The flight crew of a Delta Air Lines jumbo jet, which strayed 60 miles off course over the North Atlantic Wednesday and nearly collided with a Continental Airlines jet, immediately attempted to cover up the incident, aviation sources said yesterday.
The cover-up attempt was recorded by an Air Force jet that was in the area at the time and taped a radio conversation between the Delta and Continental flight crews.
Sources with access to details on the tape said that just after the near-collision, which happened in Canadian airspace at 31,000 feet, the Delta crew suggested to the Continental crew that the incident should not be reported.
But the Continental crew disagreed, pointing out that several Continental passengers had seen the Delta plane when it passed within 100 feet. An American Airlines jet, flying 4,000 feet higher, also joined in discussions about whether to report the incident, according to the sources. The American Airlines plane subsequently helped the Delta jet get back on course.
Failure by U.S.-registered planes to report any deviation from course, whether they were in U.S. airspace or not, would be in violation of Federal Aviation Administration regulations, an FAA spokesman said.
Jim Ewing, director of national media relations for Delta, said that the airline had no knowledge of the existence of the Air Force tape. "It is too early to say whose voices may or may not be on it or what they are saying. We will have to wait for the results of the inquiry," he said.
Delta said yesterday its own inquiry was continuing into the incident.
The Air Force tape is expected to play a key role in the inquiry into the incident, which is being coordinated by Canadian authorities. The recorded conversations were being analyzed yesterday by experts at the National Transportation Safety Board before the tape was turned over to the Canadian Aviation Safety Board.
Christiane Beaulieu, spokeswoman for the Canadian board, confirmed that a U.S. Air Force tape was being examined as part of the inquiry. "If the tape turns out to have conversations which we should tell the world about, then decisions will be made about whether to release urgent recommendations," she said.
The Air Force jet is understood to have been on a training mission over the Atlantic when it listened to the radio conversations. It was close to the scene of the near-collision, which happened in clear skies shortly after noon, off the coast of Gander, Newfoundland.
The Delta L1011-500 Tristar, with 167 passengers and crew on board, was three hours into its flight from Gatwick, London, to Cincinnati when it strayed off course, encountering the Continental Airlines Boeing 747, heading for New York and carrying 399 passengers and 25 crew members.
The crew of an American Airlines jet, 10 miles behind, saw the near-collision and helped guide the Delta plane back on course.
According to the aviation sources, the Air Force jet took special measures to preserve the conversations that it recorded after the incident. In normal circumstances, the tape would have erased itself automatically after 30 minutes.
Sources said they believed that the three airlines did not keep the relevant sections of their tapes.
The sources said that the Delta crew members requested that the incident not be reported soon after they realized they had flown 60 miles off course.
During the radio talks, the American Airlines crew suggested that the incident could be reported under FAA immunity procedures. These procedures allow a pilot to be given immunity from disciplinary action if he reports an "unsafe incident" and no independent evidence of the incident becomes available to authorities.
However, the Continental crew reported the near-collision to Canadian authorities on landing at New York.
One source close to the investigation said yesterday that the military jet's tape-recording was raising serious concerns because it added to fears that unreported near-collisions are common over the oceans.
Aircraft flying over the Atlantic have no assistance from radar because the curvature of the Earth's surface prevents land-based radar stations from following their progress. As a result, extra care has to be taken by pilots in plotting and recording their positions.
"It is scary to think there are incidents out there that aren't being reported. I am sure there have been lots of other near-misses. Out there you are on your own between the skies," the source said.
"Nobody really owns the ocean and there is no big brother watching over you."