Near-collisions on rise in Washington area's skies amid influx of inexperienced controllers

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 5, 2010

A 120-seat United Airlines plane bound for Reagan National Airport from Chicago narrowly avoided colliding with a business jet departing from Dulles last Monday, the latest of 22 recent potentially dangerous mistakes by air traffic controllers who command the skies above Washington.

The United Airbus 319 was within 15 seconds of colliding with a 22-seat Gulfstream jet before, an internal FAA document shows, an onboard warning system ordered the pilots to take evasive action. The United pilot reported seeing the smaller jet pass just behind him.

"It's the air traffic controller that's supposed to control this situation, not" the onboard warning system, said John DeLisi, deputy director of aviation for the National Transportation Safety Board. "When it had to kick in and do its thing, that wasn't a good controller."

The number of times planes have come too close for comfort in the region in the past six months has surpassed the total of 18 the previous year. Nationwide, air traffic controllers committed 949 errors last year.

The incidents come as a new cadre of controllers is being trained to replace a generation of retiring controllers, a legacy of the 1981 strike during which President Ronald Reagan fired virtually the entire staff of controllers. Forty-nine of the 177 controllers who handle in-flight traffic for the Washington region, the third-busiest airspace in the nation after New York and Los Angeles, have yet to be certified in all aspects of their job, according to the FAA.

FAA regulations require that planes be separated by at least three miles or 1,000 feet in altitude. At cruising altitude, a passenger jet traveling 500 mph will cover a mile -- 5,280 feet -- in 7.2 seconds. As they climb to or descend from those heights, speed is lower: A mile passes in 18 seconds at 200 mph, 14 seconds at 250 and 12 seconds at 300.

NTSB investigations

The NTSB is investigating almost a dozen midair near-collisions that have occurred nationally since it began to mandate that they be reported in March. They include an incident 24,000 feet over Maryland on March 25, when a Continental Airlines 737 came within about a mile of colliding with a Gulfstream jet. The traffic was under the direction of a controller who had been on the job for almost three years after graduating from a college program. She was still in training.

"I am very comfortable that we run an incredibly safe system," said J. Randolph Babbitt, head of the Federal Aviation Administration.

The incidents over Washington, detailed in internal FAA documents, have ranged from planes being ordered into the dangerous, turbulent wake of jumbo jets to mistakes that could have led to midair collisions involving commercial airliners carrying hundreds of passengers.

Among the closest calls: A Continental 737 waiting to land at National came within 3,900 feet of a military plane that had taken off from Andrews Air Force Base. An 80-passenger shuttle jet taking off from Dulles International Airport was turned directly into the path of a commuter jet on track to land at National, and they continued on that course until onboard collision-avoidance systems went off. A JetBlue Airways 150-passenger Airbus was directed into the path of a Beechcraft charter jet as both were making final approach to Dulles. They passed within about 3,600 feet of each other.

Last Monday's incident occurred as thunderstorms disrupted the normal flow of air traffic in the region, requiring controllers to send planes under their direction into airspace supervised by their colleagues. The United pilot radioed that he had "pulled up twice, hard" to avoid a twin-engine Gulfstream business jet that had come within several hundred feet.

The controllers handling the two planes were sitting two radar screens away in the Warrenton Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) building. When the United controller needed to send the plane into the airspace under a colleague's supervision, he did a "splat-splat," highlighting his United plane in yellow as it made the move. But there was no oral communication.

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