NTSB Report Highlights DCA Tower Confusion

 - September 17, 2012, 4:00 PM

The NTSB’s initial report of the July 31 loss of standard ATC separation between three regional airliners operating near Washington’s Reagan Airport (DCA) said the aircraft were not as close as some people at first believed. The Board cited poor ATC coordination as the reason for the incident. The NTSB said the Potomac Tracon supervisor called the supervisor at DCA tower at 2:00 p.m. local to discuss traffic congestion issues and request DCA to change configurations from Runway 1 to Runway 19. Because the DCA supervisor was busy, a tower traffic management coordinator accepted the call. The coordinator misunderstood the Tracon supervisor’s request and replied, “go ahead,” not realizing the Tracon would soon begin running traffic from another direction. The tower launched a Chautauqua Airlines Embraer ERJ-135 from Runway 1, followed closely by a Republic Airlines Embraer 170. Thirty seconds after that 170 was cleared for takeoff on Runway 1, another Republic 170–Republic 3329–reported inbound “on the river,” indicating the River Visual Runway 19 approach. Twenty seconds later, the DCA tower (local) controller instructed Republic 3329 to fly south, away from the departures. More….

The minimum separation standards of 1,000 feet vertical and 3 nm horizontal were violated, but only just, when two aircraft passed within 800 feet vertically and 2.9 nm horizontally. The report highlighted considerable confusion between the Tracon and the DCA tower, as well as the DCA local controller who actually spoke to all the aircraft involved. At one point, the local controller seemed unsure of what was occurring, while the tower supervisor also confused one Republic flight with another. The confusion prompted Republic 3329’s pilot to ask controllers, “We were cleared for the river back there. What happened?” A minute or so later the pilot again asked, “What’s your plan for us?” to which the local controller said, “Standby. We’re trying to figure this out too.” The local controller then issued an incorrect approach frequency to Republic 3329, whose pilot eventually advised approach control, “We don’t really have the fuel for this…we gotta get on the ground here pretty quick.” Republic 3329 landed a few minutes later without further incident.