Plane With First Lady Came Too Close To Cargo Jet

WASHINGTON (AP) — Air traffic controllers directed a plane carrying first lady Michelle Obama to abort a landing at Andrews Air Force Base because it was too close to a military cargo jet, officials said Tuesday, in yet another embarrassment for the Federal Aviation Administration.

While there apparently was little risk to Mrs. Obama, the episode puts the FAA back into the spotlight as officials struggle to calm public jitters about flying that have been raised by nine suspensions of air traffic controllers and supervisors around the country in recent weeks, including five for sleeping on the job.

The first disclosed case of a controller falling asleep on duty occurred March 23 at Washington’s Reagan National airport, not far from Andrews. The most recent was this week when a controller at a regional radar facility near Cleveland was suspended for watching a movie on a DVD player when he was supposed to be monitoring air traffic. The head of the U.S. air traffic system resigned last week.

This latest incident occurred at about 5 p.m. on Monday when a Boeing 737 belonging to the Air National Guard, one of several guard planes used by the White House, came within about three miles of a massive C-17 as the planes were approaching Andrews to land, according to the FAA and Maj. Michelle Lai, a spokeswoman for Andrews.

The FAA requires a minimum separation of five miles between two planes when the plane in the lead is as large as the 200-ton cargo jet, in order to avoid dangerous wake turbulence that can severely affect the trailing aircraft.

The FAA is investigating the incident as a possible error by controllers at a regional radar facility in Warrenton, Va., that handles approaches and departures for several airports, including Andrews, where the president’s aircraft, Air Force One, is maintained.

The C-17 and Mrs. Obama’s plane didn’t have the proper separation when controllers in Warrenton handed them off to the Andrews controllers, a source familiar with the incident said.

Andrews air traffic controllers initially ordered Mrs. Obama’s plane to conduct a series of turns to bring it farther from the military jet. When that didn’t provide enough distance, controllers realized that there might not be enough time for the cargo plane to clear the Andrews runway before Mrs. Obama’s plane landed.

Controllers then directed the pilot of Mrs. Obama’s plane to execute a “go-around” — to stop descending and start climbing — and circle the airport, located in a Maryland suburb of Washington. A go-around is considered a type of aborted landing.

“The aircraft were never in any danger,” the FAA said in a statement.

Aviation safety expert John Cox agreed that an accident was unlikely.

“Every professional pilot I have ever known has been in a situation where they were overtaking the plane in front of them and asked to do an S-turn,” said Cox, a former airline pilot. “The only issue that could have come up was if they’d encountered the wake of the C-17.”

Even then, Cox said, the 737 is a “very controllable” plane. “I don’t think Mrs. Obama’s plane would have been in any jeopardy.”

Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, also was on the plane with Mrs. Obama. The first lady and Mrs. Biden had been in New York earlier in the day for a joint TV interview.

The first lady’s office declined to comment and referred all questions to officials at the FAA and Andrews. The president’s West Wing press office did likewise.

The National Transportation Safety Board is gathering information about the incident but hasn’t yet decided whether it will open a formal investigation, board spokeswoman Kelly Nantel said.

The controllers in Warrenton and at Andrews work for the FAA, and it is their job to keep planes separated. When aircraft get too close, the FAA counts that as an operation error. Over the past several years, errors by controllers have increased substantially.

In the 12 months ending on Sept. 30, 2010, there were 1,889 errors, according to the FAA. That was up from 947 such errors the year before and 1,008 the year before that. Before 2008 the FAA used a different counting method.

Very few of the errors fall into the most serious category, which could result in pilots taking evasive action to prevent an accident. But those instances have also increased. In the year ending Sept. 30, there were 44 such events, 37 in the prior year and 28 in the year before that.

FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt has said the higher number of known errors is due to better reporting and technology that can determine more precisely how close planes are in the air.

Bill Voss, president of the Flight Safety Foundation of Alexandria, Va., said the kind of spacing error that occurred in the handling of Mrs. Obama’s plane happens every day.

“It was more an embarrassment than a danger,” said Voss, a former controller.

The incident was first reported Tuesday by The Washington Post on its website.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

Comments

One Comment

  1. Doug says:

    Within 3 miles.
    Is this even news worthy ?
    Or just the typical gloppy filler news,
    we’ve all become accustom to.

  2. Herman Glimsher says:

    WHY IS MRS. OBAMA FLYING AROUND WASTING JET FUEL TO BEGIN WITH……………………….ACCORDING TO THE PRESIDENT WE HAVE TO REDUCE OUR OIL CONSUMPTION AND DEPENDENCE ON FOREIGN OIL…………………IT’S NOT GONNA HAPPEN FLYING AROUND WASTING JET FUEL!!!!!!!

    HE WANTS ALL OF US TO MAKE SACRIFICES AND DRIVE BATTERY POWERED CARS, BUT HE AND HIS DON’T HAVE TO SACRIFICE A THING!!!!!! LEAD BY EXAMPLE!!!!!!

    1. deaf says:

      WHAT? HERMAN???? WHAT??? I CAN’T HEAR YOU!

    2. sheriff willie says:

      Battery powered cars are recharged with the electricity that is fired by coal polluting plants.

  3. D says:

    Herman…you have no idea why she was on that plane. You are talking nonsense without knowledge. Do you expect her to take Airtran passenger flight? Be realistic and stop being negative without knowing the facts.

  4. this guy says:

    OMG! How did she survive?!

  5. Al Neri says:

    Where did she have to go? Walmarts?

    1. sheriff willie says:

      A….hole, Like it or not , the woman lives in a glass house & everything she does is magnified & dissected by the media & jerk offs like yourself that have never accomplished jack squat in life. You sound jealous. Oh, BTW, Michelle & Jill Biden were in N.Y. & had done a t.v. show.

  6. Bubbles says:

    Hey Al Neri: she doesn’t shop at Walmart hon. She goes to J Crew.🙂. lol. I don’t think her trip was that necessary to warrant a waste of fuel/oil in these depressingly failing economic times. But we are talking about the elect elite remember (note the sarcasm).

  7. SILLYMAN MICHAELS says:

    I.M SURE THERE ARE MUCH MORE IMPORTANT ISSUES TO REPORT ON
    INSTEAD OF MICHELLES ENCOUNTERS..NOT EVEN NEWS WORTH REPORTING

  8. Thelma Geminithetwins Alston says:

    I have never seen so many ignorant people in all my born days, you all must be people who don’t like themselves or any other human being for that matter. All you see is the color of someone’s skin, it is so sad, and I know you all are not Christians , that’s out. What you should be doing is praying that the next time you get on a plane that you live through it.

  9. Mystick says:

    Why is she being ferried around in a 737? A GV or equivalent would be more appropriate.

  10. JM says:

    All you negative a–holes, who’s spitting out venom about Mrs Obama’s trip on a plane should be ashamed of yourselves. I noticed that you didn’t say anything about Mrs Biden. She was also on the plane. Your hatred for the president and his wife is the devil’s work! People like all of you should be sent to live in ‘LIBYA.’ That way, you will keep your mouth shut. Moammar Gahdafi would not tolerate your disrespect!

  11. JOJO DANCER says:

    JM, I agree whole heartly with you.

    1. Eric says:

      I do agree that irt should not be about just the 1st lady. But untill reading this I had no idea that Mrs. Biden was on this flight. All the news I saw yesterday was just talking about the 1st lady and that was all. So I think that is where all this about just Mrs.Obama came from.

      1. JM says:

        Well done Eric…….but you should, in the future, read the article(s) before commenting positively or negatively. Some of the aforementioned a–holes knew that Mrs Biden was on the plane, but they just wanted to single out Mrs Obama. And as for gas, if they watched the world news every night, they would know that there is no shortage of gas – this is just another of Wall Street & the Republicians political gambling games. Up the prices now, just in case gas do go up later. They keep the American people mind on President Obama by saying bad things about him, so all of you will not know what they are up to “WATCH THE NEWS PEOPLE & START USING THE BRAIN GOD GAVE YOU” Remember during election, they said that Mr. Obama wanted to kill “GRANDMA?” Well, who’s trying to take medicare, medicaid and social security from the elderly. HOW SOON WE FORGET. I hope that all the people that voted them D–n Republician back in (November 2010) is satisfied now

  12. Ernie says:

    Doug

    Within 3 miles.
    Is this even news worthy ?

    Of course it is. If those two planes are within 3 miles of each other while on approach for landing the plane in front lands and needs time to slow down and taxi off the runway.
    A 737 on approach travels between 160-185mph. A 170mph that’s almost 3 miles a minute. So that gives the first plane less than a minute to land and get off the runway.

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