Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Continental Airlines Boeing 737 has a 'close encounter' with -- a rocket?

Continental Airlines B737-900ERVarious news media are reporting on an incident in which the crew of a Continental Airlines Boeing 737 aircraft saw what appeared to be a rocket (or similar projectile) pass them shortly after departure from Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport. This may have been something serious, may have been a prank, or it may come to nothing much, but it certainly is interesting. The FAA and the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force think it's interesting, too: They are investigating the incident.

Here is a summary of what has been reported by the news media. On Monday, May 26, 2008, the crew of a Continental Airlines B737-800, operating as Flight COA1544 from Houston to Cleveland-Hopkins International Airport, reported to air traffic control that they saw an object with a flaming tail and a trail of smoke flying vertically near their aircraft. The Houston Chronicle, which had the most detailed article about the 'rocket incident', quoted an FAA official who said it was not yet known how close the object came to the aircraft, or what altitude it reached.
"We don't know for sure what the object was. But we think it might be somebody doing model rocketing," said Roland Herwig, an FAA spokesman. "The pilot saw the rocket and some people saw the rocket's trail (of smoke)."
A spokeswoman for Continental Airlines told the Houston Chronicle reporter that the crew made "no diversionary maneuvers," and added that the plane was not damaged, and nobody was injured.

The working assumption seems to be that the object was a model rocket. The Houston Chronicle quoted an FAA spokeswoman in Washington D.C. who said this would not be the first time a rocket had crossed paths with an airliner. "But so far, no plane has been hit by a launched model rocket." Yeah, so far, so good.

You're going to love this part, also from the Houston Chronicle article:
Robert Morehead, an engineer who is president of the Amateur Spaceflight Association in Houston, said the FAA would only need to be notified if a rocket would be entering controlled airspace.

He said the only danger to a plane might be if the rocket is ingested by a plane's engine.

"But their engines are designed to ingest birds and not come apart," said Morehead, who lives in Clear Lake. "The real question is if the rocket would tear up the engine instead of just shutting it off."
I beg your pardon?

At first this incident reminded me a bit of the another mystery last year, when a LAN Chile A340 en route from Santiago, Chile to Auckland, New Zealand had a close encounter somewhere over the Pacific Ocean with a fiery object falling from the sky above. In that case, what at first was believed to be debris from a Russian spacecraft was later thought to be a meteor. But it seems to me that there's a bit of a difference between a random fiery object falling from the sky, and one that intentionally shoots up from the ground into commercial airspace.

If any conclusions about this latest incident are reached and made public, I will certainly report those here on Aircrew Buzz.

[Photo Source]