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Concern over near-collisions

The wreckage of a helicopter that collided with a plane is removed from the Hudson River.
The wreckage of a helicopter that collided with a plane is removed from the Hudson River. (Seth Wenig/associated Press)
By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Just as the Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 bound for Baltimore lifted off from a Houston runway in April, a helicopter abruptly buzzed into its path, skimming 50 feet above it as the plane's pilot hugged the ground to avoid a collision.

A few weeks earlier, the pilot of a United Airlines Boeing 777 had just retracted the landing gear after takeoff from San Francisco when a small plane appeared to his right without warning. The United pilot flattened his trajectory and looked up to see the underbelly of the other plane.

Eight weeks ago, the pilot of a US Airways Airbus 319 being directed to a landing in Anchorage suddenly discovered he was 100 feet above the path of a Boeing 747 cargo jet taking off for Chicago.

All three of the near-collisions are being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board as it shoulders greater responsibility for scrutiny of the crowded skies and the air traffic controllers who manage them.

The safety board's concern about how the Federal Aviation Administration keeps records of potentially disastrous controller mistakes was spelled out in the Federal Register.

"The NTSB does not believe that the FAA's processes for assessing and reporting incidents, particularly those involving losses of separation [the required distance between aircraft], are sufficiently reliable," the NTSB wrote in the register Jan. 7 in defending its intent to delve into the issue. "Recent Department of Transportation Inspector General investigations have documented repeated failures to report incidents, misclassification of incidents, and other circumstances which lead the NTSB, as an independent agency, to seek additional means of monitoring the performance of the ATC system."

The number of mistakes by air traffic controllers is up sharply this year in the skies over Washington, and they increased nationwide until 2009, when the recession-wracked economy saw the number of flights drop by 7 million.

FAA head J. Randolph Babbitt said the error numbers are up because of a new system that protects controllers from punishment if they report their own mistakes. The FAA began training controllers in self-reporting in 2008, but the agency is still implementing the process. At the same time, some veteran controllers contend that in replacing a generation of retiring controllers the FAA has put too many novice and partially qualified controllers in some of the busiest, high-pressure locations.

The NTSB, best known for investigating the aftermath of transportation disasters, hasn't set out to truth squad that debate, said Thomas E. Haueter, director of the NTSB's office of aviation safety, but to answer a more important question.

"Is there a safety issue?" said Haueter, whose agency began the more stringent reviews in March. "We'll know a lot more a year from now."

When asked about the NTSB's comments in the Federal Register, the FAA said in a statement: "The FAA is now using a non-punitive reporting system for all air traffic control safety issues -- including loss of separation -- to encourage controllers to report every incident as thoroughly as possible. We believe this culture change has significantly increased reporting of operational errors and has given us much richer data that will lead to continuing safety improvements."

In several of the first 11 cases sampled by the NTSB for review, onboard collision warning systems alerted pilots of passenger jets to take evasive action. Two cases were close encounters between airliners and helicopters, and in one instance a regional passenger jet flew 150 feet above a firetruck that a controller had cleared to cross the runway. Three of the events point to pilot error: One plane landed on the wrong runway, another confused a taxiway for a runway, and a third turned his radio way down in flight not long after the infamous case in which the pilots in a Northwest Airlines cockpit went wildly off course while ignoring radio calls.

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