Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images.
The Washington Post has a harrowing front-page piece today on a near three-way, mid-air collision at Reagan National Airport on Tuesday.
Apparently, air traffic controllers sent two planes out of the airport aimed right at a third plane about to land, and the planes came within a mere 12 seconds of what would have been a fatal three-way crash. Thankfully, the collision was avoided and no one was hurt.
The FAA is now investigating what happened. The planes involved were three U.S. Airways commuter jets carrying a combined 192 passengers and crew members. A recording of the (mis)communication is available in the LiveATC archives.
Here's how the Post recounts the story:
"The problem Tuesday occurred about 2 p.m. as a number of inbound planes were queued up to turn above Mount Vernon, fly north over the Potomac River and land on National’s main runway. But an approaching storm caused a significant wind shift, and the air traffic control center in Warrenton wanted to reverse the flow of planes into the airport, turning them north of Rosslyn and routing them south along the river to land from the opposite direction...As a result, an incoming flight that had been cleared to land was flying head-on at two planes that had just taken off. The inbound plane and the first of the outbound planes were closing the 1.4 miles between them at a combined speed of 436 mph, a rate that meant they were about 12 seconds from impact when the tower controller recognized her mistake."
Elsewhere in Slate: Timothy Noah attempts to understand the FAA's tracking of air traffic controller errors, and looks at some previous controller problems at Reagan National.