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Airport Tower Gives Conflicting Orders, Causing Near Disaster

April 17, 1985

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Two air traffic controllers gave conflicting instructions only a second apart, leading to the near-runway collision of two jumbo jets two weeks ago in Minneapolis, radio transcripts related to the incident showed today.

The two Northwest Airlines jetliners carrying a total of 500 people came narrowly close to colliding on a slushy runway at the Minneapolis airport March 31 as one was taking off and the other was crossing the same runway.

National Transportation Safety Board investigators said the plane that was taking off cleared the other aircraft by anywhere from 50 to 22 feet, depending on various account by witnesses and crew members.

A transcript of radio transmissions between the airport tower and both of the jetliners disclosed that both planes had been given clearance by the tower to proceed.

The transmissions, however, involved two different controllers who were on different radio frequencies although they were standing near one another in the control tower, investigators have said.

The NTSB released the transcripts without comment.

The documents showed that Northwest flight 65, bound for Phoenix, was given instructions by a ground controller to cross one of the main airport runways.

″Northwest, ah, sixty-five heavy, taxi across two nine left,″ the ground controller said. He then repeated the instructions.

The crew of flight 65 responded and said it was going to proceed.

In the meantime, the tower controller was in the process of instructing Northwest flight 51 which was about to take off on a flight to Seattle to proceed with the takeoff.

″Northwest fifty-one heavy, runway two nine left, there’s traffic crossing downfield, fly the runway heading and cleared for takeoff,″ the tower controller told the jetliner.

The pilot of flight 51 responded and began his takeoff roll.

Investigators previously have said that as flight 51 rolled down the runway the pilot noticed the other jumbo jet crossing ahead of him and began to pull the nose of his aircraft off the ground early in hopes of clearing the plane.

Flight 51 cleared the other aircraft and proceeded on to Seattle apparently without any of the passengers knowing about the incident.

The two controllers were relieved of their air traffic duties pending completion of the investigation into the incident, according to FAA officials.

NTSB investigators said that the local controller who gave instructions for flight 51 to take off had 24 years of experience and that the ground controller only recently completed training to become a fully qualified controller.

Local controllers handle aircraft as they take off and land, while ground controllers handle the planes as they are moved around airport terminals and taxiways in preparation for takeoff and after landing.

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