What appears to be a good catch by a Portland tower controller kept two airliners apart at Portland International last week. An ATC recording and animation making the social media rounds over the weekend caught the attention of some networks and it was billed as the latest in a series of near-collisions at U.S. airports. It’s not clear how close the planes came, but it appears the controller reacted quickly when an Alaska Airlines crew misheard a radio call. The Alaska crew was executing a go-around and apparently thought a heading change for another airplane, a Skywest flight departing a parallel runway, was for them.

The Alaska crew called its go-around after having trouble with the winds and visibility while trying to land on Runway 28 Left at Portland. They were told to maintain runway heading. Immediately after that the controller gave the Skywest crew departing Runway 28 Right a right turn but the Alaska crew apparently thought it was for them. The Alaska crew read it back and started turning toward the Skywest plane, which was in its initial climb. The controller repeatedly told the Alaska crew to get back to runway heading and order was restored shortly afterward. The Alaska crew ended up diverting to Redmond, Oregon. The FAA is investigating.

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.


  1. Is there a spike in these types of incidents or are they now being brought to light more often? Is it a matter of time that tragedy will strike?

  2. I think brought to light. Something like this, while not a frequent event, is not unusual. That is what the ATC system is about, monitoring and correcting. In a daily ATC busy environment, it probably would not have even been mentioned again. Also, I do think there is too much letting automation do the flying and not enough awareness outside the cockpit, automation distraction. My unofficial opinion.

  3. The biggest problem is that Aircraft communications with ATC are still on the antiquated party-line system. While there are some situational awareness benefits, it really breaks down in congested airspace. Messages to individual aircraft should appear on a screen and/or HUD in the aircraft. Even a smartphone can transcribe speech into text in real time.

    • As a pilot, being able to hear the communications with the other planes you are sharing the airspace with really helps with situational awareness.

    • I agree with this. As I’m flying along with two computer screens, satellite-delivered radar and weather, and satellite SMS ability, I often think about how we’re still using the same comms system from the turn of the 20th century. It desperately needs to be updated.

  4. Mis-heard or misunderstood communication exchanges doubtless are occurring dozens of times a day all over the world. Mostly they get corrected & go unremarked unless they can be utilized as juicy news blurbs, as in “…came within 239 feet vertically…” ( well, not exactly, but… ).

    Those incidents invariably generate ‘we have to do something about this’ calls, but all the suggestions I’ve heard strike me as being far more likely to make things worse. Especially in dense airport/terminal airspace where everyone involved is busy and things can happen fast, our old-fashioned audio-based party line is by far the best system anyone has come up with.

  5. Back in the day, the FAA would use these “catches” to issue the “We Point With Pride” award to the controller. Of course, the facility cartoonist would change the name to “We Point With Wide Eyed Amazement”. Cops, firemen and air traffic controllers, masters of gallows humor.