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FAA probes how Hawaii planes got on crash course

By Audrey McAvoy
Associated Press / May 1, 2012
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HONOLULU—A federal probe into how an air traffic controller's error put two jets in danger of colliding over Hawaii shows the worker didn't believe he was ready to direct aircraft from the radar station where he was assigned and had asked for more training.

The incident involved a Japan Airlines flight from Tokyo and a United Parcel Service flight from Louisville, Ky., as they approached Honolulu International Airport on the morning of Jan. 14.

Federal Aviation Administration investigation documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request show the jets came within 300 feet of each other vertically and less than two miles horizontally before changing course to avoid getting too close.

FAA rules required the planes to be separated by at least 1,000 feet vertically or three miles horizontally.

The agency said it acted swiftly once it learned of the incident, took the controller off operational duties and gave him additional training.

"The FAA is committed to ensuring the safety of our nation's airspace for the traveling public, and we take seriously and investigate all reported infractions," the agency said in a statement.

The incident and investigation were first reported by Hawaii News Now.

The controller had a little more than two years' experience with air traffic control, an FAA memo on the investigation said. He earned certification to operate the radar station he was manning on Dec. 24 -- just a few weeks before the incident -- but said he didn't feel adequately prepared for the job.

"The controller stated he wasn't ready for certification, and had actually requested additional certification through his training team," the FAA memo said.

He was directing eight planes at the time -- an average load -- and became concerned about a conflict between two other airliners. After taking one minute to resolve this situation, he saw the JAL and UPS planes were on course to collide.

The controller told the JAL plane to descend and the UPS plane to climb. But by that time, both planes were already changing course at the direction of automated collision avoidance systems they have on board.

The controller told investigators he was flustered by the event and asked another controller to take over for him afterward. He's now back at work directing air traffic after undergoing additional training.

The conclusion and recommendation sections of the memo were redacted, but the FAA said the Honolulu Control Facility is conducting regular safety briefings. The agency and the controllers' union, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, also have developed a pilot program giving employees an opportunity to address peer conduct, the FAA said.

The manager of the Honolulu office retired from the FAA after the agency began investigating.

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