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Feds investigate 3 planes flying too close at DC-area airport

By the CNN Wire Staff
August 2, 2012 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: A plane came within 800 vertical feet and less than one nautical mile of another aircraft
  • The incident occurred during adjustments for bad weather
  • US Airways says it is investigating
  • The NTSB said Thursday that it will investigate

Washington (CNN) -- Three U.S. Airways-operated jets at Reagan National Airport came closer than they should have because of an air traffic control "miscommunication," federal authorities said Thursday.

The incident occurred Tuesday afternoon when air traffic controllers were making adjustments for landing and departing aircraft because of bad weather.

Chautauqua Airlines flight 3071 came within 800 vertical feet and .82 nautical miles after take-off of an arriving aircraft, identified as Republic Airlines flight 3329, authorities said.

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The third plane involved was Republic Airlines flight 3467, which was taking off and came within 2.07 nautical miles and 800 vertical feet of the arriving flight.

"During the switchover of operations, miscommunication between the Tracon and the DCA tower led to a loss of the required separation between two regional jets departing from Runway 1 and a regional jet inbound for Runway 19," the Federal Aviation Administration said.

"Tracon," or terminal radar approach control, is a reference to a regional radar facility. "DCA" is the International Air Transport Association code for Reagan National Airport.

"At no point were the three aircrafts on a head-to-head course," said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

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The FAA is investigating and plans to take "appropriate action to address the miscommunication."

"Such near misses and any operational errors are calls to action," said Rep. John L. Mica, R-Florida. "I'm asking our Aviation Subcommittee staff and FAA to thoroughly review what happened."

Based on tower recordings, a controller told one of the pilots to "hold on, we're trying to figure this out."

"We really don't have the fuel for this," the pilot responded. "We've got to get on the ground pretty quick."

The controller then said, "Everybody stand by. We've got a couple of opposite direction arrivals, so it's gonna be a little bit of a delay in your departures."

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US Airways issued a statement saying, "We are currently investigating and working with the FAA to determine what occurred. The safety of our customers and employees is always our top priority."

The National Transportation Safety Board said Thursday that it will investigate.

Its probe will involve a review of communications recordings and radar data, as well as interviews with supervisors and controllers in coming days, according to NTSB spokesman Eric M. Weiss.

"Safety is NATCA's top priority," added Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. "We are always looking to enhance the safety and efficiency of the National Airspace System, and we will participate in any investigation that looks into improving the system."

Last year, an air traffic controller was suspended for failing to respond to two planes heading into National Airport after he fell asleep on the midnight shift.

The two planes landed without incident.

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CNN's Mike Ahlers contributed to this report

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