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CBS Investigates: Near Mid-Air Collision Over MIA

MIAMI (CBS4) - Very few people know it, but earlier this summer two large commercial airplanes nearly collided over the skies of South Florida.

CBS4 Investigates has learned that that close call is part of a troubling trend.

In this case, only calm and quick action by the air traffic controller saved the day.

CBS4 Investigator Stephen Stock has, for the first time, the untold story of the heroic actions in the control tower.

The air traffic controller watching the skies over Miami maintained incredible cool as near disaster almost occurred on final approach to runways 9 and 8-L.

You can hear the air traffic controller seizing control of the situation on an audio recording of the event released by the FAA at the request of CBS4 Investigates.

"Argentina 1302," said the air traffic controller on the FAA audiotape. "You've gone through the final (turn) sir... turn back right. There's traffic on final on the parallel runway."

Despite those warnings from air traffic control, radar images also released by the FAA to CBS4 Investigates show the two dots, representing two large airplanes and about 430 lives on board nearly merge into one in the skies over Doral. The incident is what's known in the tight circle of aviation controllers as an "NMAC," a near mid-air collision.

  • Click here to to listen to air traffic control and watch the radar as the two plans come dangerously close to each other.

"Flight 1302," said the controller on the audio tape, "You're not descending. Maintain 3,000 (feet elevation) sir. Just maintain 3,000 and turn right, heading zero, niner zero."

The Argentina Airlines airbus which missed the turn passed right over the top of a landing American Airlines B737.

"I need you at 3,000 sir," said the controller to the Argentina Airlines plane, "climb and maintain 3,000 (feet.) Your approach clearance is canceled."

Molly Welsh was the controller in control who saved the day. It's her voice you hear on the audiotape.

"In the heat of the moment you just keep talking and keep working," said Welsh, a veteran of 23 years in the control tower. "I quickly tried to tell him to turn back and as I was saying that I realized it was a little too late for that."

At about 3,000 feet the Airbus 340 operated by Aerolineas Argentinas missed its turn to runway 9 over Doral and kept flying towards a course to land on runway 8-L about a mile away. The Airbus headed straight for an American Airlines 737 on final approach to land on 8-L.

It was Welsh's voice and calm instructions that kept the two planes from colliding, averting disaster by 900 feet.

Welsh sat down and shared her story of the August 18th incident with CBS4 Investigates. It's an incident that has not received any media attention until now.

"At first you go "Oh no!" Then you just, you instinctively do something in hopes that it keeps them apart basically," Welsh told CBS4 Investigator Stephen Stock. "It was a little scary."

"When I looked back and saw he had gone through the final I immediately tried to turn and I said 'you've gone through turn back,'" said Welsh. "As I'm saying this I realize that it's too late for that. He's already right where the other aircraft is."

Without Welsh's quick and effective action to separate the Airbus at the last second the Aerolineas Argentinas flight would have descended right on top of the American jet in mid-air.

"They were right on top of each other," said Welsh.

This incident highlights a troubling and growing trend of more and more near mid-air collisions (NMACs) according to Congress' General Accountability Office. In its report released in October, the GAO found that the rate of the most severe airborne operational errors almost tripled from in the last three years nationwide.

Click Here To Read the Full GAO 2011 report

"It's of grave concern," said Representative John Mica, Republican of Orlando. Mica chairs the US House Transportation Committee.

"(It's) very troubling. You know we've been very lucky," said Mica.

Mica worries that this increase in what he calls near misses could end up killing a lot of people if new technology isn't soon put into place at our airports.
"We don't have technology in place today to make sure that planes aren't hitting each other either on the ground or in the air," Mica told CBS4 Investigates. "Congress must pass a transportation bill (and not) stopgap legislation."

CBS4 Investigates also found aviation safety data from NASA indicating that in the last four years at Miami and Fort Lauderdale Hollywood International Airports there were triple the amount of reported (NMACs) near mid-air collisions as the previous four years.

"You're heart drops down into your stomach whenever something like that happens," said Welsh.

Molly Welsh says she's fortunate to have been able to stop one such near miss from becoming a disaster.

CBS4 Investigator Stephen Stock asked Welsh, "Do you consider yourself a hero?"

"No. No. That's what we do," said Welsh. "We're there when things don't go right."

The FAA says part of the reason these numbers of close calls has gone up is a change in the way these incidents are reported.

And the FAA says the United States' aviation system is the safest aviation system in the world, that 50,000 flights are safely handled every day and correctly points out there hasn't been a fatal commercial airline crash in three years.

The FAA and air traffic controllers say the GAO report shows this new system of reporting errors without retribution or punishment is working and has resulted in a reduction in the number of serious safety incidents on runways.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), the union for air traffic controllers, also said in a statement that the vast reported errors in the GAO report do not affect the safety of flights or the traveling public.

Critics say if things don't change soon that could change.

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