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California Leads World in Near-Misses Between Aircraft

January 05, 1986|PETER S. GREENBERG | Greenberg is a Los Angeles free-lance writer

News Item: An Eastern Airlines 727 shuttle flight heading from Washington, D.C., to New York's La Guardia Airport came within 300 feet of another Eastern jet, an A-300 airbus that had just taken off from Newark.

News Item: A Western Airlines jet is forced to take immediate evasive action to avoid colliding with a single-engine plane over the Pacific.

News Item: An American Airlines jet on landing approach at Chicago dives suddenly to avoid hitting a twin-engine plane over Lake Michigan.

Official 'Near-Misses'

These incidents are officially reported as "near-misses." Ironically, a near-miss is the colloquial aviation term used to indicate exactly the opposite--a near-collision in the air between two planes.

The new year is only five days old, but by the end of today in California alone, it is more than likely that three near-collisions will have been reported to the Federal Aviation Administration. Still others will have gone unreported.

The air safety statistics are indeed disturbing. Last year was the worst year in commercial aviation, and here in California there lurks another dangerous statistic: The state leads the world in the number of reported midair near-collisions, and the number of incidents is growing at an alarming rate.

In 1984 the number of reported midair near-collisions in California through November was 126. In the same period of 1985 that number jumped to 186.

What's worse is that the FAA seems to be moving at glacier-like speed to correct the situation.

(In states such as Florida, which runs second to California in the near-miss category, the situation is just as frightening. The number of near-collisions reported in Florida in 1985 is more than double the number reported in 1984.

Recalculated Figures

Officially, the FAA claimed that there were only 292 near-misses in the United States in 1984. But after some consumer groups uncovered reports of additional incidents, the FAA admitted that its initial total was wrong. They recalculated and announced that the "real" total of reported near-misses was 592, 300 more.

"Evidently," said FAA spokeswoman Joanne Sloane, "some reports of near-midairs had been falling through the cracks."

John Galipault, president of the Aviation Safety Institute, a nonprofit industry watchdog, has a harsher interpretation of what happened. "They got caught lying to the public about what is really going on out there," he said, adding that only some of the increased numbers can be attributed to a more accurate accident-reporting system recently established by the FAA.

"We've got an incredibly serious problem up there," said Galipault. "And when it comes to statistics and the real numbers of near-misses, the FAA has been lying, and now they've been caught."

But as Galipault is quick to note, while a more comprehensive near-miss reporting system may give a more accurate reading of the safety margins being violated, it does nothing to alleviate the problem of near-misses themselves.

"ASI operates on a pretty reliable theory that for each accident in the air, there are 300 events that go unreported." he says.

L.A.'s Crowded Skies

"From what we can tell," said Galipault, "roughly one-third of all air traffic is generated in the L.A. basin. You have a preponderance of aircraft operating, and the traffic count is just phenomenal.

"Compounding the problem, and thus increasing the possibility of midair collisions, is that you also have smog and the mountains to the east and ocean to the left, leaving a narrow air corridor. You also have to take into account California's large volume of military traffic, private and corporate aircraft."

More than 60,000 corporate jets are based at airports around the United States, a figure recently brought to light in the wake of the midair collision between a corporate jet owned by Nabisco Brands and a single-engine Piper Cherokee over New Jersey last November, in which six people died.

In California there have been two major midair collisions in recent years. On Sept. 25, 1978, 146 people died when a PSA 727 collided with a Cessna over San Diego.

And in August, 1984, a Wings West Beech C-99 and a Rockwell Commander collided near San Luis Obispo. Seventeen people died. Still, considering the great numbers of aircraft in the skies daily, it is a miracle that more tragedies don't occur.

'Can Happen Again'

"The problem, though, is that San Diego can happen all over again at a number of California airports," said Ralph Baxter, 61, who retired from Western Airlines last year after 33 years as a pilot. "There's no question about it. There are more airplanes in the sky, and the air traffic control system isn't handling them."

In his career at Western, Baxter, who also served as an accident investigator for the Airline Pilots Assn., had more than his fair share of near-misses. "I would make a report and send it to the FAA," he says, "and nothing would happen."

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