N.Y. - Chilling Account of Airplane Near-Miss

Federal investigators released alarming details about controller errors that nearly caused a midair collision last year between a heavily loaded American Airlines jet and a military cargo plane off the East Coast, highlighting problems at New York's premier traffic-control facility.

A report by the National Transportation Safety Board disclosed mistakes and miscommunications by air-traffic controllers, ending with the two big planes speeding on converging courses in the dark off the coast of New York. The jets, both at 22,000 feet, barreled directly toward each other for at least a minute without pilots seeing the other aircraft or realizing the extent of the danger.

At one point, controllers watched helplessly as alarms sounded in the cockpit of the Boeing 777, which had more than 250 people aboard, after a distracted controller lost track of the passenger plane while giving directions to another jet, according to the NTSB report, released last week.

The cargo plane's wing tip passed about 2,000 feet to the left of the passenger jet—a distance of just 10 times the width of the Boeing 777. The planes normally should have been spaced at least 1,000 feet apart vertically and several miles laterally.

A catastrophe was averted, according to the report, when onboard collision-avoidance systems prompted the American Airlines crew to make three separate evasive maneuvers in a matter of seconds.

Safety experts consider the January 2011 incident significantly more serious than many other midair close calls that recently received public attention, including an incident last week that put three commuter planes too close to each other near Washington's Ronald Reagan National Airport.

The incident is particularly worrisome, said government and industry experts, because the lapses occurred at what is regarded as one of the Federal Aviation Administration's premier traffic control facilities, staffed by some of the most experienced controllers. The New York-area center guides planes through arguably the country's most complex and busiest airspace.

The incident follows about a dozen scary midair close calls investigated by the safety board over the past two years. They included a US Airways jet with 138 people aboard that missed a Boeing 747 cargo jet by 100 feet vertically and one-third of a mile horizontally over Anchorage; and a packed United Airlines 777 taking off from San Francisco International Airport whose safety zone suddenly was penetrated by a single-engine propeller plane.

Safety board officials and outside experts believe such events partly reflect the strains of confronting heavy traffic, as well as controllers who were inadequately trained or worn out by extensive overtime.

Total controller errors reported by the FAA last year were about 80% higher than in 2007, though that includes mishaps on the ground and reflects more voluntary reports of lapses by controllers.

Nonetheless, by nearly all measures U.S. air travel is safer than ever, and statistically the most dangerous portions of a trip are those spent taxiing to and from the gate. Total slip-ups by controllers nationwide stood at about 1,900 for the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, 2011, basically flat compared with 2010.


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