Near-collision on Vancouver-bound flight shocks buddies

They were seconds away from a potential collision, but a pair of B.C. men aboard two United flights leaving George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston had no idea how close the planes came to crashing into each other.

United Flights 601 and 437 were seconds away from a potential collision at Houston International

The near-fatal error had the two United aircraft 120 metres apart vertically and just over a kilometre laterally — a distance planes travel in less than four seconds. (CBC)

It's a flight two B.C. Lower Mainland men say they will never forget, not so much for what happened as for what didn't happen.

Jordan Fisher, a 28-year-old Pitt Meadows, B.C., resident, and his friend, Ian Plasman, 25, of Port Coquitlam, took Vancouver-bound United Airlines Flight 601 from Houston earlier this month. Weeks later, they found out that their jet almost collided with another United Airlines flight.

"I got a phone call from my mom," Fisher said. "She was watching the news. She asked me if we took Flight 601 on the way home... She actually played the news for me on the phone."

According to the U.S. Federal Aviation Authority, the two planes nearly collided with one another on May 9 shortly after 9:40 p.m. CT. Someone in the flight control tower at Houston Bush International had directed Flight 601 to turn the wrong way during takeoff, sending it across the path of another departing plane.

Data recorded by tracking service FlightAware shows the following locations and trajectories of United Airlines Flights 437, left, and 601, right, at approximately 9:42 p.m. CT earlier this month, as the two planes depart Houston Bush International airport. (Flight Aware/Google Earth/CBC)

"I was pretty shocked to hear that," Fisher said. "I don't have a lot of fear when it comes to flying, so I don't really think about that sort for stuff. I realize the amount of flights that happen per year and the very few amounts of accidents that do occur. I usually have good faith."

Fisher said he did notice the plane turned sharply and banked steeply after takeoff, but didn't know what it was about.

"It wasn't violent enough during takeoff to think that something was really wrong. It was just a couple of weird manoeuvres," he said. "I don't fly enough to know how that's supposed to go."

But Plasman says he remembers a "crazy amount of turbulence" along with the sharp turn, followed by a shaky greeting by the pilot.

"He had us on this, like, really crazy slope, we were completely — like, out our windows we could see down pretty damn good, and then all of a sudden, it just felt weird, after the turbulence," he said.

A third-party pilot who witnessed the near collision earlier this month was recorded as saying "you all basically crossed directly over the top of each other," according to KHOU 11 in Houston. (Flight Aware/Google Earth/CBC)

The pilot then got on the intercom.

"He [the pilot] came on and he was like, "'At-at-at-attention passengers. Uh, wel-welcome to United Airlines...,' and you could tell there was a lot of hesitation in his voice," Plasman said.

After he heard the news Friday that their plane had ​been in a near-collision with United Airlines Flight 437, Plasman said, "I pretty much replayed everything while we were in the air. It pretty much scared the crap out of me."

Air traffic control recordings caught a third-party pilot who witnessed the near collision, calling the incident "pretty gnarly."

The U.S. Federal Aviation Authority is investigating the incident.

With files from the CBC's Richard Zussman

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.