WASHINGTON – Three US Airways planes flew too close Tuesday afternoon at Ronald Reagan National Airport after air traffic controllers reportedly mistakenly cleared two outbound flights to head in the direction of an incoming plane, but federal officials say the jets were never on a collision course.
During a news conference, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood strongly disputed media reports characterizing the incident as a near-miss.
"At no point were the three aircrafts on a head-to-head course. They were not on a collision course," said Michael Huerta, administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration.
The Washington Post reports that the commuter planes were carrying 192 passengers and crew members. The newspaper cites federal officials with direct knowledge of the incident.
The Federal Aviation Administration released a statement Thursday that said an air traffic control switched the landing pattern for the airport after a storm system developed. The information apparently did not reach everyone at the control tower. The two outbound planes apparently came within 500 and 600 feet of the plane that was landing.
"During the switchover of operations, miscommunication between the Tracon and the DCA tower led to a loss of the required separation between two regional jets departing from Runway 1 and a regional jet inbound for Runway 19," FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said.
An air traffic controller reportedly realized the error and ordered the incoming flight to turn and avoided the crash.
The Post reported a tense exchange between the incoming plane’s pilot and the control tower. The air traffic controller told him to turn south while he was landing, and he followed her instructions.
"We were cleared at the river there," he said. "What happened?"
She reportedly responded that the tower was "trying to figure this out."
The Post reports that the FAA issued a statement Wednesday night saying it is investigating the matter and would address the communication lapse.
US Airways spokesman Todd Lehmacher said in an email that the airline is "currently investigating and working with the FAA to determine what occurred." He had no other details.
The Associated Press contributed to this report