Another LAX Landing Mix-up

Tuesday, November 16, 2004
2nd Runway Mix-Up at LAX Is Investigated
An incoming jet lands in the wrong space, forcing two other planes to maneuver to avoid it.
By Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar and Jennifer Oldham
The Los Angeles (CA) Times

A series of mistakes last week by a pilot and a controller caused a corporate jet to land on a runway at Los Angeles International Airport that two other aircraft had already been cleared to use, federal aviation authorities confirmed Monday. The corporate jet forced a commuter flight taxiing toward the runway to slam on its brakes; then the jet came within 2,000 feet of a turboprop that was crossing farther down the runway.

The event, which is now under investigation, is the second high-profile runway mix-up at LAX in three months.

“The incident did not pose a threat to any of the aircraft involved,” said Greg Martin, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration. “Nonetheless, it did involve incursions into our very stringent standards.”

The controller who was handling the corporate jet has been taken off the job, pending an evaluation, according to federal officials.

The incident took place last Wednesday evening, one day after the National Transportation Safety Board drew national attention to runway safety problems by releasing a video animation of a near-collision between two commercial jets at LAX on Aug. 19.

The board used the LAX incident to highlight its calls for a new warning system on aircraft to directly alert pilots if they are about to encroach on a runway that is in use.

Safety precautions dictate that only one plane at a time should be on a runway, but some of the nation’s busiest airports, LAX among them, have encountered chronic problems in trying to adhere to that standard.

In the Aug. 19 incident, an Asiana Airlines Boeing 747, arriving from South Korea with hundreds of passengers aboard, came within 185 feet of hitting a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737.

Both planes had been cleared to use the same runway.

The two mix-ups point to problems with communication in the LAX tower, where controllers handle an average of 1,800 takeoffs and landings a day.

In the Nov. 10 incident, the corporate jet pilot had been cleared to land on the left runway on the airport’s south side, but misunderstood the controller’s instructions and landed on the right runway.

“This is a situation where we’re clearing you to land on the left and all we hear is ‘Roger,’ and you land on the right,” said Mike Foote, an air traffic controller at the LAX tower and local president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Assn.

“That’s a bad situation there, one that needs to be fixed.” The FAA needs to reinforce federal regulations that dictate how controllers and pilots talk to each other, he added. Pilots should be required to read back landing instructions to controllers, Foote said, just as they are mandated to repeat orders they’re given when they’re on the airfield.

Complicating last Wednesday’s incident, a runway safety radar system that serves as a last line of defense at LAX was not working properly.

“It was inoperable at the time, and we are looking into why that was the case,” said Martin. The radar is supposed to automatically warn controllers when there is a risk of collision.

The FAA took the system out of commission after it issued a false alarm a few weeks ago, Foote said.

“Instead of getting right on top of it and fixing it so it doesn’t give us that false alarm, instead of doing that in a day, they’re doing it in three weeks,” Foote said. “They put it in limited mode so it does not give out [false] alarms, but it doesn’t give us real alarms either.”

FAA officials gave the following account of the Nov. 10 incident, which took place after dark, at about 6:30 p.m.:

The corporate jet, a British-made HS-125, had been cleared by the tower to land on Runway 25L, the airport’s southernmost runway.

LAX has two sets of parallel runways, on the north and south sides of the airport. Planes taking off normally use the inner runways closest to the terminals, while incoming planes are directed to the outer runways.

Following standard procedure, the pilot of the corporate jet radioed the tower to confirm the landing clearance. But the pilot got the runway mixed up. Instead of saying 25L, the runway used for landings, the pilot said 25R, the runway used for takeoffs.

The controller did not catch the mistake and correct the pilot, although the accurate landing information was displayed on the controller’s scope.

The controller has been with the agency since 1989, officials said, and has been working at LAX for at least two years.

“Here is a case of a simple series of read-backs that occurs thousands of times a day without errors,” Martin said.

Except in this case, the controller compounded the error when the pilot radioed back again to confirm.

“It happened at least twice,” Martin said.

In the meantime, an American Eagle commuter flight had been directed by the tower to proceed to Runway 25R and hold position to await a takeoff clearance.

As the American Eagle turboprop neared the runway, its pilot saw the corporate jet preparing to land and hit the brakes. The pilot was able to stop only after the commuter plane had crossed about 50 feet into a buffer zone around the runway, which is supposed to remain clear.

“The American Eagle flight was not on the runway at the time of the aircraft landing,” Martin said. “Based on preliminary information, this is not an incident we would categorize as severe.”

The corporate jet landed well down the runway from the commuter plane, he said.

But toward the end of the runway, a Mesa Air regional jet had been cleared to cross over it as made its way toward the terminal.

The regional jet scooted across the runway as the corporate jet was still some 2,000 feet away – another breach of standards for safe separation of aircraft.

Martin said the Mesa jet was at little or no risk of being hit.

The pilot and the controller face possible penalties, officials said.

“These are unlikely to be characterized as severe incidents. Nonetheless, they do present opportunities for us to continue to learn and research in the area of human factors,” Martin said.

“That provides the greatest challenge in trying to drive down the rate of these incidents.”

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