By Yaron Steinbuch
A Southwest Airlines jet came within 200 feet of slamming into an ambulance crossing the runway as it took off at Baltimore’s airport – one in a series of terrifyingly close calls across the US.
The Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting, or ARFF, vehicle crossed Runway 15R at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI) without authorization on Jan. 12, DC News Now said Tuesday.
The Southwest Boeing 737 had just been cleared for takeoff from the same runway and missed the ambulance by less than half the length of a football field, the outlet reported.
“The closest estimated horizontal separation occurred at a distance of 173 feet,” the Federal Aviation Administration said in new analysis of the harrowing incident.
The ARFF driver was told to “hold short” of the runway, but read back the instruction as “ARFF 439 crossing Runway 10 and 15 Right.”
The controller did not catch the read-back error, according to the FAA.
Newly released recordings captured the alarmed controller informing the ARFF driver of his mistake.
“ARFF 439 you were supposed to hold short Runway 15R!” the controller says.
By that time, the vehicle had crossed the runway and was on an adjacent taxiway as the plane continued its takeoff roll and departed.
An airport spokesman confirmed that the vehicle “crossed a runway without air traffic control authorization.”
The rep told DC News Now in a statement: “The airport fully cooperated and shared information with the FAA regarding the incident.
“Based on review of the incident, new procedures were immediately implemented to help ensure safety and to prevent a similar incident in the future. Safety and security remain the highest priorities for BWI Marshall Airport,” the spokesperson added.
An airline spokesman said in a statement: “Southwest adheres to Air Traffic Control directions at all times and our Crew did in this scenario too.”
The FAA has four levels of severity for runway incursions — A, B, C and D — based on the level of severity. The incident at BWI was ranked as a Category B.
“Category B is an incident in which separation decreases and there is a significant potential for collision, which may result in a time critical corrective/evasive response to avoid a collision,” according to the FAA.
The close call came to light after the FAA held an emergency summit last week in McLean, Virginia, to address a series of recent safety incidents and near-misses.
There have been at least seven other close calls nationwide since December.
“There is no question that aviation is amazingly safe, but vigilance can never take the day off,” acting FAA Administrator Billy Nolen said in a statement after the meeting.
“We must ask ourselves difficult and sometimes uncomfortable questions, even when we are confident that the system is sound,” he said.
The most recent incident occurred Saturday, when a Southwest plane came within about a mile of a helicopter practicing landings at the Hollywood-Burbank Airport, ABC 7 reported.
The air traffic controller instructed the airliner to abort the landing and go around.
In February, a FedEx cargo plane nearly collided with a Southwest flight in Texas.
The FedEx flight was cleared to land on Runway 18 Left at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport — but seconds later, the Southwest flight was cleared for takeoff on the same runway.
The FedEx pilot aborted the landing and went around.