The number of near-collisions between aircraft in the skies over California has more than doubled in the past five years and now occur at a rate of one every two days, according to data released Wednesday by the Federal Aviation Administration.
California leads the nation in near-collisions, the data shows, and more than half the state’s close calls occur in Southern California, described by aviation experts as having perhaps the most crowded skies in the world.
Of the 709 California near-collisions reported by pilots since 1981, the FAA classified 155 as “critical"--defined as planes coming within 100 feet of each other. A few involved distances of less than 10 feet, according to the computer list that was made public by the agency in response to news media requests after Sunday’s collision of an Aeromexico DC-9 and a private plane over Cerritos.
188 Incidents in 1985
The report cited 188 “pilot reports of near-midair-collision incidents” in California in 1985, compared with 134 in 1984, 110 in 1983, 76 in 1982 and 87 in 1981. So far in 1986, the agency said, 114 incidents have been reported.
Nationwide, the rate of near-collisions has shown a similar increase, from 395 in 1981 to 758 in 1985. About 400 were reported in the first half of this year, the FAA said.
Some members of Congress maintained that at least part of the increase could be attributed to the air traffic controllers’ strike in 1981, during which thousands were fired by President Reagan. The FAA disputes that contention, however, and its report cites no causes for the rise in incidents.
Need for Controllers
Nevertheless, Rep. Glenn M. Anderson (D-San Pedro), a ranking member of the House Public Works and Transportation subcommittee on aviation, said the newly released report indicates the need for additional air traffic controllers in the Los Angeles area.
“The FAA tells us it is safe, but they admit they don’t have enough controllers,” Anderson said in a telephone interview. “We need more.”
Anderson said he called Rep. Norman Y. Mineta (D-San Jose), chairman of the subcommittee, this week to suggest early congressional hearings on the Cerritos disaster. He said Mineta replied that hearings should be deferred until more information is available on the cause of the collision.
Mineta could not be reached for comment, but an aide said the congressman believes that “it is too premature” to schedule hearings.
Several aviation experts attributed the rate of near-collisions in the Los Angeles area to the heavy volume of commercial, military and general aviation traffic; to generally good weather that promotes private flying, and to such factors as mountains and smog.
“The L.A. Basin has the densest traffic anywhere,” said John E. O’Brien, director of engineering and air safety of the Air Line Pilots Assn. “Then you’ve got the mountains on the east, the ocean on the west, sometimes the smog layer and the location of the airports. These all conspire to make it not only busy but a sometimes difficult area to operate in.”
He added: “I’m not saying it is unsafe, but I’m saying there are a lot more factors to contend with. Everything has to be done right.”
John Gallipault, director of the nonprofit Aviation Safety Institute, estimated that one-third of the nation’s air traffic is in Southern California. Although Los Angeles International Airport, with an average of 1,500 daily takeoffs and landings, ranks behind Chicago and Atlanta, he said, the host of other airports in the area “combine to generate an incredible amount of traffic in a narrow corridor.”
In 1983, he said, the FAA predicted that there would be 0.3 airplanes per square mile in Southern California in the year 2000 but that other studies last year showed that the figure already had reached 0.26 planes per square mile.
The FAA listing gives general locations for the near-collisions--such as Los Angeles, Santa Ana or San Diego--and the barest of details, such as the types of planes involved and how close they came. It breaks the incidents into three categories: “critical,” where the planes were within 100 feet of one another; “potential,” between 100 and 500 feet, and “not hazardous,” more than 500 feet.
So far in 1986, the report listed the location of 28 incidents as occurring over Los Angeles County, including 6 near Los Angeles International Airport, another 6 near Santa Monica Airport, 5 near Long Beach Airport and 2 near Glendale-Burbank Airport. There also have been eight incidents over Orange County, including four near John Wayne Airport. Two of the Los Angeles International incidents were classified as “critical”: On Feb. 14 when a DC-9 and a Boeing 767 flying at 1,000 feet came within 100 feet of each other and on Feb. 25 when a DC-8 and a twin-engine Beechcraft came within 100 feet of each other at an altitude of 12,500 feet.
Six incidents were listed under the Los Angeles heading in 1985, nine in 1984, eight in 1983, four in 1982 and five in 1981.
San Diego, meanwhile, was listed as having 6 so far in 1986, 12 in 1985, 9 in 1984, 6 in 1983, 3 in 1982 and 2 in 1981.
Some of the closest calls in California cited for 1986:
- A small commercial plane and a private craft flying at 1,000 feet came within 10 feet of colliding over Santa Monica on Jan. 10.
- A commercial pilot flying at 5,000 feet reported that he came within 20 feet of an unidentified craft over Canoga Park on March 6.
- Two private planes passed within 35 feet of each other at an altitude of 1,500 feet over Redding on March 19.
- Over Fresno on May 11, two private planes came within 25 feet of colliding at an altitude of 1,000 feet.
- On May 27, a commercial pilot reported coming within 35 feet of a private plane at 6,000 feet over San Fernando.
- Five feet was listed as the distance between two private planes flying at 1,000 feet over Santa Monica on June 29.
- At an altitude of 2,500 feet above Sutter on July 8, two general aviation craft came within 20 feet of one another.
- Above Fremont on July 26, two private planes passed within 25 feet at an altitude of 500 feet.
- Twenty feet was listed as the separation between two private planes flying at 1,100 feet above Oxnard on Aug. 23.
Assisting on this story were Times staff writers Gabe Fuentes and Larayln Sasaki.
NEAR-COLLISIONS REPORTED BY PILOTS
Nationwide California 1981 395 87 1982 311 76 1983 475 110 1984 589 134 1985 758 188 1986 400* 114**
* (thru 6/30) ** (thru 9/1)
Source: Federal Aviation Administration