Video: First lady’s plane has close call

  1. Closed captioning of: First lady’s plane has close call

    >> launched an investigation into the incident involving the first lady's plane.

    >> the plane came within three miles of a military carsgo jet as they approached andrews air force base . that may not seem that close but the cargo jets produce a large jet wash , so other planes are ordered to stay five miles away . both planes did land safely and the f.a.a. said the first lady wasn't in danger. we are live with the latest ahead.

    >>> also, today marks the one-year anniversary of the oil rig explosion that triggered the worstle spill in u.s. history . what's the state of the gulf? is bp fulfilling obligations in the region? we'll talk about that with bobby jindal when he joins us for a life interview.

    >>> and a postcard lost in the mail for 24 years played a role in ending a dear friendship. then something happened. the long lost piece of mail was delivered. this morning we'll bring the women together face to face for the first time since 1987 . let's begin this morning with the close call for a plane carrying michelle obama . jim miklaszewski is at andrews air force base with the latest. good morning.

    >> reporter: good morning. to be clear, we should emphasize that michelle obama and the rest of the people aboard her plane were never in imminent danger. nevertheless, aviation experts tell us this was a close call . unfortunately, many of the incidents go largely unnoticed. but throw in the first lady and it gets everyone's attention. michelle obama and the vice president's wife jill biden were in new york for an appearance on "the view" before boarding a smaller version of air force one for the brief flight home. it was 5:00 in the evening as the boeing 737 approached washington, d.c. and flew straight into potential danger. federal and military officials say civilian controllers at the f.a.a.'s radar center in virginia allowed the first lady's plane to get too close behind an air force c-17 cargo plane lumbering toward andrews air force base . because of the tremendous jet wash created by the planes the f.a.a. requires a five-mile separation between planes, but the 737 flew up to within three miles of the c-17, well within the danger zone .

    >> this plane should have never been there in the first place. they never should cut it that close.

    >> reporter: when controllers handed the flight to the tower at andrews, an air force controller immediately recognized the problem. he ordered the 737 to make a series of s turns to put distance between the two planes but they were still too close. once the cargo plane landed it couldn't get off the runway fast enough as the first lady made its approach. the air traffic controller ordered the 737 to execute a fly-around taking the plane in a wide circle before safely landing minutes later.

    >> it was a harrowinging inin ining experience.

    >> reporter: none of the passengers on the plane were aware of the incident. most recently controllers falling asleep on the job in the tower. transportation secretary ray la hood told nbc news keeping planes separated at a safe distance is one of the most vital roles for air traffic controllers .

    >> controllers need to take personal responsibility for one of the most important safety jobs in aviation. when they don't they will be suspended.

    >> the f.a.a. will suspend controllers for serious errors. this seems to fall in the category of an error that could have put the first lady's life in jeopardy.

    >> reporter: unfortunately this is not an isolated incident. mistakes by civilian air controllers at the warn warrenton facility more than doubled in the past year. the transportation secretary and f.a.a. have much bigger problems than the first lady. but, meredith, many would consider that a big problem.

msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 4/20/2011 8:03:55 AM ET 2011-04-20T12:03:55

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.

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