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Air Traffic Controller speaks out after 'Close Call'

September 29, 2010 8:30:27 PM PDT
An Air Traffic Controller is speaking out after a close call at JFK Airport, earlier this month between a departing and arriving flight.

"Jet blue is rolling down 13 right and Aerogal is on top of him," the voice of Steve Abraham can be heard on Air Traffic Control tapes.

It's a night veteran air traffic controller Steve Abraham would like to forget. He had just cleared this Aerogal 767 from Ecuador to land on runway 13 left at JFK.

Controller: Aerogal 700, heavy Kennedy tower, winds calm, clear to land runway 13 Left.

Aerogal Pilot: 13 Left clear to land Aerogal 700.

Abraham: "The runway is clear, no airplanes in front of him. It's a very, very routine operation."

Routine turned nearly catastrophic that Sunday night earlier this month when the Aerogal pilot for reasons still unknown turned his 767 aircraft filled with passengers toward the wrong runway. Instead of 13 left, he turns sharply to runway 13 right where a Jetblue regional aircraft has started his takeoff. Another plane waiting to depart alerts the tower:

Delta Pilot (Heard on radio): " Tower from Delta 122 looks like that guy is trying to land on 1-3 right."

Controller Abraham knew the next 20 seconds would be critical. He urgently radios the Aerogal pilot to abort his landing.

Controller: "Aerogal, there's also ....Go around fly runway heading?because you are lining up for the wrong runway. You need to start an immediate right turn."

Abraham explained what he was thinking. "I need to as quickly as possible get it into this man's head you need to turn your airplane or he's going to climb into the bottom of you."

Controller Abraham says the Aerogal jet seemed to hesitate. You could hear stress in his voice as Abraham urgently repeats the order to turn.

Controller: " But you need to start an immediate right turn. You need to turn right, there's somebody rolling underneath you.

Aerogal Pilot: " Roger, heading (?)"

"Once he turns it seems like a lifetime, only 10-15 seconds later, he turns to right and the Jetblue plane takes off next to him."

The FAA has yet to get back to Eyewitness News on just how close the two planes got, but the Abraham says it was the closest of his 20 year career. He's also at a loss as to why the pilot tried to land on the wrong runway.

"I think he just made a mistake but almost a catastrophic one,' he said.

Eyewitness News is still waiting to hear back from Aerogal Airlines.

An internet flight tracking system showed the jet came within 300 feet of touching down on the runway.

It's important also to note the ground radar system that alerts air traffic control to potential runway mishaps was not working at the time.

If you have a tip about this or any other issue you'd like investigated, please give our tipline a call at 877-TIP-NEWS. You may also e-mail us at the.investigators@abc.com and follow Jim Hoffer on Twitter at twitter.com/nycinvestigates


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