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Jumbo Jets Fly Dangerously Close over South Los Angeles

By Alan Abrahamson
and Duke Helfand
Los Angeles Times

Jumbo jets en route from Japan and Holland passed dangerously close to each other - within two-thirds of a mile - while flying over south-central Los Angeles, apparently because of a faulty auto-pilot device, authorities said Thursday.

On approach Wednesday afternoon, flying about 10 miles east of Los Angeles International Airport over the densely populated residential and industrial area below, a Dutch KLM Boeing 747 was forced to make a sudden turn to avoid a Brazilian VASP MD-11, authorities said.

The Brazilian jet, inbound from Osaka, Japan, apparently failed to follow air traffic controllers' instructions for a tight turn onto its final approach, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

It drifted across, straying across the approach route of the Dutch jet, which was arriving from Amsterdam, the FAA said.

But FAA investigators would not disclose the cause of the incident. But they said the pilot of the Brazilian plane told controllers after landing that the auto-pilot device "didn't make the turn."

Kevin McGrath, a spokesman for National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the controllers' union, said a review of air traffic tapes also suggested trouble with auto-pilot gear.

"The Brazilian crew was flying on auto-pilot and they were waiting for it to turn them onto the final approach course, which it apparently failed to do," McGrath said.

"It could be a system failure," McGrath added. "It could be the way they programmed it. It could be a crew oversight. it could be lots of things."

But Mitch Barker, an FAA spokesman, said a pilot is ultimately responsible for the operation and safety of the plane.

"At this time, we are treating this as a pilot deviation because the Brazilian aircraft did not comply with air traffic control instructions," he said. "There's always time to turn the auto-pilot off and take command when the auto-pilot does not perform to the dictates of the (flight)."

Veteran captains also stressed the notion that responsibility ultimately rests with the pilot.

"To blame it on the auto-pilot - if that's in fact what happened - is denying your own responsibility for the airplane," said Barry Schiff, a longtime captain and widely regarded aviation safety expert.

"Auto-pilots do what pilots want them to do," Schiff said. "They relieve the pilot from actually manipulating the controls. But the pilot is always responsible for controlling his aircraft, even when it's on autopilot."

KLM Flight 601 carried 344 passengers and a crew of 18, said Peter Wellhuner, the airline's spokesman in Amsterdam.

Reached at the station office in Los Angeles, VASP employees declined to provide any information about Flight 895. Officials in Brazil could not be reached for comment.

An MD-11 can carry as many as 410 passengers.

"We came too damn close to a tragedy," McGrath said.