'Hundreds of lives were at stake': How air traffic controllers caught a close call at O'Hare
There were no fist-pumps when air traffic controllers Ryan Schile and Andrew Rice accepted awards for preventing a catastrophic midair collision in March at O'Hare International Airport.
"I don't ever want to see that again," Schile soberly told a crowd of controllers at a September ceremony.
March 1 was a typically brisk day at O'Hare's main tower with more than 2,460 flights shooting in and out of the airport.
"Controllers at O'Hare work the busiest, most complex airspace in the nation," veteran controller Dan Carrico explained.
Schile was calling the shots on three runways -- one for departures and two for arrivals -- on the south airfield around noon.
"Needless to say, he was a little busy," National Air Traffic Controllers Association President Paul Rinaldi said.
An Envoy Air regional jet, which seats about 50 people, waited on Runway 10-Left, bound for Kentucky.
"Envoy 3603, now fly heading one, zero, zero (100)," Schile said, directing the aircraft to travel straight east.
"One, zero, zero ... cleared for takeoff," the Envoy pilot responded.
But instead of loading 100 into the flight computer, he inadvertently dialed 010 -- diverging to the north, controllers said.
In the tower nearby, controller Andrew Rice guided an American Airlines Boeing 737-800 on Runway 9-Right in the north airfield. "American 272, fly the runway heading," Rice said, meaning the aircraft should go east.
Both jets took off and the controllers turned to the next tasks, knowing the airplanes would ascend on two safe, parallel tracks.
Unexpectedly, the Envoy began a hard-left turn, "placing that aircraft in a collision course" with the American 737, Rinaldi said.
"It came down to a simple error," Schile said Wednesday in an interview.
Schile, 38, began his career as a controller in 2006; Rice started in 2007.
Rice, a 37-year-old Wheaton resident, characterizes his job as a "giant game of Tetris. It's a puzzle that has shifting pieces that you have to keep putting back in order."
Schile lives in Arlington Heights but grew up in New York. "I remember looking out of the windows in second grade and my teacher told me to 'stop doing that! You'll never get a job looking out of a window,'" Schile said. "Now I can tell Mrs. Kiernan she was wrong."
Back on March 1, he took a quick scan out of the window and saw a disaster about to happen.
"Scanning is one of the most basic, fundamental parts of a tower controller's responsibilities," Schile said. After 10 years at the tower, "you develop a very defined picture of what something should look like when looking out the window," he said.
"Out of the corner of my eye I could see movement where there should not have been movement. That immediately led me to scan to the east, where I saw the Envoy make a sharp northbound turn."
At that point, the American 737 was at about 1,800 feet and the Envoy at approximately 1,600 feet.
Meanwhile, Rice had scanned 9-Right and "out of a window where there should not have been an airplane, I saw an airplane ... the Envoy ... turning toward mine," he said.
"Hundreds of lives were at stake," Rinaldi said when presenting Rice and Schile with the air traffic controllers association's highest honor, the President's Award.
For Schile, "training takes over. You just know -- you have to do something. It was certainly a time-critical situation."
His voice was calm but urgent: "Envoy 3603, stop your climb," he ordered. "Envoy 3603, turn right immediately."
At their closest point, the planes were about a quarter-mile apart and the same altitude. The FAA requires a minimum of 3 miles of separation or 1,000 feet of altitude between jets.
The impact -- if it had occurred -- would have been about one mile from O'Hare, above thousands of homes, shops, businesses and two major expressways.
Rice eyeballed the Envoy and the American Airlines jet with 166 people aboard and made a split-second call.
"American 272, continue left heading 360," he instructed, angling the plane north.
"The idea is, at least that way, we're trying to keep the Envoy behind the American," Rice recalled thinking.
What happened next? We'll explain in our Dec. 2 column. Got a comment or question? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
One more thing
Traveling this Thanksgiving week or have folks coming to visit? You might want to have flexible plans. AccuWeather is predicting that a major winter storm will germinate in the central Rockies and Plains Tuesday morning, then barrel northeast to the Chicago region, southeast Wisconsin and northwest Indiana that afternoon.
Planning a quick getaway before Thanksgiving? Metra will be offering extra outbound trains Wednesday afternoon on the BNSF, Milwaukee District, North Central Service and Union Pacific lines. For information about Thanksgiving schedules and Metra's Dec. 10 toy drive, go to metrarail.com.