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Update: FAA Says Planes Weren't On Collision Course Above D.C. Airport

A passenger jet preparing for takeoff from Reagan National Airport in 2002.
Paul J. Richards
AFP/Getty Images
A passenger jet preparing for takeoff from Reagan National Airport in 2002.

Update at 2:40 p.m. ET. FAA Disputes Report:

The Associated Press writes that "none of the three commuter jets that flew too close together near Washington was ever on course to collide head-on with the others, U.S. officials said Thursday. "During a news conference, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood strongly disputed media reports characterizing the incident as a near-miss."

He and Federal Aviation Administration Administrator Michael Huerta said that while the planes were too close together, they were on "different headings at different altitudes," the wire service adds.

Our original post-- "Near Collision Near D.C.: Planes Were 12 Seconds From Possible Impact":

Frightening front page news from The Washington Post this morning:

"Three commuter jets came within seconds of a midair collision at Reagan National Airport on Tuesday after confused air traffic controllers launched two outbound flights directly at another plane coming in to land, according to federal officials with direct knowledge of the incident."

It adds that "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" and the planes' paths were altered. All three aircraft were from USAirways. About 190 passengers and crew were on board the planes.

Radio traffic between pilot and controller

The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating, the Post says. And The Associated Press reports that "USAirways spokesman Todd Lehmacher said in an email that the airline is 'currently investigating and working with the FAA to determine what occurred. The safety of our customers and employees is always our top priority.' "

The incident happened as controllers were rerouting traffic because of an approaching storm. LiveATC.net has audio of the conversations between controllers and pilots in its archives.

Reagan National was in the news back in March 2011 because of an air traffic supervisor who fell asleep one night, forcing two pilots to pretty much land on their own.

Update at 10:35 a.m. ET. "We Really Don't Have The Fuel For This":

WTOP radio has a transcript of a controller talking to one of the pilots after waving the plane off as it approached the airport.

"What happened?" the pilot asks.

"We're trying to figure this out," says the controller.

"OK, we really don't have the fuel for this," says the pilot. He adds seconds later that "we gotta get on the ground here pretty quick."

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Mark Memmott is NPR's supervising senior editor for Standards & Practices. In that role, he's a resource for NPR's journalists – helping them raise the right questions as they do their work and uphold the organization's standards.
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