U.S. regulators are investigating how three US Airways Express regional jets were allowed to get too close to each other near Washington’s Reagan National Airport on July 31.
An air-traffic controller cleared two planes to take off in sequence shortly after 2 p.m. as another lined up to land along almost the same path in the opposite direction, according to an e-mailed statement issued today by the Federal Aviation Administration.
The first departing jet came within 0.94 miles of the arriving plane, according to an FAA statement. By then, the departing jet had climbed 800 feet above the other plane and was continuing to climb, the agency said.
“These planes were on different headings and at different altitudes so they would not have collided,” FAA Acting Administrator Michael Huerta said at a news conference today.
Miscommunication between employees at the airport tower and a regional air-traffic center in Virginia led to the incident, Huerta and U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told reporters.
The incident was reported earlier by the Washington Post.
The second departing jet came as close as 2.8 miles to the arriving plane, according to the agency’s initial estimates.
Aircraft must stay at least 3.5 miles apart horizontally or be separated by at least 1,000 feet vertically under FAA regulations that govern flights near airports.
The mix-up occurred as controllers were attempting to switch the directions from which planes were landing and taking off at the airport as a result of a storm that changed the wind, according to the FAA. The airport primarily uses one runway.
After the controller turned the arriving plane to the right to avoid a conflict, the pilot radioed that he had been cleared to land.
“What happened?” he said, according to a recording of the air-traffic broadcasts on the website LiveATC.net.
“Stand by,” the controller responded. “We’re trying to figure this out too.”
“OK, we really don’t have the fuel for this,” the pilot radioed a short time later. “We’ve got to get on the ground here pretty quick.”
The pilot in the transmission didn’t declare a fuel emergency, which would have required controllers to move other planes out of the way to allow him to land as soon as possible.
As the tower controller tried to sort things out, she radioed pilots waiting to depart that they would be delayed.
“Everybody stand by,” she said. “We’ve got a couple of opposite-direction arrivals so it’s going to be a little bit of a delay on your departures.”
A video reproduction of the air-traffic radar display showed arriving Flight 3329, operated for US Airways Group Inc. by Republic Airlines, heading east down the Potomac River toward the airport. The first departing plane, Flight 3071, operated by Chautauqua Airlines, had just lifted off toward the north and turned slightly to the west.
Flight 3329 flew in a complete circle before turning south and west of the airport, according to the video.
The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board will also investigate the incident, Eric Weiss, a spokesman for the agency said in an e-mail. The safety board, which investigates aviation accidents and incidents, will review recordings of radio communications and radar plots, and interview the people involved, Weiss said.
“We are currently investigating and working with the FAA to determine what occurred,” said Todd Lehmacher, a US Airways Group spokesman. “The safety of our customers and employees is always our top priority.”
Reagan National was the scene of an incident in March 2011 in which a lone controller on duty after midnight fell asleep. Two jets were forced to land without clearance as controllers in other facilities attempted to reach the tower worker.