400 feet separated planes in near miss at George Bush IAH

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by Jeremy Desel / KHOU 11 News

wfaa.com

Posted on May 23, 2014 at 9:42 AM

HOUSTON -- Another close call in the sky this time over George Bush Intercontinental Airport in north Houston.

WFAA's sister station KHOU 11 News has confirmed that two United international flights at one point came within 400 feet of each other while both were taking off.

That is not just a close call, but a very close call. Millions of people count on airlines and air traffic controllers every day.

There are more than 650 daily flights out of George Bush Intercontinental Airport alone and most of those are uneventful.

May 9 was a cloudy Friday night at Bush.

United Flight 601, an Airbus A-320, was about to leave for Vancouver, Canada. United Flight 437, also an Airbus A-320, heading out for Mexico City.

What no one on those packed planes knew was how close they came to disaster.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, Flight 601 was taking off from runway 9 heading East. Flight 437 departed from runway 15 left heading Southeast just before. Moments later, Flight 601 was told by air traffic control to turn right.

“Flight 601 turn right parallel traffic,” said the controller on Live Air Traffic's recordings.

It should have turned left. The right turn put it right in the path of the other plane, only 400 feet below it.

The aircraft were 8-tenths of a mile apart, that's close at takeoff speed, literally a second or two from an impact, just two miles from the airport.

Also on air traffic control recordings you later hear the pilot ask another pilot, “Hey, you know what happened there?”

Another pilot answers, “You all basically crossed directly over the top of each other.”

“That’s what it looked like from my perspective. I have no idea what was going on over there in the tower. But, you know, it was pretty gnarly looking, “ said the other pilot.

The pilot of Flight 601 seems to know quickly what the problem was,“I’m guessing he was supposed to give us a left turn."

The FAA says the same controller who ordered the wrong turn quickly saw the problem and ordered both planes to separate, which they did.

Each aircraft can carry nearly 150 people, passengers who had no idea anything was wrong.

This is the second recent near miss incident involving United planes. Six weeks ago a similar incident happened at the Newark Airport.

What may be most troubling is sources are telling us that the controller responsible for the wrong turn may have been in on-the-job training at the time of the incident.

We asked the FAA about that, no confirmation yet, but the agency does credit the controller for seeing their error and correcting it.

The investigation is ongoing.

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