Two airplanes were just moments away from potential disaster at JFK International Airport today when they nearly went into each other on the runway. The incident at the airport in New York was only averted when an air traffic controller spotted the hazard and alerted the pilots. 

The situation unraveled as a Boeing 737 headed to the Dominican Republic was in its final stages before takeoff. As it was preparing for its move down the runway, Boeing 777 headed to the UK was moving in a way that suggested it would cross paths with the 737 during its takeoff. 

Thankfully for everyone on board, an air traffic controller was wise to the situation and acted immediately to prevent the collision. In audio captured by Live ATC, a website that has access to all flight communications, the air traffic controller is heard to be providing the pilot of the 737 with the following message:

“Delta 1943, cancel takeoff clearance! Delta 1943, cancel takeoff clearance!”

Taking the message on board, the pilot on the Delta 1943 canceled the takeoff, meaning the American Airlines Boeing 777 was able to cross in front of it safely. 

One passenger on the Delta flight, Brian Heale, spoke to CBS about his recollection of events, saying that there was an “abrupt jerk of the plane” which caused passengers to “thrust forward” in their seats. 

At first, Mr. Heale assumed it was a mechanical issue on the plane and only learned of the true reason when he went on social media after getting home. He believes it was the right call not to notify those on board as it would have caused “pandemonium.”

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An FAA Investigation

It’s been a busy week for the Federal Aviation Administration after an outage caused all US flights to be grounded temporarily last Wednesday. While the entire investigation into that incident is still ongoing, they are now going to launch an investigation into the events at JFK. 

They have said that the planes were roughly 300m away from each other when the pilot on the Delta aircraft slammed on the brakes. With the speeds that planes travel down the runway at, disaster was potentially just seconds away. 

There were 282 passengers and 20 crew members across the two flights, with exactly 151 people on each plane. Delta Airlines have released a statement saying they will cooperate with the investigation, while American Airlines have referred all questions to the FAA.

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Avoiding a Deadly Repeat

A similar incident on a runway in Tenerife in 1977 still holds the unwanted title of the deadliest aviation disaster in history. On that occasion, a Pan Am flight and a KLM aircraft collided, killing 583 people and injuring 61. 

On that occasion, the KLM flight wasn’t notified in time that the Pan Am Flight would be crossing its path on the runway, and it hurtled into it at full speed. The only survivors were those situated toward the front of the Pan-Am aircraft.  

Although aircraft technology and communications have improved significantly since 1977, the incident at JFK today is a stark reminder that accidents are still possible, and the air traffic controller deserves a massive pat on the back for the job he did in preventing a repeat of the Tenerife disaster. 

Andrew Delaney
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