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Crash Narrowly Averted at LAX

Times Staff Writer

In yet another dramatic incident at Los Angeles International Airport, two aircraft came so close to colliding on a runway Saturday that one pilot can be heard hyperventilating on air traffic control tapes.

A SkyWest regional jet taking off for San Antonio had accelerated to 115 mph when a Gulfstream business jet strayed in front, forcing the pilot to slam on his brakes. The SkyWest jet, with about 39 people on board, shuddered to a stop less than 100 feet from the Gulfstream.

After the incident, a shaken tower controller can be heard on the radio apologizing to the SkyWest pilot and asking him to immediately leave the runway to make room for a landing aircraft.

“SkyWest 6430, I apologize. We never talked to the Gulfstream. He crossed without a clearance,” says the controller, who was so traumatized by the near-collision that she left her post seconds later. “I apologize. If you could make a right turn, please, and exit the runway.”

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The SkyWest pilot comes onto the frequency next.

“Exiting right,” he says, exhaling heavily.

Controllers in the tower at LAX -- the world’s fifth-busiest passenger airport -- said it was the closest they’d seen two airplanes come to each other at the facility without actually colliding. Aviation officials agreed that the incident is likely to be classified as the most serious close call at LAX since 2000. It was the eighth near miss there this year, compared with six in 2005.

The incident comes just nine weeks after a serious near-collision at LAX involving two airliners on the same runway and underscores long-standing safety issues with the airport’s configuration. The unusual layout, which features two sets of parallel runways, requires pilots who land on an outer runway to cross the inner runway on a series of taxiways.

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The rate of close calls at LAX has remained high despite years of efforts by local and federal officials to ensure that pilots and controllers follow federal rules allowing only one plane at a time on or near a runway. Among the nation’s airports, LAX is unusual, because airplanes cross active runways about 900 times a day.

On Thursday, airport officials said such incidents should be prevented once construction workers finish moving the southernmost runway 55 feet and installing a center taxiway that pilots can use to turn and wait for clearance to cross the inner runway.

Starting in July 2008, when the center taxiway is scheduled to open, “pilots will be directed on a route that will reduce the likelihood of them inadvertently crossing an active runway without authorization,” said Paul Haney, deputy executive director of airports and security for the city agency that operates LAX.

Such an inadvertent crossing is what happened Saturday about 6 p.m., officials said, when the pilot of the Gulfstream, registered in the United Kingdom, taxied from a hangar on the airfield’s south side on his way to take off. Controllers told the pilot to cross the outer runway and then stop short of the inner runway.

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The pilot repeated the instructions. Then he passed the taxiway that controllers had told him to use to cross the runways, prompting them to repeat their directions. The pilot again read them back, turned around, and proceeded to turn onto the correct taxiway. But rather than stop, he entered the runway that the SkyWest jet was using.

Federal Aviation Administration officials said the SkyWest pilot, the tower controller and the ground radar that audibly alerts controllers to impending collisions all noticed -- at the same time -- the Gulfstream crossing the runway.

“We had three layers of redundancy,” said Ian Gregor, an FAA spokesman. “This is just a clear and clean pilot mistake.”

The Gulfstream pilot told officials he was certain that the controller had cleared him to cross both runways, even though he twice read back the “hold short” instructions correctly, Gregor said. Officials did not know if other people were aboard the business jet.

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The FAA has yet to classify the incident -- the agency uses a four-level system to grade close calls on the ground -- but it will probably fall into one of the top two most serious categories, he said. Officials at the airport agreed that the close call would probably receive an “A” rating, meaning the pilot needed to take extreme action to prevent a crash.

The last close call at LAX to receive a similar ranking occurred March 5, 2000, when an airplane landed on the outer runway on the north side and failed to stop short of the inner runway, crossing into the path of a departing jet.

The last serious near-collision at the airport happened July 26 and received a “B” ranking, meaning there was a considerable danger of a crash. In that case, a SkyWest turboprop rolling for takeoff averted disaster by suddenly lifting into the air -- risking a stall -- to avoid a Mesa Air regional jet that had strayed onto its runway.

Officials later said the planes were not in danger of hitting one another because the nose of the Mesa Air jet was 50 feet away from the SkyWest plane as it flew over.

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Controllers disagree, saying the planes came closer to each other than the agency’s investigation showed.

In Saturday’s incident, officials said runway construction -- which involves hundreds of machines tearing up the south side of the airport, piling rubble and mounds of dirt just several hundred yards from the runway the SkyWest pilot used -- had nothing to do with the close call.

The SkyWest captain, who has been with the airline seven years and eight months, mentioned in an after-action report that there was construction on the airfield at the time of the incident, said Sabrena Suite, a company spokeswoman.

Controllers said runway construction, which has forced them to funnel all traffic onto the airport’s three other runways, and understaffing in the tower have left them less able to catch blunders by pilots that might lead them to cross an active runway.

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“You’re having controllers working too long and too hard on position,” said Mike Foote, a controller in the LAX tower and a spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Assn. “This was all pilot error -- you can’t say it wasn’t -- but the fact is this didn’t use to happen. People would catch it. We still do ... but more frequently it’s not being caught.”

The FAA disagreed, saying controllers’ staffing and workload played no role in Saturday’s incident, adding that the tower controller who instructed the SkyWest jet to take off had been on duty only 65 minutes when the close call occurred.

“Controller workload and controller staffing had nothing to do with this,” Gregor said. “It’s disingenuous to suggest otherwise. The system worked exactly as it should.”


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