By Keith Laing
A plane carrying first lady Michelle Obama came within 2.94 miles of another military plane, closer than the required five miles to avoid wake turbulence, the National Transportation Safety Board said Friday, as it released preliminary findings from its investigation into the incident.
Obama and Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, were returning from taping television interviews in New York when their plane aborted a landing at 5:06 p.m., the NTSB said. The plane had come too close to a military cargo plan, a C17, that was also attempting to land.
The incident was the result of an error by an air traffic controller at the Potomac TRACON facility, the report said.
"The radar controller at Potomac TRACON vectored EXEC1F within 3.08 miles of the heavy jet and advised the pilot he was 4 miles in trail," it said. "The radar controller advised the pilot of EXEC1F to use caution for wake turbulence, cleared the aircraft for the ILS approach and instructed the pilot to contact Andrews Tower.
"As soon as EXEC1F contacted the tower, the tower controller asked ECEX1F to make 'S' turns on final to get additional spacing," the NTSB report continued. "The pilot of EXEC1F did comply with the request, however, the spacing had continued to deteriorate to 2.94 miles. The tower controller then instructed EXEC1F to 'go around' because the spacing was not adequate for landing."
The NTSB said the weather conditions were sufficient for the pilot to have visual ability to steer the airplane.
The agency also released preliminary findings into its investigation of a Southwest Airlines flight that was instructed by an air traffic controller to fly close to another smaller airplane to check on its condition.
"F11 solicited the assistance of SWA821/B737 to attempt to verify the condition of the occupants of N1487C. SWA821 obliged their assistance and the F11 controller issued vectors to SWA821 toward N1487C," the report said. "A separate radar scope was set up and single frequency was used by a Front Line Manager who provided control instructions to SWA821.
"SWA821 was instructed to resume own navigation, get as close as safely possible and report any abnormalities," the report continued. "SWA821 maneuvered on his own along side of N1487C. The crew reported two occupants in the Cirrus and no apparent movement from them. SWA821 was then issued vectors away from N1487C to MCO (Orlando). Closest proximity was approximately 100 feet and 0.1 miles."
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said this week in a television interview that the order "completely violates procedures.
"You can't guide a big plane over to look at a small plane," LaHood said on PBS's NewsHour. "That's not the way that's done."
LaHood also said that, going forward, flights carrying the first lady and the vice president's wife would be monitored in the same way as flights carrying the president.