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Reagan National plane crash averted: FAA investigating near-miss at D.C. airport

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WASHINGTON (AP/ABC7) - The National Transportation Safety Board says it will investigate a near collision that involved three commuter planes at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport on Tuesday night.

As reported by CNN's Mike Ahlers, the NTSB's decision to investigate the incident comes on the heels of the Federal Aviation Administration's investigation into how three commuter jets narrowly avoided a midair collision near the airport outside the nation's capital.

The Washington Post reports the three planes were operated by US Airways and were carrying 192 passengers and crew members. It cited federal officials with direct knowledge of the incident.

While all three of the planes involved bore US Airways logos, they were all operated by regional carriers. The two planes on the runway at the time of the incident were Chautauqua Airlines flight 3071 and Republic Airlines flight 3467. The third plane involved, which was coming inbound, was Republic Airlines flight 3329.

The inbound Republic flight was traveling to Washington from the Portland (Maine) International Jetport, while the outbound planes were headed for Port Columbus (Ohio) International Airport and Kansas City International Airport.

At a sometimes contentious press conference Thursday afternoon, Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood defended the FAA and the employees involved in the near collision.

"I am very proud of the controller and the way she handled this," Lahood said.

The federal agency said in an emailed statement that it will take "appropriate action to address the miscommunication" between a Warrenton-based offsite air traffic control operation and controllers in the tower at DCA that led to the incident Tuesday afternoon around 2 p.m.

It says that due to bad weather, air traffic controllers switched landing and departing operations and miscommunication "led to a loss of the required separation" between the jets.

"The miscommunication should not have happened," the FAA said in a statement. "FAA safety officials are investigating why the miscommunication occurred and will take action as appropriate."

Standard separation requirements are 1,000 vertical feet and 3.5 lateral miles.

Both LaHood and FAA Administrator Michael Huerta praised the work of air traffic controllers to quickly set the planes on another path once they learned they were too close together. Huerta said the planes were on different headings at different altitudes and thus never would have crashed.

"It appears in both instances there was failure to follow standard procedure both at Reagan National tower and Potomac TRACON," Huerta said.

All of the planes were equipped with collision avoidance systems, but none was activated by the incident, Huerta said.

When asked by a reporter, LaHood refused to discuss what may have happened if the planes had not been diverted by the air traffic controller.

The agency said preliminary information indicated the landing plane came within 500 vertical feet and 1.7 lateral miles of one departing plane and 600 vertical feet and 2.8 lateral miles of the second plane.

At no point were any of the plans involved on a head-to-head collision course though, the FAA said in a release.

An audio recording of communications between the landing plane and the air traffic control tower at the airport shows confusion as the flight is given instructions on landing.

"We were clear at the river back there. What happened?" someone in the plane's cockpit says on the recording, obtained from LiveATC.com, a website that records air traffic communications.

The tower responds: "We're trying to figure this out, too. Stand by."

The landing flight then advises the tower that the plane doesn't have much fuel left: "We gotta get on the ground here pretty quick," a man says.

USAirways spokesman Todd Lehmacher said in an email that the airline is "currently investigating and working with the FAA to determine what occurred."

The airline has more than 230 daily departures from the airport to over 70 cities.

The airport had another high-profile safety incident in March 2011 when two airliners landed without assistance from the tower. Pilots were unable to raise the lone supervisor on duty at midnight. The supervisor later acknowledged he had fallen asleep. A second controller has since been added to the midnight shift at Reagan National.

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