PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — At Philadelphia International Airport on Friday morning (10/22/10), the jumbo jet was two and a half miles out on final approach. Another flight, American Airlines flight 1209 was on the ground, ready for takeoff, when air traffic controllers cleared the flight for departure.
“American 1209, the guy on final looks awfully close,” said the pilot.
And when the plane taxied onto the runway, the chartered 747 for the Phillies had to abort the landing.
“91 heavy, go around, climb and maintain 3,000, fly runway heading,” said the tower controller to the Phillies flight.
“That’s when these airplanes typically have an accident. That pilot wanted no parts of switching runways that close in, two miles in, so he declined that,” said aviation attorney Arthur Wolk. “Every airplane that time of the day at this airport was using the very same runway. That creates a problem; it’s a traffic jam.” Wolk says it appears the air traffic controller tried to do too much with too little time.
Phillies General Manager Ruben Amaro says he noticed the aborted landing onboard the plane. “Oh yeah, we had to circle, circle back around,” he told Eyewitness News when asked about the incident.
A spokesman for the FAA says general guidelines call for planes to be kept three miles apart. But when the American airliner was told to move onto the runway, the Phillies’ 747 was only two and a half miles out. When told of that, the spokesman said it’s a judgment call on the part of the air traffic controller.
“I think the tower controller was enthusiastic to get two departures out before the Phillies airplane – the 747 – landed,” Wolk said. “Unfortunately, things kind of backed up in a hurry and he wasn’t able to do that.” Wolk says that’s what causes risk. “That’s to me where the series of potential errors that could lead to an incident or an accident began,” he said.
Just how safe are the skies above Philadelphia? An exclusive CBS 3 I-Team investigation has uncovered FAA reports never before made public that provide some answers. Twenty one times this year, planes in flight and on the runway at Philadelphia International Airport have come too close, prompting FAA investigations.
Aviation expert and attorney Arthur Wolk said, “So you had the potential for a three-plane mid-air for a brief moment here, and that’s really scary.” Wolk says while alarms in the planes helped prevent a crash, he’s concerned what might have happened. “That was a bad day that could have been a really bad day, a disastrous day,” said Wolk. “But fortunately, the safeguards that were built into the systems worked.”
Don Chapman, president of the air traffic controllers union in Philadelphia, said, “The controller was given additional training to resolve the issues that might have led to that.”