Confusion after Vice President Biden landed in Chicago on Monday almost resulted in a collision between two passenger planes just above the tarmac at O’Hare International Airport , according to federal officials and air traffic recordings.
The near-collision involved a pair of 50-seat, twin-engine commuter jets, one inbound from Muskegon, Mich., and the other taking off for Buffalo. Biden’s plane was not involved in the incident. The other planes came within 300 feet of colliding, a crash that was averted as an angry pilot and a surprised air traffic controller expressed their dismay with expletives.
A controller supervisor stepped in, ordering that the inbound plane, a SkyWest Airlines Canadair jet with 29 people aboard, abort its landing to avoid an ExpressJet Airlines Embraer ERJ-145, with 53 aboard, that was rolling down a runway toward takeoff.
“Oh, [expletive],” said the controller who had ordered the ExpressJet to take off, according to a recording of the tower traffic.
“What the [expletive] was that?” the ExpressJet’s pilot shouted as he saw the SkyWest plane. “What was that?”
“Sorry,” replied the controller, who had been certified for the job in the O’Hare tower just two weeks earlier, federal officials said.
Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Sasha J. Johnson said the FAA “will review the event to see if any additional training or procedural changes might be necessary.”
The National Transportation Safety Board said Wednesday that it was investigating.
Traffic in and out of O’Hare, one of the nation’s busiest airports, had been halted briefly — which is routine for planes carrying the president or vice president — and air traffic controllers were working to get operations back on track .
Biden and his wife, Jill, were en route to the inauguration of former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel as Chicago’s mayor.
A helicopter that would trail the Bidens’ motorcade was hovering at the far end of one runway, and its pilot was in contact with the air traffic controller handling the SkyWest plane.
The SkyWest plane and the ExpressJet were not operating on the same runway. The SkyWest plane had been cleared to land on a runway that is at an angle to the runway from which the ExpressJet was taking off. It had to skim just over that runway before touching down.
On April 18, Jill Biden and first lady Michelle Obama were aboard an airplane that had to abandon its approach to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland because it was following too close to a C-17 military cargo jet.
An air traffic controller allowed the Obama plane to get two miles closer than FAA rules allow to the potentially dangerous turbulence caused by the C-17, which was landing just ahead.
An FAA report said air traffic control managers “were involved in other duties and were not aware of the event as it was happening.”
As a result of that report, FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt issued a directive that the same care be taken with planes carrying the vice president and first lady that is taken with aircraft carrying the president. In all cases, a supervisor is required to oversee the work of controllers handling the aircraft.
A supervisor was plugged into tower operations at O’Hare on Monday and instructed the controller handling the SkyWest plane to abort the landing.
“It was the supervisor who saw this,” said an FAA official who was familiar with the incident but not authorized to speak for the agency, “and had he not said something, they very likely would have collided.”
The FAA said the incident was not recorded as an operational error.
Errors by controllers rose 53 percent last year. The vast majority of the 1,887 errors were mistakes in which planes came closer to each other than allowed but posed no serious risk of collision. In about dozen occasions, however, collisions were narrowly averted.
The inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation questioned the level of controller training last week in testimony before Congress.
“As of March 2011, 25 percent of FAA’s controller workforce was in training — compared to 15 percent in 2004 — meaning fewer certified controllers in the workforce to control air traffic and provide on-the-job training for new controllers,” Calvin L. Scovel told a Senate Appropriations subcommittee. “FAA has had to assign newly hired controllers to complex air traffic control locations, such as Southern California, Atlanta, Chicago and New York. Normally, new hires would start their on-the-job training at less-complex facilities and eventually transfer to a higher-level facility.”
Congress recently asked the inspector general to review the increase in reported errors by air traffic controllers. That review began last week.
On Wednesday, Air Force One aborted a landing at Bradley International Airport in Connecticut as the president headed to graduation ceremonies at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London. The pilot of Air Force One made the decision to “go around” for a second approach because a storm line was moving through the area.
Controllers and pilots routinely initiate go-arounds as a precaution when there is bad weather or heavy flight traffic.