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 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.