By Alexa Dunn, Correspondent
Image Credit: NPR and New York Post for Horizons
Today’s article will be a slightly different topic than normal – if you recall, I’ve done pieces on recent accidents especially when they can be contrasted to ones that’ve happened in the past. You also might remember that the first ever issue of Aviation Accidents in History involved the Tenerife Disaster, where two airliners collided and resulted in hundreds of fatalities.
Recently, on Jan. 13, there was a very close call between two airliners at JFK International Airport in New York City. Luckily, it was noticed and stopped in time, and no injuries or fatalities resulted, but the two aircraft came within 1000 feet of each other – which may seem like a large distance, but when hundreds of lives are on the line, it doesn’t seem like much at all.
How did this happen? Many lessons have been learned since Tenerife, and countless numbers of improvements to airports and airport systems have been put into place. It was a perfectly clear evening, around 8:45 pm: no fog like was present in Tenerife, and air traffic control not only would have had visual contact with both aircraft, but also a sophisticated radar system that would allow them to track the airplanes moment by moment.
To see why this might have happened, we’ll need to look at the context surrounding it. A Delta Airlines 737 was lined up for takeoff on runway 4L, while an American Airlines 777 was taxiing towards the runway, preparing to line up for takeoff. The American aircraft was given confusing, and potentially conflicting, information about where they were required to hold short of the runway, meaning they were not cleared to cross it. Despite this, they passed the location where they were instructed to hold short, and continued onwards, taxiing onto and crossing runway 4L. At the same time, the Delta aircraft had been cleared to takeoff, and was starting its roll, reaching upwards of 100 knots, or 115 mph.
A few seconds later, air traffic control noticed the American aircraft crossing the runway, and audibly swore, instructing the Delta aircraft to “cancel takeoff clearance” multiple times. The Delta aircraft hit the brakes, causing a sudden lurch in the cabin that was felt by the passengers, but came to a stop quick enough to let the American aircraft pass by. Passengers onboard the Delta flight were likely unable to see the aircraft in front of them, and had no idea what had happened until seeing news reports the next day.
Thanks to the quick reactions of air traffic control and the Delta pilot, disaster was averted. But there’s an important question to ask: how did the system fail enough to allow this to happen in the first place? As mentioned before, weather wasn’t a factor as it was in Tenerife, and neither was the lack of equipment or technology. JFK is one of the most advanced airports in the US, and pilots have multiple visual indicators that they’re approaching a runway, including but not limited to: signs, painted markings, and multiple flashing lights. Both aircraft were fully functioning, and all onboard systems to show positions of nearby aircraft were also functional.
So how did this happen?
Given that there seems no evidence of equipment failure or malfunction, we’ll likely see that this is another accident in the long list of human factors. But only time, and the official FAA report, will tell.
Throughout the semester, I hope to cover a wide range of accidents, from large to small, from famous to obscure, from fixed-wing to helicopter. If you have an accident in mind that you’d like me to cover, please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to hear any feedback and ideas you have.