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Two Jetliners Nearly Collide on Runway at L.A. Airport

Times Staff Writers

A United Airlines jumbo jet that was speeding toward takeoff at 175 m.p.h. with 289 people on board barely missed colliding with a Delta Airlines jet that had mistakenly taxied onto the edge of the same runway at Los Angeles International Airport, federal aviation officials disclosed Thursday.

The United DC-10, its landing gear still down, passed over the Delta 737 with about 200 feet to spare, the Federal Aviation Administration said.

The incident, which occurred at 12:53 p.m. Tuesday, is being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board as a “runway incursion” and by the FAA as a “pilot deviation.”

An FAA spokeswoman said it appeared that the Delta pilot, who was taxiing off the runway after landing, caused the near-collision by becoming confused and making a wrong turn inside the airport’s network of taxiways, which lead planes to and from the runway.

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Minimize the Danger

It was not clear whether passengers in either plane were made aware of the close call.

A Delta spokesman attempted to minimize the potential danger by noting that the United plane was 3,000 feet away from the Delta plane when it first left the ground. However, a source familiar with the incident said the circumstances were reminiscent of history’s worst airline disaster, a 1977 Canary Islands plane crash that claimed 579 lives.

In that crash, on Santa Cruz de Tenerife, a KLM Royal Dutch Airlines jetliner that had not been cleared for takeoff roared down a runway in dense fog and crashed into a Pan American World Airways jet that was taxiing along the runway toward a takeoff position.

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“Conflicting Reports’

Dan Sheehy, a United spokesman, said the pilot of United Flight 14 from Los Angeles to Newark could not have aborted his takeoff without risking disastrous consequences.

“We faced colliding into the Delta aircraft or possibly swerving off the runway into the terminal building or into the grassy area, which could have resulted in a fireball,” Sheehy said.

The NTSB, acknowledging that it had received “conflicting” reports about the near-collision from the two airlines, said it has asked for the Delta’s flight recorder and plans to interview the crews of both aircraft and the air traffic control personnel involved.

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Delta spokesman Richard Jones said “our pilot does not deny that the plane was back on the active runway for a very short time.”

It was the second serious mistake on the ground at LAX this year.

In February, a Continental Airlines jetliner taking off from the same runway with 84 passengers aboard came very close to a light plane that was taxiing across the runway, clipping the small plane with its wheels. The jet continued its scheduled flight and landed safely three hours later in Houston.

According to NTSB and FAA officials, the two planes apparently received conflicting instructions from airport tower controllers that put them on a collision course.

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In Tuesday’s incident, FAA spokeswoman Elley Brekke said Delta Airlines Flight 1605, carrying 82 passengers and a crew of five from Albuquerque, landed at LAX on Runway 25 Right, one of four runways. At the direction of tower controllers it made its way to a group of taxiways.

Controllers then authorized the United flight to take off on Runway 25 Right, heading west.

Problem Began

Following tower instructions, the Delta captain turned right off the runway and then made a left-hand turn onto what is called an “outer taxiway,” farther from the runway, Brekke said.

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It was there the problem apparently began. In interviews with FAA officials, the captain said he became confused and said he thought he had made an incorrect turn that placed him on an inner taxiway, Brekke said.

Apparently forgetting that he had already made a left-hand turn, as instructed, the Delta pilot made another left turn. He thought that would lead him to an outer taxiway, but instead it led his plane down another inner taxiway, toward the runway, Brekke said.

By the time the Delta pilot realized his mistake, he was at the edge of the runway and the United plane was beginning its departure. The Delta pilot made a 180-degree turn, during which part of his plane extended onto the runway, and began to head away from the runway on the inner taxiway.

Meanwhile, the United plane was approaching at maximum takeoff speed, according to United spokesman Sheehy.

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Delta spokesman Jones said that the Delta plane’s wrong-way trip began when LAX controllers led the plane to a taxiway that was blocked.

NTSB spokesman Alan Pollock said it was too early to blame anyone for the incident.

“There is no way to speculate until we find the crews and check all of the facts,” he said.

FAA spokeswoman Brekke said the FAA has filed a “pilot deviation action,” in which FAA staff members will investigate the pilots’ actions.

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1. Position of Delta Airlines plane as it brushed runway 25R while turning around.

2. Taxiway J43, where Delta plane should have been parked.

3. Position of United Airlines plane as it left the ground on runway 25R, 3,000 feet from Delta plane.


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