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United Airliner and Stealth Fighter Pass `Too Close for Comfort'

Aired September 8, 2000 - 1:01 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: An alarm went off, then a United Airlines crew looked out the window and saw a startling sight: an Air Force Stealth Fighter jet, half-a-mile away and just a few hundred feet overhead.

An investigation is underway, and CNN's Charles Feldman has our report.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CHARLES FELDMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): United flight 174, with 166 passengers and seven crew members on board, took off about 8:38 a.m. Pacific time, Thursday, from Los Angeles International Airport, en route to Boston.

A United spokesman confirms to CNN that as the Boeing 757 was climbing to its initial assigned altitude of 15,000 feet, its on board anti-collision system alerted it to an aircraft overhead where it was not supposed to be.

JERRY SNYDER, FAA SPOKESMAN: About five minutes after takeoff, at around 11,000 feet, the plane's traffic collision avoidance system alerted the pilot to the presence of another aircraft in the vicinity. The 757 pilot lowered the aircraft to about 10,800 feet and reported that an F-117 fighter crossed by overhead.

FELDMAN (on camera): A pilot in a nearby jetliner, who overheard radio communications between the United plane and air traffic control, tells CNN the United pilot thought he came within 300 feet of the other plane.

FELDMAN (voice-over): The Federal Aviation Administration says the United pilot has filed a report and believed he was in a near mid- air collision situation. The United jet landed safely in Boston and no injuries have been reported.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

FELDMAN: Now, Lou, as a pilot myself, who often flies around southern California, I can tell our audience this much: The southern California has more air traffic, according to some, than all of Europe together.

That's a staggering amount of aircraft. And a fair -- a large number of that aircraft happen to be military aircraft.

Why? Because it's the history of aerospace in southern California. If you look at that map and you go east of Los Angeles International Airport, you'll see, there, Edwards Air Force Base and Palmdale.

Palmdale, by the way, is facility where the Stealth Fighter was based. The southern California desert is a place that, since World War II, is filled with Air Force air bases. It's a place where they test aircraft; it's also a place where military aircraft like to go to, in effect, exercise, to flight test different things; and it's not uncommon at all for the aircraft to venture outside of that space in the desert and go more along the coast.

And, in fact, Lou, while yesterday the thinking was that this incident occurred, perhaps, over the desert, now the FAA says preliminary evidence indicates that this incident may have occurred directly over Los Angeles International Airport -- directly over the L.A. Basin -- Lou.

WATERS: Now, Charlie, we have this Air Force official, whom we've reported about, saying it was too close for comfort. We have the Pentagon saying the planes were never on collision course.

Which is it?

FELDMAN: Well, you know, the definition of a near-collision, or near-miss, as some people call it, is a very tricky one.

It depends on one's point of view. The United aircraft was on an instrument flight plan. That aircraft had to be talking to air traffic control.

The military plane, we understand, was on what's called a visual flight plan. That means that military aircraft did not have to be in contact with air traffic control.

So it really is the point of view of the pilot. The United pilot, according to his report, clearly felt that this aircraft, the stealth, was too close for comfort -- was too close for his liking, and, in his view, it was a potential near-collision situation.

As the government, the FAA and the Pentagon, and United Airlines goes over all of those tapes and the air traffic control tapes, they will be in a better position to see how dangerous a situation it really was. But it was close.

WATERS: All right, we'll wait for that. Charles Feldman covering us in Los Angeles.

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