Jetliner taking off at O'Hare barely clears 747 on runway


Feb 28, 2003
Jetliner taking off at O'Hare barely clears 747 on runway

By Jon Hilkevitch
Tribune transportation reporter
Published July 25, 2006

A passenger jetliner on takeoff skimmed over the tail of a cargo plane on an intersecting runway Sunday night, coming within 300 feet of a collision in the fifth runway incursion this year at O'Hare International Airport, the Federal Aviation Administration said Monday.

It was such a close call, the pilot of the Denver-bound United Airlines passenger plane told federal investigators later, that he feared his airborne plane would strike the tail of the Boeing 747 cargo plane crossing the runway after landing.
How the incursion reportedly happened
July 25, 2006

The United plane, a Boeing 737-300 carrying 120 passengers and five crew members, was at takeoff speed, about 140 m.p.h., when it flew over the top of the cargo plane operated by Atlas Air, the FAA said.

The United flight continued on safely to Denver, officials said, but the incident brings safety investigators to O'Hare for the second time this year.

The FAA blamed errors by an unidentified veteran O'Hare controller. Incursions involve a potential collision between planes, or not enough separation between aircraft taking off or landing.

Incursions rank as the No. 1 threat to safety at major airports like O'Hare that routinely handle thousands of flights daily under congested conditions, according to the FAA. All five incidents at O'Hare have been linked to controller error, the FAA said.

The planes on Sunday missed colliding by about 300 feet--the distance the United jet traveled after takeoff in less than a second--the FAA said. With the United plane barely in the air, the 63-foot height of the 747 jumbo jet's tail left the ascending plane even less room to clear the Atlas Air jet.

Two previous O'Hare runway incursions occurred during a two-day period in March, including one in which two planes came within 100 feet of crashing during takeoff on intersecting runways. It was the most serious commercial aviation incident not resulting in injuries or deaths in more than a decade in the U.S., according to the FAA.

Critics of the FAA's slow progress in modernizing air-traffic equipment over the last 15 years say the agency should not be allowed to hide behind the excuse of crowded airfields and too many controller mistakes.

"It has nothing to do with congestion. It has to do with no accountability at the FAA," said Michael Boyd, an aviation consultant in Colorado. "O'Hare and other major airports don't have the aircraft-detection equipment they need. It is a mathematical probability that someone is going to die."

The controller who made the mistake has more than 20 years of experience at O'Hare and San Francisco International Airport, said Joe Bellino, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association at O'Hare. The controller, who will continue reporting to work but will not direct planes while the incident is being investigated, had been talking about retiring soon, Bellino said.

"This was a very significant event and one that we are all concerned about," Bellino said.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which is sending investigators to O'Hare on Tuesday, said the distance between the two planes involved in Sunday's incursion might have been as little as 200 feet.

Sifting data

More will be known after authorities download the flight-data recorders from both planes, listen to cockpit radio tapes and interview the pilots, said NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway.

Sunday's incident occurred about 10 p.m. after the controller cleared United Flight 1015 for takeoff on runway 27 Left, said FAA spokesman Tony Molinaro.

The Atlas Air freighter was rolling after landing on runway 14 Right, and it crossed the intersection with runway 27 Left where the United plane was taking off, Molinaro said.

It was not clear whether the O'Hare tower had instructed the cargo plane to exit 14 Right before reaching the runway intersection and the cargo pilot possibly missed the turnoff. Nor is it known yet how far down 27 Left the United plane was on its takeoff roll when the pilot began the rotation lifting the plane off the ground.

But either way, authorities said, the veteran controller responsible for both planes should have delayed the United plane's takeoff, or radioed the pilot to abort takeoff, as soon as he observed the cargo plane's location on the runway.

It's possible, even likely, that the passengers aboard the United plane did not notice anything unusual during takeoff, authorities said.

The pitch of the United plane's climb may have been steeper than normal as the pilot did all he could to clear the cargo plane below. But to avoid putting his plane into a stall, the United pilot likely did not have the option of making any strong evasive maneuvers at low altitude and airspeed, authorities said.

Separate probe

Meanwhile, in a runway safety audit separate from the NTSB probe, the U.S. Department of Transportation is dispatching investigators to O'Hare as well as the major commercial airports in Boston and Philadelphia this summer in response to the overall recent increase in the number and severity of runway incursions.

O'Hare had 12 incidents, including three categorized as severe, during fiscal 2005 through April 2006, according to the department's office of inspector general.

Congress plans to increase FAA funding for newer technology to improve runway safety and reduce congestion at both O'Hare and Midway Airport.

The equipment, called Airport Surface Detection Equipment-X, is designed to give pilots and air-traffic controllers immediate alerts of probable collisions on the airfield. It creates a real-time map of all airplanes and other vehicles operating on an airfield, according to the FAA.

The NTSB sent a team of investigators to O'Hare after the two O'Hare runway incursions in March. A safety board report issued in May concluded that lack of sleep among O'Hare controllers may have been partly responsible for the incidents, along with excessive noise and unnecessary conversations in the tower cab, infrequent safety briefings conducted by FAA managers and inadequate training for some controller jobs.