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Planes Nearly Collide At O’Hare After Biden Landed

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O'Hare Air Traffic Control Tower

An air traffic error is being blamed for a near-collision at O’Hare International Airport earlier this week. (Credit: CBS)

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UPDATED 05/18/11 11:09 p.m.

CHICAGO (CBS) — Two passenger jets came within 300 feet of colliding with each other at O’Hare International Airport earlier this week.

As CBS 2’s Mike Parker reports, the distance between the two commuter jets came within the length of a football field Monday, and it’s being blamed on an air traffic error.

The incident at O’Hare could have ended in disaster, but it did not. Aviation expert Jim Tilmon says the difference was a matter of seconds.

LISTEN: Newsradio 780’s Bob Roberts Reports

A Sky West Airlines jet coming in from Michigan came within 300 feet of colliding with an ExpressJet commuter flight that was moving down the runway for takeoff.

The controller who ordered the takeoff is heard to say, “Oh (expletive.)”

“What the (expletive) was that?” asks the pilot. “What was that?”

The controller simply says, “Sorry.”

The controller error occurred shortly after Vice President Joe Biden’s plane landed at O’Hare. Biden and his wife, Jill, were in Chicago to attend the inauguration of Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

The vice president’s plane was not involved in the incident, officials said. But investigators are looking into the possibility that several factors related to Biden’s arrival -– landings and takeoffs were temporarily stopped when his plane touched down and a helicopter was hovering overhead –- may have caused a distraction in the O’Hare air-traffic tower.

This was no trivial matter, Tilmon said.

“Once you’re given a clearance, as you’re cleared to land or cleared to take off, you own that concrete,” Tilmon said. “You believe that there’s nothing that’s going to interfere with what you’re doing.”

That sense of comfort was undermined on Monday. The distance between the planes was the same as a chip shot in golf.

“That’s much, much, much too close, and for the gentleman who was taking off, it had to really be a starting moment,” Tilmon said.

A published report Wednesday night says the controller who made the call was new to the job.

“It’s kind of a problem when you’re teaching new guys, and this guy had only been certified to two weeks – I mean, two weeks,” said retired O’Hare air traffic controller Bob Richards. “This is going to be a hard lesson for this guy to learn.”

The ExpressJet plane was departing runway 32 Left, which intersects 9 Right.

“The Skywest plane passed behind and above the departing Jetlink flight,’’ Molinaro said. Jetlink is the call sign used by ExpressJet.

“The FAA will review the event to see if any additional training or procedural changes might be necessary,’’ Molinaro said.

O’Hare controllers said the controller failed to maintain the required separation between the two planes flying a converging course.

“There was a lot of distraction due to Air Force Two’s arrival and helicopters flying around,’’ said an aviation source who was at the airport. “The controller’s mistake was that he rolled (the ExpressJet plane on) 32 Left and didn’t see the arrival out there’’ on 9 Right.

“It was ugly,’’ he added. “But corrective action was taken and it was caught before it was too late.’’

O’Hare veterans say there has been a long history of close calls involving the simultaneous use of 32 Left, which faces the northwest, and 9 Right, which runs east-west and crosses 32 Left.

The combination of departures and arrivals requires that controllers time the operations to provide the required minimum six miles of spacing for planes landing on 9 Right, officials said. There have been proposals to extend the spacing on final approach to 10 miles as an added safety measure when 32 Left and 9 Right are used, but the FAA has not adopted the change.

In an official statement, the FAA is saying it will review the event to determine if perhaps additional training or additional procedural changes might be in order.

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