By Jon Hilkevitch
Tribune transportation reporter
Published December 10, 2003, 1:27 PM
Two aircraft approached O'Hare International Airport on a collision course during Tuesday night's rainy weather, the Federal Aviation Administration said today.
The Mexicana and United Airlines planes were "nose to nose" and rapidly closing on each other when the United pilot, alerted to the danger by an onboard collision-avoidance system, descended abruptly to avoid the other plane, officials said. No injuries were reported.
The incident occurred about 6:45 p.m. during bad weather and is being investigated as a possible pilot error by the Mexicana pilot flying an Airbus A319, said FAA spokesman Tony Molinaro.
"The air-traffic controller told the (Mexicana pilot) to turn left. The plane turned right instead and flew in front of (the United plane)," Molinaro said.
The planes were 1 mile apart and closing when the United plane diverted, Molinaro said. A minimum 3-mile horizontal spacing is required between planes on the final approach to O'Hare.
The controller working the planes on his radar screen saw the impending disaster and radioed the United pilot to climb immediately. The United pilot, who at about the same time was warned of the conflict by the onboard collision-avoidance technology, reported back that he was already descending.
"The controller, a seasoned veteran, was very shook-up afterwards," said Ray Gibbons, who represents the controllers union at the FAA's facility in Elgin that directs aircraft arriving and departing Chicago-area airports.
The incident marked the latest scare in the Chicago region's busy skies.
The FAA last week released data showing 24 errors by air-traffic controllers had occurred this year at the Elgin facility, up from four errors in 2002. Twelve additional errors were made by O'Hare tower controllers this year, compared to three controller errors in 2002.
Controllers attributed the increase in errors to a rapidly rising number of flights marking the rebound of the aviation industry, and to the airlines' practice of scheduling large volumes of flights at the same time.
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