Catastrophe was narrowly avoided on Saturday, as a landing FedEx Boeing 767 nearly touched down on top of a departing Southwest Boeing 737 in Austin. According to the data, the planes were within a couple of hundred feet of one another.
I first posted about this on Sunday, but wanted to share an update, both as VASAviation has published a great simulation of what happened, and a veteran air traffic controller has chimed in with his take on the incident in the comments section.
In this post:
Terrifying runway incident at Austin Airport
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is investigating a surface incident that occurred at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (AUS) at around 6:40AM on Saturday morning, involving a possible runway incursion and overflight.
To set the scene, visibility was extremely limited at the airport around the time of the incident, with just one-eighth of a mile visibility. FedEx flight FX1432 was arriving from Memphis (MEM), operated by a Boeing 767-300, while Southwest flight WN708 was departing for Cancun (CUN), operated by a Boeing 737-700.
Both planes were supposed to use runway 18L, and the plan was that the Southwest plane would take off, and then the FedEx plane would land. Well, that’s not how things played out, as the two planes were trying to take off and land from the same runway at the same time, and came within very close distance of one another.
How close? According to data from FlightRadar24, the FedEx plane was just 73 feet above the ground at its lowest point, and the two planes were basically on top of one another with less than 200 feet of vertical distance.
Take a look at the below illustration from Flightradar24…
Below is the ATC audio, which gives you a sense of what happened in the moments leading up to this incident (to make things clearer, I’ve just transcribed the essential communication that’s relevant to this situation):
Tower: “FedEx 1432 heavy, Austin Tower, 18L, cleared to land.”
FedEx pilot: “Cleared to land, 18L, FedEx 1432 heavy.”
Southwest pilot: “Tower, Southwest 708, we’re short of runway 18L, we’re ready.”
Tower: “Southwest 708, Austin Tower, 18L, cleared for takeoff, traffic three mile final, it’s a heavy 767.”
Southwest pilot: “Okay, cleared for takeoff 18L, copy the traffic, Southwest 708.”
FedEx pilot: “Tower confirm, FedEx 1432 heavy, cleared to land 18L?”
Tower: “FedEx 1432 heavy, that is affirmative, you are cleared to land, traffic is departing prior to arrival.”
FedEx pilot: “Roger.”
Tower: “Southwest, confirm on the roll.”
Southwest pilot: “Rolling now.”
FedEx pilot: “Southwest abort, FedEx is on the go.”
Southwest pilot: “Negative.”
VASAviation also has a fantastic simulation of the incident along with the air traffic control audio, which gives you the best sense of what happened.
The Southwest Boeing 737 still ended up taking off (it was too late to abort), while the FedEx Boeing 767 ended up performing a go around, so the planes were very close to one another. The FedEx plane turned left after its go around, while the Southwest plane turned right after its takeoff.
The FedEx plane successfully landed in Austin after its go around, while the Southwest plane continued to Cancun. Presumably most passengers had no clue how close they were to a complete disaster.
How did this Southwest & FedEx situation happen?
Obviously the NTSB will perform a full investigation, but a few things stand out here:
- In terms of piloting, it’s pretty clear the FedEx pilots did nothing wrong here, as they received landing permission, and they even confirmed that they were cleared to land; their focus and professionalism probably saved this situation
- It’s interesting that the FedEx pilots gave a direct air traffic control instruction to the Southwest pilots; that’s obviously not something that normally happens, but I suppose in a desperate situation where there’s very little visibility and you see disaster about to happen, that’s what you do
- The Southwest pilots are informed there’s a Boeing 767 on three mile final, and based on the air traffic control communications, it seems like they don’t take off immediately, since the controller follows up and asks if they’re even rolling yet; it’ll be interesting to see if a delayed takeoff played a part in this incident
- Taking off while a plane is on three mile final doesn’t give you much of a margin to begin with, let alone with almost no visibility; presumably the Southwest pilots were taking their time because visibility was limited and they wanted to be careful, but why did they accept takeoff clearance when they were warned a plane was that close to arriving?
- Of course the only other party here is the air traffic controller; did he communicate clearly and correctly, and was he cutting things too close, clearing a 737 for takeoff when there was a 767 on three mile final with virtually no visibility?
I’m sure we’ll learn more details over time when an investigation is conducted. But honestly, this incident isn’t some alarmist clickbait story, but rather this is honestly a terrifying incident that could have had a very different outcome. The Tenerife Disaster comes to mind, which is to this day the deadliest aircraft accident in history. This happened when two 747s collided on a runway, also due to limited visibility.
One has to wonder if this is just a coincidence, or if we’re seeing a general increase in incidents, as we’re seeing less experience in the cockpit and in air traffic control towers, with lots of new hires across the industry. This incident comes just a few weeks after an American 777 and Delta 737 nearly collided on a runway at JFK.
An air traffic controller’s take on this situation
An air traffic controller left a comment on this post, which provided some useful perspective. I figured I’d share it here, because I’m sure others will appreciate this as well:
I’ve been a controller for 26 years now and this incident has left me absolutely speechless. There is no defence for what I can only describe as one of the most horrifying displays of non-controlling you will ever see.
First, its CATIII conditions with very limited visibility. The plan to depart SWA ahead of FDX would have been a bit ‘sporting’ on a clear VFR day – Generally you’d not want to depart anyone holding short with inbound traffic any less than 4 miles away. In full blown low vis operations its absolutely ridiculous. Second on a CATIII approach the ILS needs to be protected because signal interference from objects within the ILS sensitive area can result in loss of accurate guidance from the localiser and glideslope. On an autoland that could cause crash because the autopilot is following that guidance all the way to touchdown. This is why CATIII holds are further back from the regular holding points.
Similarly on runways where there a mixed mode of operation extra spacing is required between arrivals to ensure that any departures in the gaps are airborne and past the end of the runway before the inbound gets to a certain distance from touchdown – which off the top of my head I think is at least 2 miles. This is why when fog hits and we go to CATIII ops the delays build up because the runway capacity goes down massively.
In this case there was zero hope of the SWA being airborne and past the end of the runway before the FDX was 2 miles from touchdown, so the moment he lined SWA up the FDX approach was compromised. You can run it tight on a visual or CATI approach but absolutely not on a CATIII.
What I found more disturbing than anything besides the gross error of judgement in his initial plan was once it became apparent that the plan was not working he simply gave up controlling at that point and allowed the aircraft to sort themselves out. Once he identified the SWA was slow to roll (totally understandable given the low vis) it should have been blindingly obvious that this needed to be fixed immediately. SWA, cancel takeoff clearance and hold position. FDX go-around. That was the only option at that point.
He would have been unable to see either of the aircraft given the reported RVR, so relying on a visual separation solution was out of the question. Instead he did absolutely nothing which is unforgivable. Even more so given that none of the pilots could see each other and would effectively be flying blind in regards to what the other was doing. Also at that low height TCAS would be inhibited so that would not offer them any help either.
Mercifully the FDX crew seemed to be several steps ahead of everyone else and they absolutely saved this situation from being catastrophic. They should be commended and awarded for their excellent airmanship. The only thing I would say about the SWA crew is they should frankly have refused the takeoff clearance hearing landing traffic was only 3 miles out in those conditions. It was an unnecessarily risky clearance from the get go.
This incident makes me feel sick honestly. Every controller at some point in their career makes an error of judgement, which is why we have safety margins. When you make one though its critical you recognise it and then do something about it. Doing nothing really is an unforgivable sin. This unfortunately was appalling ‘controlling’ from start to finish. The initial plan was bad – it was never going to work in those conditions and then he somehow managed to make it all worse by doing nothing to fix it.
I also can’t believe that the controller was apparently not relieved from position immediately because he was talking to the FDX again on its 2nd approach. A just safety culture requires the immediate removal from position of anyone involved in an OI on a no blame basis so that the facts can be looked into and the individual involved can gather themselves.
This whole incident just boggles my mind.
A FedEx Boeing 767 and Southwest Boeing 737 nearly collided on a runway at Austin Airport on Saturday morning while there was thick fog. The Southwest 737 was supposed to depart shortly before the FedEx 767 landed, but that’s not how things played out.
Rather the FedEx 767 performed a go around at the same time that the Southwest 737 was taking off. An NTSB investigation should reveal more details about what happened. Thank goodness this ended the way it did.
What do you make of this incident?