Alert pilots averted a disaster at Denver International Airport on Friday morning when they took last-second action to abort a landing to avoid a cargo plane that had strayed onto the runway.
Frontier Flight 297, bound from St. Louis with 45 passengers and a crew of five, was trying to make its scheduled landing about 7:30 a.m.
The Airbus A319 broke out of clouds at 600 feet above the ground and was about to land on runway 35L, a 12,000-foot, north-south strip immediately east of the airport concourses. But at the last second, Frontier pilots spotted the smaller plane, a Swearingen Metroliner operated by Key Lime Air, that was taxiing on the landing runway.
Visibility was half a mile.
The Frontier pilots immediately revved the engines and did what is called a "missed approach," ascending sharply and circling for another landing attempt.
The National Transportation Safety Board initially reported that the planes came as close as 50 feet from one another, although investigators will have to review flight recording tapes to determine exactly how close a call it was.
"It was really the quick thinking of our pilots and crew that averted a potential disaster," Frontier spokesman Joe Hodas said. "Our hats are off to those guys."
Key Lime Air officials declined to comment, citing a federal investigation that will involve both the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration.
Key Lime, founded in 1997, is a small charter airline based at Centennial Airport. It operates a fleet of 20 airplanes and primarily focuses on shipping cargo, although it has two types of planes that can carry passengers as well.
One company employee, who declined to be identified by name, said the morning flight was about to depart for Grand Junction with crew members and a shipment of cargo but no passengers.
While still on the ground, "It was supposed to get on a taxiway. Instead of getting on the taxiway, they got on the runway," NTSB spokesman Ted Lopatkiewicz said.
The case is being investigated as a "runway incursion," a type of incident that happens nearly once per day somewhere in the United States.
Over the past five years, an average of 329 incursions were reported at the nation's airports, although the majority of cases were classified as having little or no risk of an actual collision.
Friday's case appears to fall into a more serious category. Each year, investigators find a few dozen cases when there was significant potential for a collision or a pilot was forced to take "extreme action" to avoid disaster.
Evergreen aviation consultant Mike Boyd said similar runway incursions happen more often than people think. He blames the Federal Aviation Administration, saying the organization's air traffic control system "is falling behind."
"There are no safety issues at DIA. This is an issue of the FAA not having the equipment to prevent runway incursions," Boyd said. "Air traffic controllers will tell you this happens all over. It doesn't matter if it's at "East Cupcake" or DIA, these things can happen."
Nationally, the number of runway incursions spiked to 407 in fiscal year 2001, although the numbers have averaged about 329 annually over the last five years.
Friday's case in Denver is considered more serious than most cases, similar to one in Seattle several years ago when a departing jet had to get off the ground abruptly when another jet inadvertently got into the far end of its runway.
About the same time the Frontier crew spotted the potential trouble, the control tower was alerted by a high-tech warning system called the Airport Movement Area Safety system. That system was put in place as part of a nationwide effort to reduce close calls, although the Frontier pilots took action Friday before they could be alerted by the tower, Lopatkiewicz said.
While federal officials look into hundreds of incursions each year, Lopatkiewicz said, "They're not all of this magnitude."
Sixty runway incursions were reported at Colorado airports from 1997 to 2004. Of those cases, eight were of the most serious category, involving either a "significant potential" for collision or a case when "extreme action," such as a sharp ascent or turn, was required to avoid a collision:
Colorado Springs Municipal Airport: 4 cases, 1 serious
Centennial Airport: 22 cases, 2 serious
Jefferson County Airport: 18 cases, 3 serious
Denver International Airport: 9 cases, 1 requiring "extreme action."
Eagle County Regional Airport: 3 cases, 0 serious
Aspen-Pitkin County/Sardy Field: 4 cases, 1 serious*
* Aspen-Pitkin County/Sardy Field Figures Were Only Available For Four Fiscal Years, 2001-2004. Source: Federal Aviation Administration.
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