So Many Errors: The Runway Incursion of United 1448

Anybody who’s ever taxied an airplane in low visibility knows that situational awareness is critical. In most cases, radio communication is the only way air traffic control can positively identify an aircraft’s location. If the pilots don’t know where they are, then neither does air traffic control. This was a hard lesson learned by the crew of United 1448 in what could have been another Tenerife.

Aside from heavy fog, it was business as usual at Providence, Rhode Island on December 6, 1999. United 1448, a Boeing 757 has just landed and they are cleared to the ramp via taxiways November and Tango.

The first mistake is made by United 1448 as they make a wrong turn on taxiway Bravo which leads back to 5R/23L – the active runway.  Unaware of the situation, Providence Tower clears FedEx 1662, a 727, for takeoff.

Perhaps out of caution, or maybe sensing that something is wrong United 1448 asks “are we cleared across straight ahead on November?” 1448 unknowingly misleads ATC into thinking that they are holding short of the inactive runways 23R and 16, and they are cleared to cross. Mistake number two.

What follows is nothing short of terrifying. Amid a confused transmission you can actually hear the thrust from departing FedEx 1662 as United exclaims “somebody just took off!” But the story doesn’t end there.

Realizing the existence of a problem, ATC tells United 1448 to stop – a sound plan. At this point United 1448 makes it clear that they are lost. At this point only three facts are known:

  1. Somebody just took off close enough to scare United 1448.
  2. The flight crew are on a runway.
  3. United 1448 is near the Kilo taxiway (which only crosses one runway – 5R).

At this point there is enough information out there for ATC to piece together the whereabouts of United 1448 – or at the very least raise a red flag that the airplane may be on the active runway. As United 1448 attempts to explain their situation Tower cuts them off, “United, stand by please.” That’s ATC lingo for shut up.

What follows is unthinkable. Amidst the confusion, Tower clears another aircraft, US Air 2998, for takeoff. Strike three. Knowing the inherent danger in this situation, United 1448 makes one last plea to the tower controller. “Ma’am I’m trying to advise you, we’re on an active runway.”

But the controller is still locked into the premise that United 1448 is on the other runway and hastily clears US Air for takeoff again! There’s the fourth link in the accident chain and there appears to be nothing the United crew can do about it.

And here’s where exceptional decision making comes in. US Air 2998 saves the day by choosing to remain clear of all runways despite continued pressure to take off from Providence tower.

This is a vivid reminder that we all need maintain a “big picture” view of the airport environment and do our part to maintain safety. There’s just no guarantee that anybody else, even ATC, is going to operate in your best interests.

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About the author
Pat Flannigan is a professional pilot and aviation blogger. He has been flying for fifteen years and is currently working as an airline pilot in the United States.

9 Replies to So Many Errors: The Runway Incursion of United 1448

  1. This is an interesting narrative and demonstrates one very important fact for all of us to remember – the pilot in command is ultimately responsible for the safety of his passengers and crew.

    The crew of U.S. Air 2998 clearly demonstrate the importance of NOT doing anything when confusion reigns, and should be a warning to never hurry when we are not absolutely sure of what is going on.

    This is the ultimate demonstration of “situational awareness”, clearly something the tower controller was not demonstrating!

    Moral of the story: Learn from others’ mistakes in order to avoid our own!

  2. Gene says:

    And to think that the recently released GAO Report states
    that ORD is – the 2nd worst AP in the country when it
    comes to near mis and ground collisions.

  3. Max Trescott says:

    The U.S. Air 2998 crew are the heros and deserve a medal. Surely they must have been thinking about the greatest air disaster in history that occurred at Tenerife in 1977. Hopefully all pilots will remember it and turn down any takeoff clearance whenever there’s any doubt as to whether their runway is clear.

  4. Sylvia says:

    I agree regarding US Air 2998 – when I first heard the recording, I was on the edge of my seat. When I heard the pilot state that they were going to stay clear of all runways until things were figured out, I applauded!

  5. John Fiscus says:

    What a great lesson for the rest of us, given by US Air 2998’s crew.

    It’s easy to just trust that ATC knows what they’re talking about and follow their instructions, and 95% of the time that’s true… but the crew of 2998 was listening and knew something was up. Some of that must’ve been pure gut feeling, and it served them and their passengers that day.

    The video was well done and illustrates the reality nicely while overlaying the confusion on the comm.

  6. Ryan D says:

    I said the same thing, the crew of US Air 2998 deserve recognition for what they did that day. Seeing this video sent chills down my spine and to see US Air decline a takeoff clearance overwhelmed me! Thank God! Who are these pilots? I would like to fly out to them and personally thank them for the lives they saved that day. These are the hero’s that our society should be celebrating. Good for you guys!!!

  7. Vick says:

    I am not aviation skilled at all, but the Tenerife disaster and what this could have been gives me chills. 2998 crew should have been given a Presidential Medal of Honor for this.

    My question is – in 2009, why don’t we have ground radar overlaid with the transponder to pin-point airplanes? Why the heck is everybody, for a lack of a better phrase, groping in the dark?

  8. Ryan says:


    All about money. The traveling public want to fly from
    Houston to Vegas for $88. This is a prime example of what you get when people want cheap, cheaper and cheapest. Shitty, low-time pilots and poor
    Infrastructure. I’ve been a pilot for 12 years and in my short time seen cheaper and cheaper wages result in acts like this, or Colgan in Buffalo in 2009.

    Try paying more for a ticket and we’ll go from there.


  9. Eric says:

    This tower controller was horrible. She cleared US Air 2998 for takeoff after receiving information indicating United 1448 made a wrong turn and/or did not know where they were. She admits not being able to see anything from her position due to weather. Given the circumstances, her false sense of confidence in issuing that takeoff clearance almost resulted in disaster.

    Bravo to the US Air crew for being the only ones with their thinking brains running instead of their blabbermouths. Hopefully the controller and United 1448 duo have found new careers.

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