Jet carrying first lady aborts landing

By Alan Levin and Richard Wolf, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON — The National Transportation Safety Board has opened an investigation into a close call that took place Monday when, the government said, a jet carrying first lady Michelle Obama came too close to a military transport plane and was ordered to abort its landing at a military base near here.
While that probe got started, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced that it was stepping up scrutiny of such flights. From now on, flights carrying Michelle Obama or Vice President Biden will be handled by an air traffic supervisor as opposed to a controller, the FAA said in a statement. Flights with the president on board are required to be handled by a supervisor.
The developments were related to an incident that unfolded Monday evening. The first lady was returning from an appearance in New York with Vice President Biden’s wife, Jill, when the Boeing 737 jet they were in came within about 3 miles of a Boeing C-17 that was ahead and also lining up to land at Andrews Air Force Base. Because the C-17’s wings produce severe turbulence, other aircraft are usually required to stay at least 5 miles away.
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The required separation between the two planes “was compromised,” according to an NTSB statement released Wednesday.
The FAA confirmed that the two aircraft were closer than its rules allow and said earlier that it had opened an investigation.
“The aircraft were never in any danger,” the FAA said in a news release.
The new rules announced Wednesday by the FAA would apply to arrivals and departures handled by a regional facility in Warrenton, Va., and takeoffs and landings at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, where the presidential fleet is based.
White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Wednesday that it was his understanding that there was “no imminent danger for the first lady or Dr. Biden or anyone else on the plane.”
The incident came after a month of bad publicity for the nation’s air-traffic system prompted by several reports of controllers nodding off at work. Seven controllers in six separate cases have either admitted falling asleep or were unresponsive.
The first lady’s jet was nearing Andrews, the military air base just outside Washington, D.C., used by the president and his family, and a controller at a regional air-traffic facility in Virginia directed it to get too close to the military jet.
A second controller at Andrews’ tower saw that the planes were too close and ordered the 737 to climb instead of land, the FAA said.
Although the incident was clearly an error by a controller and reduced the margin of safety, it did notappear to have put either aircraft in imminent danger, according to a retired senior controller.
Gary Brittain, who handled aircraft in the busy skies around Atlanta’s Hartsfield International Airport before retiring, called the incident an “eyes wide open kind of error” in which controllers monitoring the situation had ample time to ensure there was no midair collision.
“The kind that scare you are the ones that nobody saw developing,” Brittain said.
In some cases, the rules would have allowed the same two jets to fly that close together, he said. FAA rules allow jets to fly closer together if a pilot can see other aircraft and agrees to take responsibility for staying separated.
Obama and Biden were in New York to appear on ABC’s The View.


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