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Associated Press, Published October 28 2010

NTSB cites air-control error in near miss

MINNEAPOLIS – Federal investigators blame an air-traffic control error in their preliminary findings released Wednesday on a near-collision between a US Airways jet and a cargo plane over Minneapolis in September.

The National Transportation Safety Board didn’t specify the “air traffic control operational error” in its report Wednesday. Spokeswoman Bridget Ann Serchak told The Associated Press that the final report, which won’t be out for several months, will contain more details.

Radar data showed the US Airways Airbus 320 bound for Philadelphia came within 50 to 100 feet of colliding with a Beech 99 cargo plane shortly after they both took off from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport just before 7 a.m. on Sept. 16, the NTSB said.

The tower instructed the airliner to turn left just after takeoff, which put it in the path of the cargo plane taking off from a parallel runway. The NTSB’s brief report does not say whether the controller’s order to the US Airways crew was a mistake.

The cargo plane did not turn but headed straight, and the two aircraft nearly collided about a half-mile from the end of the runway. The report does not discuss the instructions the tower gave to the cargo plane.

Transcripts of radio traffic archived by LiveATC.

net, a website that streams such traffic from airports around the world, showed that a controller told the cargo plane before takeoff that he should turn due south after takeoff. Two minutes later, the controller asked the pilot if he was in his turn. The pilot asked for a repeat. Portions of what followed were garbled, but then the controller asked:

“OK, um, why didn’t you start the turn once you were airborne?”

“Well, (garbled) ... sorry about that,” the cargo pilot replied.

Ninety-five people were aboard the US Airways flight. The cargo plane was carrying just the pilot. A crash could have dropped wreckage on residential areas and busy freeways, but nobody was injured and the planes were not damaged.

The transcripts and archived audio showed the airline’s flight crew was surprised. The two planes were in the clouds, about 1,500 feet above the ground, and never saw each other.

“We heard the guy go by,” the captain radioed back to controllers.

The transcripts showed that the US Airways crew dealt with a different controller on a different frequency.

The airliner was equipped with an automated crash avoidance system that warned the flight crew to climb, which they did. The Beech 99 did not have the system, and the pilot was unaware that the Airbus was so close, the NTSB said.

A rise in near-collisions across the country prompted the Federal Aviation Administration this summer to launch an inquiry into why dangerous errors were being made by air traffic controllers and pilots. The FAA also said it had seen a spike in incidents where planes were violating minimum separation distances.