Michelle Obama's plane in collision scare
Published 20/04/2011 | 11:16
A plane carrying Michelle Obama came dangerously close to a 200-ton military jet and had to abort its landing, due to an error by one of America’s beleaguered air traffic controllers.
The US government jet, which was returning the First Lady from a trip to New York on Monday, may have been just a minute away from the fully-loaded cargo plane.
The Boeing 737, which was also transporting Jill Biden, the wife of Joe Biden, the US Vice President, was preparing to land at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.
It was forced into a series of manoeuvres to ensure it did not crash into the military plane mid-air. Its pilot was then forced to abort a landing attempt altogether and circle the airbase.
Officials feared the cargo jet could not get off the runway quickly enough after landing to avoid a potential collision on the ground. Mrs Obama’s plane eventually landed safely.
The incident is said to have been caused by an air traffic controller in nearby Virginia, who allowed the presidential jet to breach the five-mile gap required behind the C-17 military plane.
It comes amid a crisis at the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA), whose air traffic chief resigned after it emerged controllers were caught sleeping on the job at least five times in recent months.
When the controller in Virginia passed responsibility for the two planes to staff at the Andrews base, he or she reportedly stated there was four miles between them. In fact there was only three.
As well as to prevent collisions, planes must also remain at a safe distance to avoid the turbulence caused by flying into another’s wake, which can also cause crashes.
According to Boeing’s website, 737s approach landings at between 143 and 163 miles per hour, meaning the gap between the planes could have been closed in as little as one minute and six seconds.
The Andrews controllers are thought to have ordered the White House plane to make delaying “s-turns” immediately after taking over. But the two planes are said to have continued to get closer.
Officials eventually had to order a “go-around”, an FAA statement confirmed last night.
"The aircraft were never in any danger," it said. "The plane did not have the required amount of separation behind a military C17 … The FAA is investigating the incident."
Major Michelle Lai, an official at Andrews base, told CNN: "At no time was the First Lady's life in danger." Mrs Obama, who was said to have been unaware of the problem while on board, declined to comment.
Aviation experts suggested that while breaches of the safe zones around planes happened frequently, it was highly unusual to have been allowed on such an important flight.
The incident is bound to raise further questions about management at the FAA, which is smarting from fresh disclosures about the behaviour of its controllers while at work.
In the latest case, a controller was caught watching the 2007 crime film Cleaner, starring Samuel L Jackson, early on Sunday at a radar centre in Cleveland responsible for high-altitude air traffic.
His microphone was inadvertently activated, briefly transmitting the film’s soundtrack to all planes in the airspace that he was supposed to be monitoring, the FAA found.
The microphone became stuck in the transmit position, preventing him from hearing incoming radio calls or issuing instructions to planes for more than three minutes.
The FAA has suspended eight controllers and supervisors since late March for allegedly losing contact with aircraft while on duty. In five of the cases the controllers allegedly fell asleep.
In another case, the FAA is investigating why two controllers in Lubbock, Texas, were unresponsive to radio calls.
Hank Krakowski, the agency’s chief operating officer for air traffic, resigned last week over the scandal.
Randy Babbitt, the FAA’s administrator, said he was “infuriated” that air traffic controllers had been caught sleeping on the job.
“None of us in this business can ... tolerate any of this,” he said. “It absolutely has to stop.”
Worrying about whether controllers were focused on their job “should never be a thought for anybody getting in an airplane in this country,” said Mr Babbitt.
“But unfortunately, we have raised that concern,” he said.