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Michelle Obama's midair close call

US air traffic controllers have been found sleeping, watching movies and callously negligent at work lately. One of them sent a flight carrying First Lady Michelle Obama dangerously close to a military plane Monday evening. Yashwant Raj reports Slumbering sloths

world Updated: Apr 21, 2011 01:35 IST
Yashwant Raj

US air traffic controllers have been found sleeping, watching movies and callously negligent at work lately. One of them sent a flight carrying First Lady Michelle Obama dangerously close to a military plane Monday evening.

The Boeing 737 carrying the first lady and Jill Biden, the vice-president's wife, was coming in to land at a military airbase here used by the US president and his family, when it was found too close to a C-17 military cargo aircraft.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) mandates planes to be 7.5 km apart at all times as the air turbulence left by a plane can cause another aircraft flying within a certain a distance to crash in a worst case scenario.

The Boeing had come within 4.5 km of the C-17.

It has been a harrowing week or so for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and flyers. Air traffic controllers were found sleeping at work in three separate instances and in one case the man on duty was watching a film.

The FAA released a statement Tuesday describing the incident in the barest of details. When asked for details a spokesperson sent back the same statement released by the authority earlier in the day.

"The FAA is investigating the incident," the statement said, adding, "The aircraft were never in danger."

According to other reports, the Boeing was asked to first carry out an S maneuver to get itself at a safe distance from C-17. When that didn't have the desired effect, it was asked to stay in the air circling above.

The two aircraft were handed over to the Andrews airbase by the previous tower's air traffic controller flying too close. When alerted, the controller apparently insisted they were at a safe distance apart.

That's going to be one more air traffic controller in trouble, raising questions more questions about the service, which has already cost one FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt his job - he resigned after a string of recent control tower incidents.

The first of them took place on March 24, when an American Airlines flight preparing land at the Ronald Reagan national airport couldn't raise the tower. It landed without any help. Another plane also came in unaided.

The controller, a veteran of 20 years, had nodded off.

The FAA ordered an overhaul of shift scheduling to allow controllers enough rest between shifts to prevent the setting in of fatigue, and add extra staff on duty at some of the heavy traffic airports.