A veteran air traffic controller who directed Michelle Obama’s plane into the potentially dangerous turbulence of a massive military jet this year also made a mistake that nearly caused a collision involving a U.S. congressman last year.
The circumstances of the April 18 incident — in which a plane carrying the first lady and Jill Biden, wife of the vice president, came too close to a C-17 while approaching Andrews Air Force Base — was outlined Thursday in a report by the National Transportation Safety Board.
The controller responsible for the mistake, Breen Peck, was also involved in an incident in June 2010 when a United Airlines Airbus 319 carrying Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) came within 15 seconds of colliding with a smaller jet while approaching Washington.
The United pilot could be heard saying “That was close” on the radio. He reported pulling up hard after a cockpit collision warning went off, narrowly missing a 22-seat commuter jet.
“At the very least, the [Federal Aviation Administration] should have retrained the controller after the incident on June 28, 2010,” Sensenbrenner said, “and then fired the controller after the error that caused the first lady’s flight to abort a landing at Andrews Air Force Base.”
Peck is in the midst of a comprehensive retraining program that began shortly after the Obama plane incident. He said Thursday that he has been trying to get transferred from the Potomac Terminal Radar Approach Control facilities in Warrenton, which controls all traffic in and out of the region’s three major airports.
“I’ve been trying to get out of here for several years,” said Peck, who acknowledged his involvement with both flights.
In addition to the Obama and Sensenbrenner incidents, Peck has been held responsible for at least two other errors in the six years he has worked at Potomac. He has been a certified controller since 1991, and so far his retraining program has cleared him to handle planes operating in two of the region’s seven air traffic sectors.
Peck said he wasn’t bothered by the fast pace or complicated challenge of managing planes that use Dulles International Airport, Reagan National Airport, Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport and Andrews Air Force Base, some of the busiest airspaces in the nation.
“The workload and the traffic doesn’t bother me,” he said. “I just don’t care for it here that much.”
The transfer process, he said, involves applying for air traffic positions elsewhere and then having managers of the two facilities reaching agreement on the move.
The incident involving Obama and Biden occurred as they were returning from a television appearance and other events in New York aboard a Boeing 737 that is part of the White House fleet.
Peck was the controller handling a sector that includes approaches to Andrews Air Force Base. The C-17 had been cleared to land, and Peck was lining up the White House jet to land behind it.
The turbulence created by a 200-ton C-17, which ripples behind planes like waves in the wake of a supertanker ship, is a potential danger. It is powerful enough to severely buffet a trailing plane and, in extreme cases, result in a crash.
As a result, a minimum distance of five miles of separation is required between a C-17 and a trailing plane. Peck allowed the White House jet to come within three miles of the military plane. When controllers feared that plane might not clear the runway fast enough, they ordered the Obama plane to abort its landing.
The NTSB report said Peck was confused about the requirements.
“He declared that he confused the minimum wake turbulence separation requirements for a B737 following a heavy C-17 as 4 miles instead of the required 5 miles between aircraft,” the NTSB report said. “The controller stated that he was thinking of [a Boeing] 757 following 757 separation at Washington Reagan National Airport and confused the two applications during this incident.”
The NTSB, better known for its investigations of crashes, began reviewing errors by air traffic controllers after a sharp increase last year. The air traffic controllers in the Washington region, who direct more than 1.5 million flights, made a record number of mistakes in 2010.