An Air Force operated Boeing 737 carrying First Lady Michelle Obama was forced to abort a landing at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland after coming too close to a military cargo plane, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
The aircraft, carrying Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, wife of the vice-president, was returning from New York when an incident occurred that required FAA air traffic controllers to instruct the pilot to execute a series of turns after realizing the airplane was too close to a military C-17 jet that was attempting to land on the Air Force base runway.
The Washington Postreports the close-call occurred when a Warrenton controller handed off responsibility for the two aircraft to the Andrews controllers who immediately "ordered the Obama plane to execute a series of S-turns in an effort to create a safe distance between it and the C-17. When those maneuvers failed to achieve the required distance between the two planes — and the Andrews controllers realized the cargo jet would not have time to get off the runway before the presidential plane arrived — they aborted the landing of the Obama plane and ordered it to circle the base."
"Because an airplane’s wake causes severe turbulence and, in extreme cases, can cause a plane that enters into it to crash, the FAA has strict standards on how much distance controllers should maintain between planes. The FAA requires five miles of separation between a fully-loaded C-17 and all other planes," reported the Post. The First Lady's plane was within three miles of the military aircraft.
The C-40, a military version of the 737, and one of a fleet of Air Force planes which carry the President's family, "was far closer than that when the hand-off took place from the Potomac Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) facility in Warrenton Virginia. The manager and tower controller at Andrews did several things to try to increase the separation on final [approach] before ordering a go-around,” said a senior FAA manager familiar with the incident. "The FAA manager said the Warrenton controller exhibited 'really bad controller technique.' Not only did he get them too close, he told the [Andrews controller] that they were farther apart than they were,” he said.
"It's important to know the FAA made the right call and at no time was the first lady's life in danger," said Maj. Michelle Lai of the 89th Airlift Wing at Andrews Air Force Base, reports CNN.
The official statement from the Federal Aviation Administration, which made no mention of Mrs. Obama or Mrs Biden said: "FAA controllers at Andrews Air Force Base instructed an incoming Boeing 737 on approach to Runway 19 to perform a "go around" on Monday, April 18, 2011, just after 5 p.m. because the plane did not have the required amount of separation behind a military C17. The FAA is investigating the incident. The Boeing 737 landed safely after executing the go around. The aircraft were never in any danger."
While there only a slight risk of danger to Mrs. Obama and Biden during the aborted landing and the maneuvering to put distance between the aircraft, the incident becomes the latest in a series of embarrassing lapses by FAA air traffic controllers that has resulted in the resignation of Air Traffic Organization head official Hank Krakowski . A zero-tolerance policy was announced this week by the FAA following the recent suspensions of numerous employees, including five for sleeping on the job.
A day before the Obama incident the FAA admitted in a press release: "During the early morning hours of April 17, 2011, an air traffic controller at the Cleveland Air Route Traffic Control Center was watching a movie on a portable electronic device while working a radar position. For a little more than three minutes, the controller’s microphone was inadvertently activated, transmitting the soundtrack of the movie over the radio frequency for that airspace. The problem was brought to air traffic control’s attention by the pilot of a military aircraft using an alternate frequency."
FAA policy prohibits the use of DVD players and other similar devices in the control towers. The controller and the front line manager have been suspended from operational duties pending an investigation.
The FAA reported that Administration Administrator Randy Babbitt and NATCA President Paul Rinaldi would begin meetings Monday, at air traffic facilities around the country as part of a nationwide Call to Action on air traffic control safety and professionalism. The goal of the Call to Action is to reinforce the need for all air traffic personnel to adhere to the highest professional standards.