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.
“This is a pretty big screw-up for a major airport,” the person said.
The official likened proper procedure to that of two flag men using radios to direct a single lane of traffic around a highway construction zone.
“They say, ‘You’re good to go after the yellow pickup truck gets there,’ ” the official said. “When we change the direction of operation because of a wind shift, we’re supposed to give the specific call sign of the last plane. They didn’t use call signs [at National]. They didn’t do the coordination well.”
The world governed by air traffic controllers is split into three layers. Control centers handle planes at cruising altitude, terminal radar approach control, or Tracon, facilities work with pilots at lower altitudes, and airport control towers handle final landing approaches and takeoffs.
Commercial flight is a sequence of handoffs between controllers working the three levels. On Tuesday, Potomac Tracon in Warrenton contacted the National tower to suggest that planes land in the opposite direction to accommodate the wind shift.
News of the sleeping controller at National last year 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 last year, 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.
The FAA said that it recorded 1,234 operational errors in fiscal 2009 and that the number jumped to 1,887 in 2010, although there were more than a million fewer flights that year. The overwhelming majority of those incidents in which controllers allowed planes to get to close to one another did not put passengers at risk, but there were enough more-serious events that the National Transportation Safety Board stepped in to review them.
One that the safety agency scrutinized was a relatively minor mistake involving a plane with first lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, the wife of the vice president, onboard.
Other cases the NTSB reviewed were more serious: A Boeing 737 nearly hit a helicopter while taking off from Houston; a Boeing 777 skimmed under a small plane on takeoff from San Francisco; a Boeing 737 nearly collided with a Cessna in Burbank, Calif.; an Airbus 319 passed 100 feet above the path of a Boeing 747 taking off in Anchorage; and an Embraer 135 taking off from Chicago took evasive action to avoid an in-bound twin-engine prop plane.