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.

More from CBS4 Investigates
  • Chucky

    CBS 4 investigates…?

    You’re not investigating shmit; what do you have to do with it?!

    If there’s any investigating to be done it would be done by the proper agency; my guess would be the FAA.

    Without the hyperbole, there was essentially 1000′ vertical between the planes, and everything was handled the way it should have been.

    Good job.

  • joe dirt

    quit blowing things out of proportion. let me ask you cbs miami. do you know standard separation? obviously not. 1000’…the planes came within 900’…

  • Mary Theresa Del Buono

    Well thank God Ms. Wells was checking things…planes are flying in our skies we need alert people like her…

  • Tomás Ruibal

    Beyond that, the Air traffic controllers at Miami Airport use to speak to fast, they should remember that they are in an international airport, where, most of the people doesn´t speak english (beyond the icao levels) as a natural lenguage.

    • Annabell

      hello mark,i am lednokra, i ever read your mail but till today i couldn’t understand what type of work you are doing in your comapny. i mean what is your main work by which some one earn money. please clear it.thanks & Regard

  • george prada

    The Argentina airlines should give more instructions at your Pilots.The FAA must take action about it.

    • Mike

      You should also give yourself more ¨instructions¨ in English!

    • Pablo

      Like what George?

  • pat

    there’s always 1000 ft between the two traffics. It seem that argentina did not followed heading to intercept ils 09. It’s a quite current situation

  • Rockyboy

    Molly Welsh is a hero who saved 470 lives. She should be promoted and honored as a guest at the next State of the Union Address in Washington D.C. in January 2012.

  • caravancargomaster

    This ATC controller should be fired immediately. She allowed two aircraft to get near collision. Check the radar information. The controller instructed AR1302 to turn right less than 1 minute before both aircraft got 900 feet one from each other.

    The traffic was not heavy at the moment. It was obvious that two planes were in collision course and the controller did Nothing !!!

  • Jeff

    “…two large commercial airplanes nearly collided over the skies of South Florida.”

    Over the skies? Have they reactivated the space shuttle?

    • Nirendranath

      Fantastic Stuff in slpmie explain it to me like i’m a five year old easy to understand and apply, non jargon language, thanks for a most excellent report. PS Keep em comin.

  • mt

    I am still an active professional pilot and have been involved in in private, commercial, corporate, and military aviation for 45 years. I always feel sooo much better when the news media “investigates” an aviation issue!. It is normally a source of amusument how they portray “facts”.
    I have often wondered if the other stories they “investigate” are reported with the same degree of accuracy as the aviation related issues.

  • Bob Brady

    This is why we have pilots and controllers, it is a joint effort of checks and balances. Both sides get busy at times, and the terminal phase of flight is busy in any aircraft. The instructions were timely and appropriate. The pilot initiated the climb back and heading instructions accordingly. I am sure that AA was watching through the glass and was monitoring the radio, as that crew wanted to see their families again.

    This is overrated and overreacted by the CBS investigates bunch. Normal day at the office.

    Good job by the controller and the pilots.

  • pilotman

    Another example of the uniformed media blowing something completely out of proportion.

    Also another example of a politician using this to lobby for a major spending bill. The current system accurately tracks planes. That is how the controller knew the plane overshot the final approach. The problem was caused by pilot error. Next-Gen will not stop pilot errors.

    Tha controller did a good job, as she was trained to do.

  • Gurica

    This the 2nd time I heard about Argentina´s planes involved in close collision. The first one was when the plane was headed direct to the Empire State at NY a long time ago, and now this one. Oh My

  • Thomas Peters

    CBS4 I prevented a “911” and lost my job ! It too never got on the news! See facebook: Thomas peters

  • Tyler

    If someone wants to conduct an investigation of safety in the FAA try the ATSAP program and how the program is eroding safety throughout the industry. Even though the FAA is constantly saying the system promotes reporting of errors without retribution to controllers the truth of the matter is the controllers are using the program as a “get out of jail free” program. Check in the ENROUTE system where all operational erors were reported prior to the program and see how errors have skyrocketed.

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