tower.

As that controller cleared two US Airways commuter jets — Flight 3467 with 70 on board, and Flight 3071 with 49 aboard — in a northbound direction, an inbound plane that had been rerouted after the wind shift was headed south in their direction.

The pilot of that flight — US Airways 3329 with 73 people on board — had just been ordered by the Warrenton controllers to switch to the tower controller’s frequency for final approach.

“He said, ‘Hi, here I am on the river approach,’ and she kind of went, ‘What? You’re where?’ ” said the federal official.

The controller can be heard on a radio recording asking the pilot, “Are you with me?”

Recognizing the problem, the controller ordered the incoming pilot to turn to the right.

Someone inside the tower, believed to be her supervisor, is heard shouting: “Turn right! Turn right!”

The controller ordered an additional right turn, then instructed the pilot to abort his approach.

As the pilot executed the maneuver, his plane was within 82 one-hundredths of a nautical mile of the oncoming plane, or about 1,650 yards, and the difference in their altitude was 800 feet. The combined speed of the two planes, 436 mph, meant that at one point they were 12 seconds apart.

As he turned to avoid contact with the first plane, he came too close to the second plane: 2.07 nautical miles and 800 feet of altitude. Planes are required to maintain a separation of three miles and 1,000 feet of altitude.

The sharp turn averted one problem but created a new potential violation of aviation rules.

The turn was ordered at what is known as the minimum vectoring altitude, the lowest point at which turns are allowed at that stage of the approach.

“Every controller on the planet knows you don’t vector below [it] because you can’t guarantee the aircraft will be safe from the obstacles on the ground,” the federal official said. “They look at every cell tower, every building, every lightning rod, every mountain, and they set a minimum vectoring altitude. This airplane was below the minimum vectoring altitude.

At one point, the turning plane was 200 feet below the 2,000-foot minimum altitude.

Controllers are allowed to violate that rule in emergency situations, another federal official said.

This is not the first occasion that controllers at National have been involved in controversy. Last year, news of a sleeping controller there led to the revelation that controllers on overnight shifts at several other airports were napping on the job. The FAA suspended or fired several controllers for sleeping on the job, and the controversy contributed to the ouster of the head of the FAA’s air traffic control organization.

Another incident involving National Airport drew attention to errors made by controllers. In 2010, an airliner carrying Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) swerved to avoid another jet when the planes got so close that an onboard collision avoidance system was activated.

Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.
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