Two Passenger Jets Narrowly Avoid Collision at Ben-Gurion

Two airplanes carrying 430 passengers and crew between them came near to colliding over a runway at Ben-Gurion Airport last Thursday.

Yitzhak Raz, the Transportation Ministry's chief aviation accident investigator, told Haaretz yesterday that the incident was a grave one and the investigation was ongoing. Two Israel Airports Authority flight inspectors have been suspended for failing to report the event and trying to cover it up later.

The Lufthansa and El Al planes came within 200 meters of each other. But they narrowly avoided colliding because the Traffic Collision Avoidance System went off in the El Al liner's cockpit, alerting its pilots.

The incident began when a push-pull cloud seeding airplane took off from Runway 26, the only open runway at the time. The low-power, heavy aircraft took off relatively slowly, flying west to east. Next in line was an El Al Boeing 737 airliner, with 80 passengers.

At the same time, a Lufthansa Boeing 747-400, carrying 350 people, began descending for landing on the same runway, from east to west.

Because the push-pull aircraft was still taking off, the flight inspectors delayed the El Al airliner to provide for ample safety space between the two. However, the Lufthansa jet was still continuing its approach to the runway, so the flight inspectors asked it to pull up and make another circle above the airport.

It was at this point that the Lufthansa plane came dangerously close to the El Al airliner, which was taking off toward the German plane. The anti-collision system sounded the alert in the El Al cockpit, but didn't provide specific data because of the low altitude. The two airliners only pulled safely apart when the El Al plane reached the altitude of 1,000 feet.

"As far as I know, the two flight inspectors were immediately suspended - not because they were responsible for what happened, but because they failed to report it," Raz said.

But an Airports Authority spokeswoman, Ronit Ekstein, denied the report. "The inspectors were not covering anything up and they were not suspended," said Ekstein. "It was merely decided that they will not work as flight inspectors until the investigation is complete."

"The initial investigation, carried out by the IAA on the day of the event, found that the distance between the two planes did not qualify as a safety incident," she continued. "A more thorough examination, carried out in accordance with our regulations, involved examining recordings of the radar and the communications between the pilots and the control tower. The second investigation showed that a safety incident did indeed take place."

Lufthansa said in a statement that the company's airliner "was requested to make another round above the airport, and then landed safely."

El Al said it confirmed the details of the event as released by the IAA and was awaiting the results of the investigation.

The day before the incident, a Russian airliner operated by Transaero nearly landed on an occupied runway at Ben-Gurion.