An air traffic controller misjudged the spacing between a Southwest Airlines jetliner and a small private plane, causing the two aircraft to come within 200 feet of each other at a California airport, federal officials said Friday.
The near collision — at least the third such incident in the state since February to prompt federal investigations — occurred Monday at Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, but was not disclosed by the National Transportation Safety Board until Friday.
The Boeing 737-700 carrying 119 passengers and five crew members was landing from Oakland when a Cessna 172, which was involved in a practice maneuver known as "touch and go" on another runway, arrived at the intersection at about the same time.
The planes came within an estimated 200 feet vertically and 10 feet laterally of each other, the Federal Aviation Administration said.
During a "touch and go" practice, a plane briefly lands on a runway before accelerating and becoming airborne again. The practice doesn't normally present a potential for conflict, but the air traffic controller misjudged the spacing of the two aircraft, FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said.
"The controller instructed the Cessna pilot to turn at a point that had the two aircraft arriving at the intersection at roughly the same time," Gregor said. "The controller failed to recognize the potential conflict and did not instruct the Cessna to go around."
The controller has been fully certified at the Burbank tower for about two years.
"He is an excellent controller who made an unusual, and unfortunate, mistake," Gregor said.
A call to a Southwest Airlines spokeswoman was not immediately returned Friday.
The Cessna was registered to John Rhodes and Brenda Thomas of Northridge, a suburb northwest of Los Angeles. A call to their residence was not immediately returned.
The incident happened two months after another Southwest jet descending into the same airfield took evasive action to avoid a potential collision with a small plane.
The Boeing 737 from Las Vegas was flying at 6,000 feet and was approximately 20 miles from Burbank on Feb. 20 when pilots were alerted by a warning that the airliner was on a possible collision course with a small plane about two miles away.
The warning prompted the pilot to make an emergency descent and then climbed, causing one flight attendant to break a shoulder and the other to suffer bruises.
Air traffic control for planes flying at 6,000 feet is handled from Southern California Terminal Radar Approach Control Facility near San Diego. Gregor said the cause of the Feb. 20 incident was under investigation but emphasized that there was no controller error.
Last month, a United Airlines Boeing 777 taking off to Beijing and a small plane came within 300 feet vertically and 1,500 feet horizontally of each other over San Francisco International Airport. The FAA said the near-miss triggered the United plane's collision avoidance system, prompting the pilot to level the jet's climb.