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Examining Close Calls At Philly Airport

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — We first told you about a close call with Phillies team plane Monday. Now Eyewitness News has learned nearly two dozen times this year, aircraft have been in a potential path of danger at Philadelphia International Airport.

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.

April 24, 2010: A controller sends a military C-5 from 7000 feet to 10,000 feet. The C-5 ends up in the path of a commuter jet. Cockpit alarms go off. Both planes abruptly change course, but the C-5 is heading to 11,000 feet, into the path of another plane that had to take evasive action.

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.”

Meanwhile on a runway June 8, FAA reports show a construction vehicle mistakenly pulled onto an active runway as a plane was taking off. That plane rose above the vehicle, while a second plane inbound on the same runway had to be diverted. The driver was suspended and fined.

Monday, we told you about the latest incident, when a Phillies charter plane had to abort its landing last Friday when another plane moved onto its runway. In all the incidents uncovered by Eyewitness News, pilots, controllers and technology responded quickly preventing crashes.

As to just how safe the skies are? Over the seven months these 21 incidents occurred, more than 200,000 flights safely made their way in and out of Philadelphia International Airport. By everyone’s estimate, that’s an excellent safety record.

Reported by: Walt Hunter, CBS 3 I-Team

More from Walt Hunter
  • Larry

    The C-5 incident would have been considered a comedy of errors had it occurred in a movie instead of in real life. I suspect the controller may have been momentarily overwhelmed by heavy air traffic transiting through the area. Flying through Philadelphia airspace during peak hours can seem akin to a video game as both pilots and controllers draw heavily on their skills to keep adequate separation between planes. I have nothing but the greatest respect for those Air Traffic Controllers. If you ever heard fast-talking disclaimers at the end of many radio commercials, that is how it sounds between pilots and towers when the going gets tough up there.

    Aside from the aforementioned C-5 and the incredibly stupid truck incident, sensationalizing most of the other 19 occurrences (out of 200,000 safe flights) is a real stretch. Even the close call involving the Phillies jet is something every competent pilot is trained to anticipate while coming in on final approach. It’s certainly irritating to witness a plane pulling onto the runway down there in front of you, causing you to abort your landing, climb back up, then wait in a holding pattern for another clearance to land. Pilots on the ground are supposed to check for incoming aircraft prior to entering a runway. That’s exactly what the pilot of American 1209 did, after being cleared for takeoff, when he correctly informed the tower that “the guy on final looks awfully close”.

    The Phillies ordeal will undoubtedly be investigated, not only to find someone to blame but to determine how to prevent it from happening again. Perhaps a controller wanted to hurry things along and cleared the plane for takeoff, or maybe the pilot misunderstood an instruction and entered the runway without proper authorization. Whatever the outcome, take comfort in the knowledge that our beloved home team was heavily favored to survive the ordeal unscathed.

    And in my opinion, Arthor Wolk’s remark about a three-way mid-air collision was totally reckless and irresponsible. The C-5 moved into the path of a commuter jet somewhere between 7,000 and 10,000 feet, then into the path of a different plane at 11,000 feet. Potential contact between aircraft would have involved only two planes at any specific moment. In both instances, disaster was fortunately averted by a combination of piloting skills and modern technology.

  • Leo

    Scary stuff. Went through an aborted landing a # of years ago similar to the Phillies and also a bird strike just taking off from Chicago in which the Pilot’s windshield was broken (could hear the air rushing in as he spoke over the intercom) and made an emergency landing. In both cases the flight crew handled the incident very professionally and kept us passengers calm and informed.

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