First lady’s close call points to controller error

April 20, 2011

CBS News

The Federal Aviation Administration said Tuesday it was investigating an incident involving an Air National Guard plane carrying first lady Michelle Obama after the plane was told to “go around” a military runway because of the presence of a cargo plane on the runway.

The FAA said in a statement early Tuesday evening that the plane carrying the first lady was “never in any danger” and that her plane eventually landed safely Monday.

The plane was carrying the first lady from New York back to Joint Base Andrews near the capitol.

FAA rules require planes to be separated by five miles. An apparent mistake by a controller at a regional air traffic facility allowed the first lady’s plane, a military version of the Boeing 737, to get within three miles of the larger cargo jet, CBS News Justice and Homeland Security correspondent Bob Orr reports. That’s technically too close.

The cargo plane could not exit runway fast enough to allow the first lady’s plane to make a safe landing. As a result, controllers ordered her plane to abort the landing and to do a “go around” – make another circle and then approach the runway.

A senior administration official, speaking on background, told CBS News that the passengers on the 737 “did not even notice there was anything going on … the people on the 737 were not aware anything was amiss.”

The official said the members of the first lady’s staff who were on the aircraft, including military personnel, said the flight “seemed completely normal,” “were completely unaware” and “had no clue” that anything out of the ordinary was happening.

Indeed, such situations are not uncommon. An FAA official told CBS News White House Correspondent Mark Knoller that “go arounds” happen dozens of times a day and are considered routine. The official also said that the controller directed the pilot to “go around” and that the change was not a pilot-declared abort.

The first lady’s office referred questions to the FAA and to Andrews.

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