A USAir commuter plane coming in for a landing Tuesday at BWI Airport with about three dozen passengers aboard came within 50 feet of a small private plane one mile northeast of the runway, federal aviation officials confirmed yesterday.
No injuries were reported, and neither pilot was forced to take evasive action.
USAir officials and the owners of the Cessna, an oil pipeline company based in Atlanta, blamed air traffic controllers at Baltimore-Washington International Airport for the near-collision.
Representatives from both companies offered different reasons for the apparent mix-up, from controllers losing track of the planes on radar to confusion over whose responsibility it was to direct the Cessna as it flew near the airport.
The Federal Aviation Administration would not comment on the cause of the incident and released few other details yesterday, saying the matter was under investigation. A final report could be issued in two weeks.
An FAA spokeswoman, Joan Brown, said both planes were flying at about 800 feet above Ferndale in Anne Arundel County when they crossed paths, with one plane flying over the other and missing by 50 feet.
"It's close enough so you can read the label on the other guy's shirt," said Noel Griese, a spokesman for Colonial Pipeline Co., which owns the Cessna and has pilots continuously flying over its 5,300 miles of pipelines that stretch from Houston to New York.
"It's too close," agreed Paul Turk, a spokesman for USAir, who said the two pilots aboard Flight 3949 coming from Albany, N.Y., gave a different account of how close the two planes came to each other. The airline's pilots say the Cessna 172 was 100 to 200 feet away.
"It doesn't happen terribly often," Mr. Turk said. "You just do not want this to happen. We want to make sure FAA understands what happened and that they take steps to make sure it doesn't happen again."
Tuesday's incident was the sixth close call between planes flying into or out of BWI in the past two years, according to FAA records. A near-collision is defined as planes flying within 500 feet of each other.
No commercial airliner has crashed at or near BWI. In December 1992, a cargo plane went down in an Elkridge industrial park, off Route 1, killing the pilot. In 1989, a cargo plane slammed into a Ferndale home, killing the pilot as well as an infant inside the house.
The USAir Express plane, a 37-seat deHavilland-8, took off from Albany County Airport at 10:20 a.m. and arrived in Baltimore on time at 11:50 a.m. Officials could not say how many people were on board, but said the flight was nearly full, with two pilots and one attendant. About 11:40 a.m., as the USAir plane descended in its final approach to the airport, the Cessna flew under the commuter plane, Mr. Turk said.
The USAir pilots, the spokesman said, overheard radio transmissions from BWI that indicated FAA officials didn't know whether tower controllers, or those in ground control, who monitor radar and guide in approaching planes, were responsible for overseeing the Cessna.
"Our guy says there was a lot of chatter on air traffic control frequency as to who was controlling the pipeline airplane and as to who had responsibility at that point," Mr. Turk said.
USAir's spokesman added that the FAA has said the near-collision was a result of a "system error," which he said "implies that it is [the FAA's] responsibility."
Mr. Griese, of Colonial, said FAA officials told him that controllers in the BWI tower "apparently lost track of the blips for both aircrafts," and then radioed to the Cessna pilot, Jesse Walls, asking what radio frequency he was operating on. That indicates the controllers were "confused about what frequency they should be tracking," Mr. Griese said.
The pilot for Colonial was flying over an underground pipeline, which delivers aviation fuel to BWI from Westminster.
The pilots look for such things as dead vegetation, which could indicate leaks, or heavy equipment operating near the line.
Records on file with the FAA show that the Cessna plane has a clean record, with no reported accidents or maintenance problems.