Three US Airways Commuter Jets Almost Run Into Each Other Mid-Air

Three commuter jets had what must have been a terrifyingly close call for pilots at Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday when two flights trying to take off almost collided directly with another commuter jet coming in to land on the runway. All three planes are operated by US Airways and carried 192 passengers and crew members total, said the airline.

Everyone got to their destinations without any further issues, but being on a plane that almost hits another plane probably left more than a few folks rattled — if passengers even realized what was going on. This is just one of thousands of errors air traffic controllers have recorded, notes the Washington Post.

During Tuesday’s incident, an approaching storm caused the wind to shift and an air traffic control center in Warrenton was trying to reverse the flow of planes into the airport, rerouting them. Those controllers spoke with the tower at National.

“The tower agreed, but they didn’t pass it on to all the people they needed to pass it on to,” said a federal official who didn’t want to speak publicly.

The flight that had cleared to land ended up flying straight at two planes that had both just taken off, with 1.4 miles between them and a combined speed of 436 mph — that comes down to about 12 seconds from impact when the tower controller realized she’d made a mistake.

She checked with the inbound pilot to see if he was on her radio frequency and then ordered him to turn abruptly to avoid the other planes. He did so, avoiding a collision.

The Federal Aviation Administration issued a statement on the matter finally last night, saying it was investigating the incident.

One official blames it simply on a basic communication failure.

Apparently National is known for having close calls and snafus, including an incident last year where a controller supervisor fell asleep on duty and didn’t respond when other regional controllers were trying to pass planes on to him for the final approach.

Two planes taking off from National put on collision course with plane trying to land [Washington Post]



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  1. Captain Spock says:

    I hate flying, there is too much human error possible. When I drive, at least I have SOME control over my fate.

    • Coffee says:

      I’m sure you already know that regardless of your control, you’re still more likely to be blindsided by a drunk driver and killed than you would be likely to suffer injury on a flight, right?

      Flying is like swimming in the ocean – in many ways it’s terrifying, but that’s mostly because of what goes through your head.

    • jeepguy57 says:

      Except for, you know, all those cars driving around you. What control do you have over that 17 year old kid driving in the other lane, coming your way, texting?

    • Chmeeee says:

      There is so much more human error in driving (yours and those around you) it’s not even funny. Compare the training that pilots and air traffic controllers get to the training drivers get. Ha. Ha. Ha.

    • Tim says:

      Driving is far, far more dangerous than driving.

      We in this country encourage this viewpoint that if you have control of something, it is better in every respect. The majority of Americans would rather sit through rush hour traffic for hours at a great risk to their lives than take a 45-minute subway ride at a much lower risk. They’re encouraged to second-guess medical professionals and to tell their doctors they want so-and-so happy drug, but they’ll gladly ascribe to whatever miracle remedy their girlfriends tell them about.

      • admiralkirk says:

        How do you figure that viewpoint? Sitting in a cramped aluminum tube with not being able to see in front of and knowing you are traveling 600 mph, thousands of feet up in the air, it is contemporary human nature to be uncomfortable with the idea.

      • elangomatt says:

        /me tries to hand Tim an edit button… nevermind, still can’t find one of those.

    • ovalseven says:

      It’s the mechanics of it that frighten me. If my car breaks down, I call a tow truck. If my plane breaks down, I die.

      • ohhhh says:

        planes don’t just fall out of the sky when they break down. Helicopters are another story.

      • AngryK9 says:

        Not necessarily. Planes “break down” more on the ground than they do in the air. In fact, most of the technical problems aircraft have are discovered while it’s parked at the gate or during taxi. For those discovered in flight, only a very tiny percentage actually lead to a crash.

        More car crashes are caused by mechanical problems than any air crashes. A lot of people driving around out there don’t know much more about their cars than how to start it and where to put the gas.

    • eccsame says:

      Your chances of surviving a plane crash are somewhere around 80-90%. In fact, the odds of dying while on a plane are about 1 in 29.4 million. Estimates put the number of deaths per 1 million flight hours at 4.3.

      I like those odds.

      • wombats lives in [redacted] says:

        Except where 3 of them almost smash into eachother mid flight then your odds change.

      • ovalseven says:

        Sure, but I’ll need to know the number of deaths per 1 million driving hours too.

        • eccsame says:

          Your lifetime odds of dying in a car accident are about 1 in 100
          Your lifetime odds of dying in an airline accident are about 1 in 20,000

          This is according to the National Center for Health Statistics and the National Safety Council

          • ovalseven says:

            Sure, but that could be because people drive far more than they fly. That’s why the stats per miles traveled would be more relevant to safety.

            My odds of dying in a car accident, I’d bet, are less that what you quoted since I live in a rural area and only drive about 5 miles a day. My lifetime odds of dying in an airline accident (assuming I’m in the aircraft) are 0 in 0.

      • Invader Zim says:

        Ummm reference check “of surviving a plane crash are somewhere around 80-90%” did you mean a car crash ?

        • eccsame says:

          It came from a BBC article. But they put it over 90%.
          I guess you would have to have been in a plane crash in the period between 1983 and 2000 and in the United States. Then your chances of surviving a plane crash would have been over 90%

          In that period “In the US alone, between 1983 and 2000, there were 568 plane crashes. Out of the collective 53,487 people onboard, 51,207 survived.”

          Again, I guess that depends on the severity of the crash – but those numbers don’t lie. I’ve seen other articles that put the odds of survivability at 56% that take into account the fatality rate of all air disasters in all countries. I can’t find that stat right now.

          As a nervous flyer, I make sure to keep these statistics running through my head during takeoff and landing.

    • BigDragon says:

      It’s a shame fast city-to-city trains don’t link every city in this country. At least then you’d have an alternative to flying or driving.

  2. Loias supports harsher punishments against corporations says:

    We really need to improve the entire logistics of flying.

    • jeepguy57 says:

      I know NOTHING about air traffic control, but it still amazes me how much human element is involved. Why is the whole process not computer driven now?

      • Not Given says:

        Think 20 year old computer systems.

        • DaveInBillsburg says:

          Yeah and from an article I read recently out of the Black Hat security conference these computer systems can be hacked to allow a bunch of phantom planes to be injected into system, which would overload the controllers.

    • eccsame says:

      What does that even mean? Could you please elaborate?

      • Coffee says:

        Less flapping, more gliding. Also, cup holders.

        • nugatory says:

          I really wish there were cup holders.

          It really annoys me when I get a drink and I’m trying to read (laptop work is worse), and we hit even a small amount of turbulence. The drink is going through its shack, rattle and roll, while I’m hoping it just tip over on me (which I’ve had happen before).

          • Coffee says:

            Agreed…I have a passably nice laptop, and there’s nothing more fun than balancing tomato juice on the side of the palm rest and praying that you don’t hit bumpy weather.

      • eccsame says:

        Oh, she meant that they should undergo a shift in paradigm

  3. NorthJersey says:

    I’d put this one squarely on the DCA local controller. If TRACON or the tower chief advised that they were reversing the flow she needed to acknowledge and understand the gravity of the situation,hold all departing traffic until the last of the runway 1 arrivals was safely on terra firma or routed to runway 19. Thankfully even most private pilots are savvy enough to have a mental picture of the pattern and can spot conflicting traffic. Plus TCAS warnings should have been going off like mad as well. Methinks she’ll be doing some serious retraining or transferred to a less-busy tower.

  4. Golfer Bob says:

    I blame all the passengers that turned on their personal electronic devices.

  5. slowrey says:

    National is a difficult airport that was made much more difficult post 9/11. Originally, it was going to be shutdown, but after outcries, was left open. However, approaches and departures from the airport are highly restricted to avoid overflying sensitive areas, leaving little room to maneuver if there is a problem. I won’t fly into that airport.

  6. Lt. Coke says:

    I wonder how many stories like this aren’t told just because the people involved consider them mundane. The idea of three planes crashing into eachother just sounds so awesome (awesome as in awe-inspiring, not awesome as in good or excellent), and was only one-upped by the fact that this apparently happens all the time.