Two jumbo jets with more than 350 people aboard nearly collided over the city during a landing attempt after a pilot failed to follow an air traffic controller’s instructions, officials said Thursday.
A Brazilian VASP MD-11 veered in front of a KLM Dutch Royal Airlines Boeing 747-B at midday Wednesday, forcing the KLM jet to steer clear, the Federal Aviation Administration said. Both planes landed safely.
The FAA said it is not clear how close the airliners came to each other. But Kevin McGrath, a spokesman for the air traffic controllers union, said they were 200 to 400 feet apart at one point about 10 miles east of Los Angeles International Airport over densely populated South Central Los Angeles.
“The two targets merged on the radar scope,” McGrath said. “The controller watching this was helpless. The individuals working the aircraft were pretty shook up about it.”
One shaken controller was sent home early, McGrath said.
Jetliners are generally kept a mile apart, but that can vary with each airport, FAA regional spokesman Mitch Barker said.
There were 344 passengers and a crew of 15 to 20 on board the KLM flight from Amsterdam, KLM spokesman Peter Wellhuner said. The number of people aboard the VASP flight from Osaka, Japan, was not immediately known, but an MD-11 can carry up to 410 passengers.
“On final approach the pilot didn’t comply with air controller instructions to turn,” Barker said. “We are looking into this.”
VASP spokesman Linoel Dias in Sao Paolo, Brazil, said he did not know how close the planes came to each other or whether the VASP pilot disobeyed instructions from the tower.
The VASP pilot was ordered to land on Runway 24 Right and instead went toward 24 Left, KLM’s Wellhuner said. The KLM pilot, who was on a heading for 24 Left, was then directed to Runway 24 Right, he said.
The pilot could face sanctions, Barker said. The jets were flying at 2,000 to 2,500 feet, according to McGrath.
In 1986, a small plane collided over suburban Cerritos with an Aeromexico DC-9 descending toward Los Angeles International, killing 82 people, including 15 people on the ground.
“These are very, very crowded skies in Southern California, the busiest airspace in the world,” McGrath said. “Our worst nightmare is them getting together over the city.”