Two planes, one passenger and one cargo, avoided colliding in the fog by just fifteen meters at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, in Texas. The reflexes of the cargo plane pilot prevented what could have been the first fatal plane crash in the United States in fourteen years and saved the lives of 131 people.
The incident, which occurred on February 4, 2023, is the subject of an investigation by the NTSB, the US National Transportation Safety Agency, and has motivated lengthy discussions and criticism since last spring. But now a long investigation by the New York Times highlights the chain of errors, attributed in particular to air traffic controllers and to which are added the airport’s infrastructure failures.
On February 4, at 6:34 a.m., unusual fog covered areas of the Austin airport. A FedEx cargo Boeing 767 , with three people on board, approaches the airfield. At the same time, a Boeing 737 the Southwest, The largest low-cost airline in the world, with 123 passengers, 2 pilots and 3 flight attendants approaches from runway 18 to take off for Cancun, Mexico.
“This is FedEx 1432,” they say to the control tower from the cockpit of the Boeing 767. “FedEx, cleared to land on runway 18 left,” says the controller. At 6:38 and 49 seconds – as stated in the preliminary investigation report – the co-pilot of the other flight, the Southwest flight, informed the same controller that they were approaching runway 18 left and that they were ready to take off. “You are authorized to take off,” they say from the tower, “there is traffic three miles away from you, a Boeing 767 is arriving.”. The device, at one end of the runway, is ready to power its engines.
Less than a minute later, at 6:39 and 32 seconds, the FedEx pilots ask the tower for confirmation to land on runway 18 left. The captain of the cargo plane explained to investigators that he asked because he was concerned that the Southwest plane would stop on the runway as they were descending. The controller confirms clearance to land. At 6:40 and 12 seconds the FedEx flight is 1.1 kilometers from the runway, while the controller asks the Southwest pilots if they are leaving, receiving a confirmation.