ANCHORAGE - The National Transportation Safety Board said Friday it is investigating how a US Airways passenger jet flew within a third of a mile of a cargo plane at Anchorage's airport after the airliner's crew refused to make a turn they said would "put their flight in direct conflict" with the departing cargo jet.
The near-collision occurred at about 12:10 a.m. May 21, when US Airways Flight 140, arriving from Phoenix, missed an approach and was turning to make a second landing try, the federal agency said in a news release. The plane with 138 people on board came within an estimated 100 feet vertically and one-third of a mile horizontally of the departing Cargolux Boeing 747-400, which was bound for Chicago.
"It's a very, very serious loss of separation in controlled airspace," Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Mike Fergus said Friday.
Fergus said the NTSB is in charge of the investigation and "it's not my place to speculate as to causes," but two of the possibilities were pilot or controller error and "they both will be looked at very thoroughly."
The NTSB said a Washington, D.C.-based air traffic control specialist will begin an investigation in Anchorage next week. NTSB spokeswoman Bridget Ann Serchak said the agency would not comment on possible causes until it can determine the facts.
The southern end of a runway at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport lies near the western end of another runway. The US Airways Airbus A319 was trying to land from the north when its pilots began a missed approach procedure because of tail winds, the NTSB said. The tower controller told the crew to turn right and watch for the Cargolux plane taking off to the west, then instructed the jetliner to continue to turn and climb to 3,000 feet.
"The A319 crew refused the right turn because the turn would have put their flight in direct conflict with the B747," the NTSB said.
The US Airways crew then complied with a command to descend and was clear of the conflict at an altitude of about 1,700 feet. Visibility at the time was about 10 miles, the agency said.
Officials at the U.S. office of Luxembourg-based Cargolux could not immediately be reached by phone. Morgan Durrant, a spokesman for US Airways Group Inc., would say only that the Tempe, Ariz.-based carrier was cooperating with the NTSB.
John Parrott, manager of the Anchorage airport, said he had not heard of the incident Friday.
"I'm a little puzzled that it has somehow been reported as a midair but wasn't the talk of the airport," he said.
The incident is the latest in a spate of close calls around major airports that have safety officials concerned.
In April, a Southwest Airlines Co. flight taking off from Houston's William P. Hobby Airport came within 125 feet of a news helicopter. The same month, a small private plane and a Southwest Boeing 737 came within 200 feet of each other when an air traffic controller at Bob Hope Airport in Burbank in misjudged the spacing between the planes.