FAA probes near-collision at D.C. airport - KMOV.com

FAA probes near-collision at D.C. airport

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By Sarah Heath By Sarah Heath

(CBS News) WASHINGTON - US Airways is working with federal officials to investigate an incident that saw three commuter jets narrowly avoid a midair collision near Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, just outside the nation's capital.

The Washington Post first reported that three US Airways jets carrying 192 passengers and crew members came within seconds of a midair collision on Tuesday afternoon, citing federal officials with direct knowledge of the incident.

CBS News correspondent Bob Orr reports that just after 2 p.m. Tuesday a regional jet was approaching the airport from the south.

A storm caused the wind to shift and, for safety, air traffic controllers turned departing planes around - to take off towards the south.

The inbound flight should have been routed past the airport - to land behind the departures from the north, but that wasn't communicated to the pilot - who approached the airport heading straight into departing traffic.

At about the same time, two more planes took off. The first came within a mile and a half - about 12 seconds given the speed at which the aircraft were travelling - of the inbound plane. The second was just a mile further back.

The planes all reached their destinations safely, but the incident comes less than a year and a half after a traffic controller in the FAA tower at Washington National admitted to falling asleep on the job, leaving two commercial jets to land without any assistance.

The FAA is investigating the incident, which CBS News aviation analyst Mark Rosenker says, "clearly was a violation of the procedures. The minimums were broken."

Rosenker says the FAA will be "looking into this very carefully to understand exactly what happened and... how this could've been a miscommunication that created this terrible situation."

US Airways confirmed to Orr that the airline is cooperating with the FAA's investigation.

An audio recording of the conversations between the US Airways pilots involved and the ground controllers, provided by LiveATC.net, does reveal several moments of confusion among the flight controllers on the ground.

After the incoming pilot is told to make a 180-degree turn away from the landing he had been cleared for at National, he asks the controllers, "we were cleared at the river back there. What happened?"

"Standby, we're trying to figure this out, too. Standby," comes the response, before he is told to circle around for another landing attempt.

Speaking moments later to another pilot - who tried to contact ground control during the confusion to no avail - a flight controller is heard explaining, "we had an issue earlier, so that's why you weren't getting a response."

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