Close-plane mishap rattled air traffic controllers

Air-traffic controllers were rattled after mistakenly flying three planes too close together in the skies near the nation's capital, a federal report released Wednesday says, describing a chaotic scene in an airport tower during those minutes.

The National Transportation Safety Board's 14-page report confirms some of what investigators already released about what happened on July 31 at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, including that miscommunication led to the too-close flights.

The report also provides more detail about what happened when controllers cleared two outbound flights to head in the direction of an incoming plane.

The head of the Federal Aviation Administration said soon after the too-close call that the three U.S. Airways commuter flights, which were carrying 192 passengers and crew, were on different headings and at different altitudes, and would not have crashed. However, federal guidelines require commercial jets to maintain a certain distance between them, 1,000 vertical feet and 3.5 lateral miles separation, and they came within that required distance.

The report released Wednesday describes a tower supervisor dropping the phone and jumping in to help solve the problem during the confusion.

The report also explains the miscommunication between controllers in the tower at Reagan and others at a regional air center in Virginia that guides planes into area airports. Because of bad weather to the south, a regional controller called the Reagan tower to ask to briefly land planes in a direction opposite the airport's traffic flow. The request was rare, and after the incident, the FAA said it was barring airports nationwide from the same maneuver until a standardized procedure can be put in place.

The report said the unusual request by the regional controller would normally require coordinating with the tower supervisor. In this case, however, the supervisor was on a different phone line making overtime assignments for the next day. And the controller at the tower who took the call misheard the request, believing she was simply being asked to decrease the space between arriving flights, something she would be allowed to do on her own.

Controllers then watched as the aircraft came too close at about 2 p.m. The report says that one regional air traffic controller gasped when she saw what was happening.

Afterward, the tower supervisor and regional supervisor talked by phone.

"Ok well I think we had an error there," the supervisor at the tower said.

"Yeah, probably a couple of them," responded the regional supervisor.


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