Two packed passenger jets came within 1,000 feet (305 meters) of colliding last August at the same airport where a Southwest Airlines jet slid off a runway in December, killing a 6-year-old boy.
The air traffic controller's union said Wednesday it credits one of its members with avoiding a tragedy at Midway International Airport on Aug. 4, 2005, when two departing planes headed for the same runway intersection.
United Airlines Flight 1429 and Southwest Airlines Flight 1486 were on different runways rolling toward takeoff when air traffic controller Kevin Rojek alerted a tower controller that the jetliners were on a collision course. The United Airlines pilot was then notified and stopped short with less than 1,000 feet (305 meters) to spare, Rojek said Wednesday.
After a review of the incident, the Federal Aviation Administration determined the tower controller made an error in clearing both planes for takeoff.
In general, controllers committing such errors are ordered to undergo a retraining program, said FAA spokesman Tony Molinaro, who could not comment on any personnel decisions related to the Midway incident.
The National Transportation Safety Board has put stopping similar incidents - known as runway incursions - on its list of "most wanted" safety improvements. According to federal transportation agencies, runway incursions occur when two entities, including planes, vehicles and people, get too close to each other on the runway.
There were 324 runway incursions in the United States in 2005, Molinaro said.
Runway incursions are "a big issue" because radar technology used by airports doesn't provide clear images of objects on the ground, said Paul Czysz, professor emeritus of aerospace engineering at Saint Louis University.
"When you get the radar beam close to the ground, you just see snow, you don't see individual targets," Czysz said. "All of the radar was basically designed to look at aircraft in the air. They never really thought that much about ground tracking."
Last month, a Southwest Airlines flight trying to land in heavy snow slid off a runway at Midway and into a nearby street, hitting one vehicle and pinning another beneath it. A 6-year-old boy in one of the vehicles was killed.
A preliminary NTSB investigation found that because of snowy conditions and other factors the jetliner landed with insufficient runway space to reach a safe stop.
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National Air Traffic Controllers Association: http://www.natca.org
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