Entries in Air Traffic Control (9)


'Crossing Runways' Blamed for Pair of Near-Crashes at Chicago Airport

Comstock/Thinkstock(CHICAGO) -- Air traffic controllers at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport put passenger planes on course for mid-air crashes twice last year, with disaster only averted by the pilots' actions, according to newly released interviews from the National Transportation Safety Board.

The NTSB said the first close call came on May 16, 2011, when a SkyWest Airlines flight from Michigan was on "a collision course" with an ExpressJet Airlines flight that was taking off, bound for Buffalo.

Ultimately, after swift action by the pilots, the planes "passed in close proximity" to one another.

According to Federal Aviation Administration radar, the SkyWest flight was "about 275 feet above and 480 feet behind" the Buffalo flight.

"After I was able to gain a little composure back after nearly being killed, I keyed up the mike and yelled to the tower controller, 'What the [expletive] was that?' I got no response," the captain of the ExpressJet flight said in a statement.

Only months later a second incident -- the same situation, on the same runways -- occurred when on Aug. 8, 2011, there was a "near mid air collision" involving a Chautauqua Airlines flight from Wisconsin to O'Hare that passed in close proximity to a Trans State Airlines plane leaving for Moline, Ill.

The Chautauqua flight was only "125 feet above and 350 feet in front of" the Trans State plane.

To date the NTSB has not reached any conclusions on what caused these two close calls. The FAA has stated that it has taken corrective action.

Now a Virtual Intersection Warning goes off and the controllers responsible for the two troublesome runways at O'Hare, the country's second-largest airport, sit right next to each other to eliminate confusion.

One of the problems, according to DePaul University professor Joseph Schwieterman, a transportation expert, is that O'Hare is an "older airport with crossing patterns" that make it "an incredibly, busy, difficult place."

"You have crossing runways, you have congestion," he warned in an interview with ABC News. "You really need a perfect air traffic control environment to minimize those risks. Little slip-ups like we saw here in the last couple of years lead to big risks and I think that's been a wake-up call.

"I think what the public and the NTSB are looking at here is that it took overt pilot action to avoid an error," he noted. "That suggests that in some ways, we got lucky. That's clearly cause for concern."

In 2011, there were a total of seven serious near-collisions nationwide, relatively unchanged from the year before.

The FAA, through a spokesman, cited that 99.99 percent of airline operations went off without a hitch. Pilots and passengers, however, may wish that that number were even higher.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


First Lady, Vice President Getting Their Own Air Traffic Supervisor

The White House/Lawrence Jackson(WASHINGTON) -- It didn't take long for new rules to take effect after first lady Michelle Obama's plane was involved in what some deemed a close call with a military cargo jet on Monday.

The White House Boeing 737 carrying Mrs. Obama and Dr. Jill Biden, the wife of Vice President Joe Biden, had to abort a landing at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland when it came within three miles of the huge C-17 that was touching down ahead of it.

As a result, the Federal Aviation Administration said that air traffic controllers will no longer handle flights when Mrs. Obama or the vice president are aboard.  That task now falls to an air traffic supervisor.

The rule applies to takeoffs and landings at Andrews as well as the regional air traffic facility in Warrenton, Virginia, where a controller mistakenly allowed Mrs. Obama's plane and the cargo jet to breach the five-mile mandated distance between aircraft.

All flights with President Obama on board are already handled by an air traffic supervisor.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


First Lady's Plane Aborts Landing, Investigation Underway

Alex Wong/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- An investigation is underway Wednesday to determine what precipitated air traffic controllers' allowing first lady Michelle Obama's plane to come too close to a military cargo plane, forcing it to abort its landing and rekindling some anxiety among the flying public.

The plane, carrying Obama and the vice president's wife, Jill Biden, eventually landed safely at Joint Base Andrews Monday, officials said. The incident is one of several recent mishaps involving air traffic controllers, including those in which controllers have been caught falling asleep and watching movies on the job.

Michelle Obama and Jill Biden were returning from making several appearances in New York Monday when air traffic controllers apparently allowed the planes to get too close to each other. The required separation is five miles, but controllers allowed the Boeing 737 that was carrying the two women to come within three miles of the giant C-17 military cargo plane, Federal Aviation Administration sources told ABC News.

The distance is important because large planes generate wake turbulence, the equivalent of two miniature tornadoes streaming off the plane. The rough air dangerously disrupts the plane behind it.

There was no panic caused by the incident and no emergency vehicles were called in. No one on the plane, including the first lady, was aware of the delay or the high-sky maneuvers, sources said.

There have been at least five reported incidents of air traffic controllers falling asleep on the job in the last two months, which has prompted negotiations between the government and the controllers' union to change the way controllers are scheduled to work.

The FAA has acknowledged there is a widespread problem with fatigue among controllers and that the agency is taking steps to improve the situation, including an additional hour of rest and changing their schedules so they cannot work a three-day weekend.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Michelle Obama's Plane Forced to Abort Landing Due to Mistake

ABC/Donna Svennevik(WASHINGTON) -- First lady Michelle Obama's plane had to abort its landing at the Andrews Air Force base after it came closer to another military plane than it should have, officials said.

The first lady's plane didn't have as much "separation" from a millitary jet as it should have when approaching Andrews Air Force base, an administration source said. It was three miles away from the military jet, Federal Aviation Administration officials told ABC News, whereas the standard distance is five miles.

Air traffic controllers told the plane's pilot to do a standard go-around and circle for additional time to create the appropriate distance, which they did, and there was no panic caused by the incident.

The incident comes at a time when air traffic controllers are already under scrutiny.

There have been at least five reported incidents of air traffic controllers falling asleep on the job in the last two months, which has prompted negotiations between the government and the controllers' union to change the way controllers are scheduled to work.

The incidents:

Feb. 19: A controller in Knoxville, Tenn., went to sleep on the job during a midnight shift. Sources told ABC News that the controller made a bed on the floor of the control tower with couch pillows.

March 23: A controller on his fourth consecutive overnight shift at Washington, D.C.'s Reagan National Airport left the radio tower silent after apparently falling asleep. Two commercial airliners were forced to land on their own.

March 29: Two controllers at Preston Smith International Airport in Lubbock, Texas, did not hand off control of a departing aircraft to another control center and it took repeated attempts for them to be reached.

April 11: A controller at Boeing Field/King County International Airport in Seattle fell asleep on the job. Boeing Field does not handle any commercial air travel.

April 13: A controller at the Reno-Tahoe International Airport in Nevada was sleeping as a plane carrying a criticially ill patient was trying to land.

April 16: An air traffic controller fell asleep on the job at an air route control center in Florida.

April 17: An air traffic controller near Cleveland was suspened after being caught watching a movie -- Samuel L. Jackson's Cleaner -- on the job.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Air Traffic Controller Reportedly Made Bed on Control Tower Floor

ABC News(WASHINGTON) -- Another air traffic controller was found asleep on the job, but unlike the incident at a Washington, D.C., airport last month in which a controller inadvertently dozed off, this was apparently no accident.

The Federal Aviation Administration said a controller in Knoxville, Tenn., deliberately went to sleep on the job during a midnight shift on Feb. 19. Sources told ABC News the sleeping controller didn't simply nod off -- he made a bed on the floor of the control tower, using couch pillows from the employee break room and a blanket.

The frightening tale once again played out on recordings of radio transmissions obtained exclusively by ABC News from the website

"Yes sir, we're trying to get a hold of Knoxville approach or Knoxville departure ... and we cannot raise them," said one pilot on approach.

"Poppa Charlie stand by," said another controller at the same airport.

"We got our clearance, but we don't have any radio contact with them," the pilot responded.

The second controller in the tower, working on a different floor, fielded calls from pilots who had heard only radio silence.

The controller who was awake handled seven flights alone, including a Delta Connection arriving from LaGuardia and at least four "Lifeguard" flights. "Lifeguard" flights are planes with an urgent medical mission.

The snoozing controller did respond to one radio call but sounded groggy. The recording was unintelligible.

"Tower, Life Guard 1CW, same as the other guy, nobody home," said one pilot after radio silence.

FAA administrator Randy Babbitt said they are trying to get the sleeping controller fired.

"It was unfortunately willful, and we are in the process of disciplinary proceedings which will terminate this employee," Babbitt said Wednesday at a congressional hearing.

The revelation of this incident comes on the heels of another sleeping controller last month at Washington, D.C.'s Reagan National Airport. 

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Florida Air Traffic Controller Suspended After Close Call

Medioimages/Photodisc/Thinkstock(ORLANDO, Fla.) -- A Florida air traffic controller supervisor has been suspended after officials said he compromised the safety of passengers by letting two planes fly too close to each other, officials said.

The incident happened in the skies near Orlando on Sunday night.

A small private Cirrus SR22 plane heading to a nearby general aviation airport in Kissimmee, Florida had been out of radio contact for over an hour, despite repeated attempts to reach the pilot.

The air traffic controller asked a Southwest Airlines jet heading to Orlando International Airport to check on the Cirrus' status.  It was then that the Southwest plane got so close to the Cirrus that the pilots could see the two people in the cockpit.

The Cirrus was flying at 11,000 feet.  The Southwest Boeing 737, carrying 137 passengers at the time, was at 12,000 feet and some 10 miles behind.

Cirrus pilots contacted controllers and both aircraft landed safely at their intended airports.

In a statement, FAA administrator Randy Babbitt said, "... the air traffic controller compromised the safety of everyone involved.  This incident was totally inappropriate."

The mishap comes just a week after the lone overnight air traffic control supervisor at Washington's Reagan National airport fell asleep in the tower, forcing two commercial planes to land without help.  The American Airlines and United Airlines planes were both in contact with regional air traffic controllers before being handed off to controllers at Reagan National.

The suspended controller in the Florida case has not been identified.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Air Traffic Controller Asleep on Duty at Reagan National, NTSB Says

US Geological Survey/ABC News(WASHINGTON) -- An air traffic controller at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport fell asleep on duty early Wednesday morning, leaving the control tower silent and forcing pilots of two commercial planes to land on their own, the National Transportation Safety Board said Thursday.

The controller, who had 20 years of experience, including 17 at Reagan National, was suspended earlier Thursday by the Federal Aviation Administration while its investigation proceeds.

The NTSB report, which does not name the controller, said he had been working his fourth consecutive overnight shift, which runs from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., and that "human fatigue issues are one of the areas being investigated."

"I am determined to get to the bottom of this situation for the safety of the traveling public," FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt said in a statement announcing the controller's suspension.

Pilots of an American Airlines and United Airlines plane each said they had been in contact with regional air traffic controllers before being handed off to the Reagan National tower for approach and landing.

But as the planes radioed their requests to land in the nation's capital early Wednesday morning, all they heard was silence.

"American 1900, just so you're aware the tower is apparently not manned," a regional controller told the pilots of one plane, according to radio recordings obtained by ABC News.  "So you can expect to go in as an uncontrolled airport."

The pilot executed an airport flyover -- routine aviation procedure -- before landing on his own without help from the ground.

Fifteen minutes later, United flight 628 from Chicago also was unable to contact the Reagan tower.

"The aircraft went in just as an uncontrolled airport," one regional controller said on the recording.  "It's happened before though."

The United pilot also treated the airport as unmanned and landed safely.

Federal transportation officials are now conducting a comprehensive review air traffic controller staffing at airports across the country.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Federal Authorities Investigate Whether Air Traffic Controller Was Asleep on Duty

Comstock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- An alarming report that an air traffic controller may have been asleep at one of the nation's major airports has now drawn the attention of federal authorities.

Pilots in two commercial planes have reported that as they approached the nation's capital Tuesday night, they were unable to contact air traffic control at Reagan National Airport before landing.

The American Airlines and United Airlines planes both had been in contact with regional air traffic controllers before being handed off to Reagan National. The pilots landed their planes safely but without help from the airport tower.

"Tower is apparently unmanned. Called on the phone. Nobody answering, so aircraft went in just as an uncontrolled airport," one pilot said, according to recorded radio communication.

In another transmission, a pilot said that "it's happened before."

The FAA, the agency responsible for air traffic control, said Wednesday it is investigating the report and promised that it is "looking into staffing issues and whether existing procedures were followed appropriate."

The NTSB added that it is looking into the incident, which occurred between midnight and 12:30 a.m. on Tuesday.

One pilot contacted by ABC News Wednesday said that while the incident was unusual, it would not have presented a danger to passengers, because pilots are trained to land without air traffic control.

While Reagan National is staffed with multiple air traffic controllers during the day, the overnight shift is managed by just one controller, because there are no departures overnight and few arrivals. The airport serves some 18 million passengers a year.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio 


Jumbo Jets Nearly Collide Outside New York City

Photo Courtesy - ABC News | WFAA-TV(NEW YORK) -- A packed American Airlines jumbo jet and two military C-17 cargo planes avoided catastrophe after they were mistakenly sent to the same altitude by controllers at New York's Air Traffic Control Center. The planes -- both closing in on 22,000 feet -- came less than a mile from each other horizontally, and 200 feet vertically. A collision alarm in the cockpit of the American Airlines Boeing 777 sounded, warning pilots to descend. They did, averting a possible collision.

The close call occurred at 10:30 p.m. on Jan. 20, about 80 miles southeast of New York City. The incident is now under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board.

The American flight, with 259 passengers and crew, had taken off from New York's JFK airport, bound for Brazil. According to the NTSB, the jet was flying in a southeast direction. The two U.S. Air Force C-17s were flying northwest, toward McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey. Aviation sources tell ABC News that the controller directing the C-17s asked the controller handling the American flight to hold the flight at 20,000 feet, but that controller was busy with another jet and missed the request.

As both planes headed to 22,000 feet, the C-17 controller realized what was happening and again asked the other controller to stop the American Airlines flight from climbing. He then directed the military pilots to hold at 22,000 feet. But the other controller, hearing that instruction, thought the 22,000 altitude instruction was for the American flight -- and sent the Boeing jet to 22,000 feet as well.

"The impact of a breakdown in communication can be very serious," said former air traffic control manager and safety consultant Dick Marakovits. "In this circumstance, technology stepped in within the aircraft and saved the day.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio 

ABC News Radio