WASHINGTON — A plane carrying first lady Michelle Obama came too close to a massive military cargo jet because of an air traffic controller's error and had to abort a landing at Andrews Air Force Base, U.S. aviation officials said Tuesday.
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The FAA said that the Boeing 737, one of the fleet of presidential passenger jets, came within three miles of the military plane during the Monday evening flight, when a minimum separation of five miles is required to avoid dangerous wake turbulence.
Controllers at the air base in Maryland feared the cargo jet would not clear the runway in time, unidentified federal officials told the Washington Post.
FAA officials said they were investigating the incident as a possible error by controllers at a regional radar facility in Warrenton, Va.
The Federal Aviation Administration is already dealing with the fallout from several recent high profile incidents of air traffic controllers sleeping, or watching a movie on the job.
In one case, the pilot of a plane transporting a critically ill passenger was unable to raise the sole controller working at 2 a.m. in the tower of the Reno-Tahoe International Airport in Nevada.
Michelle Obama was returning from appearances in New York with Jill Biden when the mishap occurred. The plane was on its final approach to Andrews, the Post reported.
After recognizing that Obama's flight and the C-17 cargo plane were too close, controllers at the Warrenton radar center turned over control of the plane to Andrews, which ordered the 737 to execute a series of S-turns in an effort to create a safe distance, the Post reported, citing federal officials. Those maneuvers did not lead to the required distance between the two jets, so Obama's landing was aborted.
The jet was then ordered to circle the airport, before landing safely, the FAA said. "The aircraft were never in any danger," the FAA statement said.
A senior administration official told NBC News that staff members aboard the flight were unaware of the incident and that they said it felt like a routine landing.
Aviation safety expert John Cox agreed that an accident was unlikely.
"Every professional pilot I have ever known has been in situation where they were overtaking the plane in front of them and asked to do an S-turn," said Cox, a former airline pilot. "The only issue that could have come up was if they'd encountered the wake of the C-17."
Even then, Cox said, the 737 is a "very controllable" plane. "I don't think Mrs. Obama's plane would have been in any jeopardy."
The recent episodes with controllers have sent administration officials scrambling to assure the public and angry members of Congress that air travel is indeed safe. Even President Barack Obama weighed in, telling ABC News in an interview, "We've got it under control."
On Monday, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told msnbc that there will be a zero-tolerance policy for air traffic controllers sleeping while on the job.
Of the 15,000 controllers in the U.S., LaHood said, "Seven were caught sleeping. Seven have been suspended."
LaHood announced Sunday that the FAA was adding an hour to the minimum amount of time controllers must be off between shifts.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.