A China Southern Airlines jet was preparing to leave a cargo zone at O’Hare Airport in September when the pilots were told to sit tight and wait for instructions before taxiing across the busy airfield.
Instead, the crew left the cargo area, throttling along a taxiway “without authorization,” and, after other foul-ups, came dangerously close to a departing United Airlines jetliner, records obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times show.
It was among a series of runway incidents at O’Hare in 2018 that also included:
• Employees of the Chicago Department of Aviation — the city agency that runs O’Hare and also Midway Airport — driving onto active runways, in one case, records show, when a city worker used the airstrip as a “short cut.”
• A Delta Air Lines plane accidentally crossing a “hold” line near a runway where another aircraft was about to land. That happened in a section of O’Hare designated as a safety “hot spot” while the Delta plane was being towed for maintenance by a contracted tug driver who said the airfield markings were obscured.
Nobody was injured in any of the incidents.
The Federal Aviation Administration investigated all of them and gave the aviation department a “warning letter” over the safety violations by city workers.
“The FAA is concerned regarding the increasing number of runway incursions” at O’Hare, according to the November letter. “Vehicle operators on a complex, ever-changing airfield environment face risks that have the opportunity, if not mitigated, to have catastrophic results when an incursion occurs.”
There were 22 runway incursions at O’Hare in 2017 and 23 in 2018, according to the aviation department.
The incursion involving the China Southern cargo plane didn’t involve city employees and appeared to be the fault of not only the crew but also air-traffic controllers, records show.
After the massive Boeing aircraft was on the move without clearance in the Sept. 19 incident, a controller, identifying runways and taxiways by their designations, radioed the pilot to “taxi to Runway 10L at Delta Delta via Mike, left on Delta, Papa Papa, hold short of Runway 9R,” records show.
The China Southern plane — taxiing to get into position to depart O’Hare — was headed south toward the far east end of Runway 9R, an east-west strip just north of O’Hare’s main terminals.
Another aircraft also was north of Runway 9R, on the far west end, waiting to cross.
As a United passenger jet rumbled west to east on Runway 9R, gaining speed so it could lift off for Hartford, Conn., the other waiting plane was cleared by a controller to cross once the United plane passed by.
The China Southern crew members, apparently thinking they were given that permission, “read back the clearance” to controllers, records show, as did the crew of the plane that actually had been cleared.
Air-traffic controllers “did not catch the wrong aircraft reading it back,” records show.
The China Southern plane then “crossed the hold line at the departure end of the runway” while the United aircraft “was accelerating on takeoff roll” on Runway 9R.
The hold line is 230 feet from the edge of the runway and 305 feet from its centerline.
The China Southern plane “continued rolling” toward the strip “and was 164 feet from the runway edge” when the United plane, an Airbus A319, “climbing through 289 feet, passed the intersection” at around 160 miles an hour.
The Chinese plane entered the runway several seconds later.
A controller radioed the plane, “China Southern 434 heavy, were you instructed to cross 9 Right?”
A pilot responded, “We are clear of 9 Right …”
The controller said, “Roger, you were never instructed to cross that runway.”
Officials from the airline — which the Chinese government has an ownership stake in and is one of the largest carriers in the world — didn’t respond to requests for comment. The carrier has eight or nine arrivals each week at O’Hare and the same number of departures, most of them direct flights between Chicago and Shanghai.
Foreign carriers have been involved in other runway mishaps at O’Hare, including one in 1999 in which a departing Korean Air jetliner with hundreds of people on board narrowly averted an Air China aircraft that had blundered onto the runway.
FAA records show no current U.S. flying restrictions on that Air China pilot.
A city electrician who was blamed for driving a city vehicle onto a runway in May as a “short cut” has had his airfield driving privileges revoked, according to interviews and records.
City officials initially told the FAA they planned to fire him, but he didn’t end up losing his job. His base pay in 2017 was $100,568, but, with $33,410 in overtime, he was paid $133,978.
Records show he was involved in another runway incursion in 2016, when he “entered and exited” an active runway four times.
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Chicago Aviation Commissioner Jamie Rhee, appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel last year, wouldn’t comment.
In a written statement, her spokeswoman Lauren Huffman said, “Chicago’s airports have an outstanding record for safety and continually receive high marks by the FAA for meeting safety guidelines and standards.”