Controller questioned cargo pilot’s turn in near-collision of 2 planes over Minneapolis

By Steve Karnowski, AP
Thursday, September 23, 2010

Tower questioned cargo pilot in Minn. near-miss

MINNEAPOLIS — An air traffic controller asked a cargo pilot why he didn’t make a turn as ordered in the moments before his plane’s near-collision with a US Airways jet over Minneapolis.

The National Transportation Safety Board said Thursday the planes came within 50 to 100 feet of each other as they passed in clouds Sept. 16.

The NTSB says controllers told the US Airways crew to turn left, which put it in the path of the cargo plane taking off from a parallel runway.

But tower radio traffic archived by, a website that streams such traffic from airports around the world, shows the controller told the Beech 99 cargo plane to turn left, too. Soon after, the controller asked the pilot why he hadn’t started his turn.

The pilot’s response was unclear.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Federal regulators are investigating the near-collision of a US Airways jet and a small cargo plane that came within 50 to 100 feet of crashing over Minneapolis just after takeoff, the National Transportation Safety Board said Thursday.

The pilots of the two planes never saw the other aircraft, though the US Airways captain said he heard the cargo plane nearby, the NTSB said in a news release. There were no reports of damage or injuries, it said.

US Airways Flight 1848, an Airbus 320, took off from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport for Philadelphia with 90 passengers and five crew members shortly before 7 a.m. on Sept. 16. A twin-engine Beech 99 turboprop operated by Bemidji Aviation Services took off on a parallel runway at about the same time. They were headed northwest on paths that would have taken them over residential areas of south Minneapolis and busy freeways.

The NTSB said the tower then instructed the US Airways crew to turn left, which caused it to cross paths with the cargo plane, which had only the pilot aboard and was bound for La Crosse, Wis.

The Beech 99 also had been told to turn left, FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory said.

The two planes came within 50 to 100 feet of each other, about 1,500 feet above the ground and about a half-mile from the end of the runway that the cargo plane used, the NTSB said.

“Neither pilot saw the other aircraft because they were in the clouds, although the captain of the US Airways flight reported hearing the Beech 99 pass nearby,” the release said.

The jetliner had an automated system that instructed the pilots to climb to avoid a crash, The cargo plane did not, and its pilot was unaware the Airbus was nearby, the NTSB said.

Published noise reduction procedures for the two runways recommend that controllers order departing planes to turn to different headings after they take off, when conditions and workloads permit, to spread out the impact on the neighborhoods below.

A rise in near-collisions nationwide prompted the Federal Aviation Administration this summer to launch an effort to learn why dangerous errors were being made by air traffic controllers and pilots. The FAA also said it had seen a spike in incidents where planes were violating minimum separation distances.

“Human error seems to be rearing its ugly head a lot lately,” said Joseph Schwieterman, a transportation expert and economics professor at DePaul University in Chicago.

Generally, planes must keep a lateral distance of about 6 miles at high altitudes and nearly 3.5 miles when approaching airports. Planes can be closer during landings.

Cory said this incident fell into “Category A,” the most serious class of “operational errors” involving separation distance violations, because of the high danger of collision.

There were 10 operational errors at the Minneapolis airport in 2009 and this was the fourth this year, Cory said. But this was the only Category A incident among the 14, while the others were in lesser categories with little risk of a crash, she said.

“This is something we’re very concerned about,” Cory said. “We want to find out what happened and why. And we want to find out what we can do to prevent it from happening again.”

The NTSB statement didn’t specifically say there was a controller error, but Michael Boyd, an airline consultant and president of the Boyd Group in Evergreen, Colo., said that’s the obvious explanation. He said he believes such near-misses are more common than the FAA lets on.

“They have a cover-your-rear mentality there, and the controllers are usually more victims than perpetrators. Because very often the equipment they have is outdated. Very often the supervision they have isn’t very good,” and sometimes towers are understaffed, Boyd said.

Schwieterman said the automated warning system on the Airbus likely averted a disaster, and that this gives ammunition to advocates of requiring crash avoidance technology in all planes.

“Technology might have saved us from a cataclysmic outcome,” Schwieterman said.

US Airways issued a short statement saying the airline’s information is that its crew was complying with air traffic controllers’ instructions when it happened.

“Safety is always our top priority and we are assisting in the investigation,” it said.

The director of operations at Bemidji Aviation Services, Tracie Walters, declined to make its pilot available for an interview.

“We are cooperating with the investigation and besides that we have no comment,” she said.

will not be displayed