The captain, who became distracted and confused about takeoff instructions, and the co-pilot, who lost track of their plane’s location, were identified as contributing factors in the incident, as revealed in documents made public on Monday (Jan 29, 2024).
American 777 and Delta 737 Near Miss
Fortunately, disaster was averted when an air traffic controller, employing strong language, urgently directed the pilots of the other plane, a Delta Air Lines flight, to abort their takeoff.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released documents as part of its ongoing investigation into the incident that occurred on January 13, 2023, at John F. Kennedy International Airport. The board has not yet determined a probable cause for the close call.
The nocturnal episode was one of numerous near misses at U.S. airports that caused concern among the public and legislators, prompting the Federal Aviation Administration to organize a “safety summit” last year.
The pilots of the American Airlines Boeing 777 bound for London (LHR) made an incorrect turn on a taxiway running alongside two intersecting runways. Initially planning for takeoff from runway 31L, the crew later received instructions from a controller and a message on their cockpit computer directing them to taxi across 31L and depart from runway 4L.
In subsequent interviews, the National Transportation Safety Board reported that “all three pilots (on the American Airlines plane) stated they comprehended at that moment that (the flight) would be departing from runway 4L.”
Delta Air Lines passenger Brian Healey (bottom right) recounted hearing screams and gasps in the cabin as the plane he was aboard abruptly came to a halt during takeoff when an American Airlines flight crossed the runway.
However, instead of following the intended path, they crossed 4L just as a Delta Boeing 737 initiated its takeoff roll on the same runway.
Fatigue and Distraction
Captain Michael Graber recounted that as the plane traversed the middle of runway 4L, he observed the activation of red runway lights — a signal to pilots that it was unsafe to be on the runway.
“All of a sudden, I saw that red glow, and I just — right away, I said something — that ain’t right,” he informed investigators. “I didn’t know what was happening, but I was thinking something was wrong.” The captain increased power to expedite crossing.
Graber disclosed to investigators that he heard and understood the controller’s instructions but became distracted due to a heavy workload, possibly leading him to believe they were taking off from the other runway.
Co-pilot Traci Gonzalez mentioned that she was aware throughout the entire time that they were supposed to cross runway 31L, “but she was unaware of the airplane’s position when the captain taxied onto runway 4L,” as investigators noted. “She knew they were approaching a runway, but she did not realize they were approaching runway 4L.”
The co-pilot attributed the mishap to distractions, citing an unusually high number of weather alerts.
Jeffrey Wagner, the third person in the cockpit and a relief pilot for the long international flight, admitted to being “heads down” and unaware of the plane’s location as it taxied onto the runway. Upon realizing they had crossed the wrong runway and seeing a plane to his right, Wagner initially assumed it might be taxiing behind them.
Despite the air traffic controller’s warning, the Delta pilots managed to brake to a stop. In aviation safety terms, the planes were never closer than approximately 1,000 feet (300 meters) apart — a margin that falls short of being reassuring.
Lost Cockpit Voice Data
A controller alerted the American crew about a “possible pilot deviation” and provided them with a phone number to call, which the captain eventually dialed. Following a delay, they proceeded to take off for London, this time from runway 31L. Notably, the crew did not report the incident to American Airlines before departure.
Regrettably, the cockpit voice recording from inside the American plane was unintentionally overwritten during the six-hour flight to London and is now irretrievably lost.
Despite attempts by investigators to interview the American pilots, the pilots declined, following the advice of their union, which opposed the NTSB recording the interviews. Consequently, the NTSB resorted to an uncommon measure by issuing a subpoena to compel the crew members to participate in recorded interviews.
As of Monday, the pilots’ union, the Allied Pilots Association (APA), had no immediate comment on the NTSB documents.
The report has reignited recommendations urging the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to mandate improved preservation of cockpit voice recordings.
Currently, these recordings operate on loops that typically overwrite old sounds after two hours. Succumbing to NTSB pressure late last year, the FAA announced its intention to propose a change, suggesting that recordings not be overwritten for 25 hours, but with the stipulation only applicable to new planes.
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