Aviation News

June 21, 2013

Close Call For A Delta 747 and Shuttle America E170- What Really Happened?

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By: Jason Rabinowitz
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Delta 172 2
Early Friday morning, news started to spread about that the FAA was investigating a “near miss” that occurred between between a Delta 747 and a Shuttle America Embraer E170 on June 13th. According to WABC in New York, one account has the two aircraft coming within 100 feet of each other, quite a dubious claim considering the consequences of such an incident. The Associated Press does not make that same claim in their brief article, but does include comment from the FAA. (That article has since been updated to read “the planes were 200 feet apart verticlaly and about a half mile laterally.” The AP quotes the FAA as saying they aircraft were “turning away from each other at the point where they lost the required separation.”

But what really happened here? While a loss of required separation occurred, what caused it? Here is what we can piece together from the various archives of Flightradar24 and LiveATC.

At approximately 2:15pm on June 13th (The AP report incorrectly states the incident was during the 3pm hour), Delta 172 (the 747) was on final approach to JFK’s runway 4L. At the same time, American 1786, a Boeing 737 was on final approach to runway 4R, just ahead of the Delta 747. At the time, winds were reported to be quite strong, with the METAR reporting wind speeds of 19kt with gusts of up to 28kt. American 1786 declared a go-around, and was given right turn to heading 130 by the JFK tower. American 1786 quickly turned right, and reentered the approach pattern to attempt another landing.

Just seconds later, Delta 172 also declares a go-around. However, because the previous American 737 had just done the same, Delta 172 would not be able to make the usual right turn after a go-around. Departure traffic on JFK’s runway 4L/R typically makes a right turn to avoid conflicting with traffic from LaGuardia, but that was not possible in this unexpected instance where two aircraft went around at the same time.

Delta 172 received a heading of 250 to the left from JFK tower, and climbed to its assigned altitude of 2,000 feet. JFK tower then assigned a right turn to 040 for Delta 172.

Delta 172 begins its left turn after going around off runway 4L at JFK

Seconds later, JFK tower asks Delta 172 “If able, the best right turn you’re able.” “Ok, we’re turning right, 040″ Delta 172 replied. This assigned turn was most likely in anticipation of the conflicting traffic out of LGA, which Delta 172 was headed in the direction of. However, Delta 747s are not the most nimble aircraft in the sky, and they can’t maneuver like an A320. Turns take time for this aircraft.

Radar image still showing the conflicting traffic just after the incident.

Radar image still showing the conflicting traffic just after the incident.

About 30 seconds later, JFK tower asks Delta 172 “are you turning?” Delta 172 responds “Uh, yes sir, were almost at 040 now.” Immediately after, the JFK tower controller gets back on the radio and states “Delta 172 heavy, traffic 12 o’clock, 1400 feet, Embraer at 1600 feet,” with a tone of importance in his voice. Delta 172 replies “Ok, we got them on the fish finder here,” referring to the traffic collision avoidance system. “Ok, he’s eastbound at 1800 feet climbing out of ZULAV.” At this moment, the two aircraft were at virtually the same altitude, headed for each other. However, all parties involved knew of the conflicting traffic, and both aircraft were actively turning to avoid each other. Delta turning to the right, Shuttle America to the left.

With the TCAS alarm sounding in the background, Delta 172 gets back on the radio and says “OK, we’re turning right to 060.” JFK tower then assigns a heading of 180, and Delta 172 is heading south to re-enter the approach pattern. Just like that, it’s over. Shuttle America 5981 continues on to Jacksonville, and Delta 172 circles back to JFK and lands safely. At all times during this unusual event, all parties involved acted professionally and handled the challenge quite well. It isn’t often JFK could potentially see two go-arounds at virtually the same time, but sometimes the unexpected happens, and you do your best to limit any potential danger, and that is exactly what happened.

  • Thomas Imrich

    The real failure here is the FAA’s grossly outdated ATC system, which even NextGen does not yet adequately address. This kind of KJFK/KLGA coordination event was entirely predicted years ago, because the FAA ATC system does not yet provide “RNP based” assured independent path separation for rare-normal events (like go-arounds). This was no surprise, and it will happen again unless we move expeditiously to use of appropriate RNP based procedures and flight paths.

    Capt. Thomas Imrich

    Senior Engineering Test Pilot, B747 (Retired)

  • Bryan Bays

    You know how it works Capt. Thom, until lots of people are finally killed in a horrible accident, nobody that has the power to change this dangerous situation, will do anything.

  • Billy Hyawe

    We should do away with all air travel.

    • Richard Cranium

      That’s a good idea Billy, we should also stop brushing our teeth and using electricity.

  • Jeff Lewis

    OK, so all is well that ends well. Well… a couple thoughts about this incident:

    1) why did ATC issue a turn to the left, to heading 250, to the B747? If the American 737 had in fact gone missed approach off RY04R and quickly turned to a heading 130, DAL172 could have continued straight ahead, and separation reference other flights would have been far more manageable. I.e., ATC/JFK has to have known (lessons learned in this incident, perhaps?) that a B747 with such a hard turn is a hugely unpredictable use of tight airspace.

    2) a good question was asked by another reader… do the two consecutive missed approaches have any bearing on ATC performance? Were they jamming these arrivals and both went around because they were too high? Or, were they being fed a runway in conditions such that ATC needed to change the flow and was still lining up their arrivals onto an inappropriate runway? These things happen. There is a wealth of good info in this article, but it would be nice if FAA would address the causal factors for two near-simultaneous go arounds, so that news articles can shed light on that relevant detail.

    3) FAA’s alleged press statement does not pass muster. In fact, it is terrible false. Here is a clip: “The FAA is investigating an incident on June 13 at 2:40pm, in which Delta Airlines Boeing 747 arriving at JFK’s Runway 4L lost the required amount of separation with a Shuttle America Embraer E170 departing from LaGuardia’s Runway 13,” the FAA said. “The two aircraft were turning away from each other at the point where they lost the required separation. Both aircraft landed safely.” Let’s be clear; two aircraft converging, and no vertical separation (1,000′ required) means the point where they lost required separation was 3-miles. They ended up 1,400′ apart, as transmitted by the JFK controller, based on his view of the radar. Uh, that is one helluva lot less than 3-miles, meaning they continued to converge from the moment when 3-miles was lost to the moment when (finally!) their courses began to diverge. That is not at all what FAA allegedly declared, per the published statement.

    So, all is well that ends well, but can we at least have a federal regulatory agency that steps forward with full truth and transparency? In matters of air safety, everyone needs to be honest, so that all can continue to end well.