Reporting from Washington — A plane carrying First Lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden had to abort a landing at Andrews Air Force Base because an air traffic controller allowed it to get too close to a military cargo plane landing ahead of it, a federal aviation official said Tuesday evening.
The Federal Aviation Administration said neither plane was in danger.
Obama and Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, were returning from New York City aboard a Boeing C-40, akin to a 737, on Monday when their plane neared the base behind a C-17 cargo plane. Both aircraft had been under the direction of air traffic controllers in Warrenton, Va., said an FAA official speaking on condition of anonymity.
The safety standards for landing a C-17 require lighter aircraft behind it to keep at least 5 miles between them, the official said, because the heavier C-17 can cause turbulence that can disrupt the maneuverability of a plane following too closely.
When controllers at Andrews took over, they discovered the two aircraft were too close — just 3 miles apart — and asked the pilots flying Obama's airplane to try to create a bigger gap by making gentle, S-shaped curves, the FAA official said. That didn't produce the necessary spacing, so controllers instructed the pilots to do a "go-around" — to circle the base to delay its landing.
"They're an accepted, recognized procedure that's available to controllers and pilots," the official said. "A controller got these two planes closer than they should have been, but at no time were they in danger of crashing."
Asked how common such episodes are, an Air Force public affairs official said, also on condition of anonymity: "It happens all the time on commercial airports."
Although both planes landed safely, the incident is considered an operational error by the Warrenton controller, and a nonpunitive report will be filed while an investigation is conducted, the FAA official said. No one has been disciplined, the official said.
"If it was done deliberately, or while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, it might be a discipline issue, but our main goal in investigating these is really to understand the situation and prevent them from happening," the official said.
The FAA has been embroiled in controversy over several air traffic controllers who have fallen asleep at their posts, and another who was caught watching a movie on the job. The agency has suspended at least seven controllers.
On Sunday, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said controllers would be guaranteed at least nine hours off to rest between scheduled shifts — one hour longer than the previous standard — in a effort to ensure they remained alert on duty. But he rejected the idea that controllers be allowed to nap during shifts.
LaHood embarked on a seven-city tour this week to meet with controllers and discuss issues related to fatigue.
Henry Krakowski, the FAA official responsible for air traffic control, resigned last week.
The first lady's office had no comment. Obama and Biden had appeared Monday on ABC's "The View." The talk show was devoted to their Joining Forces program to support military families.
The Andrews base, in Maryland southeast of Washington, presents a heightened risk of a midair collision, according to a document on its website.
"Our unusual mix of large executive support aircraft, low-flying helicopters, refueling aircraft, and supersonic fighters contribute to the midair collision potential in the Washington D.C.-Baltimore area," the document says.
Peter Nicholas and Michael A. Memoli in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.