Near Miss at the World Trade Center – Aerolíneas Argentinas Flight 342

Long before the devastating attacks of September 11th, 2001, an incident occurred just over twenty years earlier on a cloudy evening above the streets of Manhattan, where, after a long flight from South America, an Aerolineas Argentinas Boeing 707, on approach to New York’s John F Kennedy Airport, became disorientated as it continued its descent through the thick smog, not realising that they were in fact on a collision course with one of the towers of the World Trade Center.

For context, New York City is surrounded by multiple large airports, the biggest and busiest being La Guardia Airport in Queens, Newark Airport in New Jersey, and the main hub of New York John F Kennedy or JFK located on the Atlantic shoreline at Jamaica Bay, approximately 11 miles southeast of Manhattan Island, with the approach patterns for La Guardia and JFK airports often seeing flights being routed up and down the Hudson River at a safe altitude of around 3,000ft, easily passing above the rooftops of the city’s many towering skyscrapers which form the basis of New York’s iconic skyline.

In 1981, that skyline was peaked by the iconic Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, which, after a long and complicated development process, were constructed between 1966 and 1973 as the tallest buildings on earth at a height of 1,368 and 1,362ft for the north and south towers respectively, the World Trade Center, though largely empty due to an ongoing recession in the United States following the 1973 oil crisis, as well as providing millions of square feet of office space that not many corporations could require, being an immediate symbol of American financial strength, and, through the inclusion of such facets as a rooftop observation deck on the South Tower, and the opulent Windows on the World restaurant in the North Tower, would settle nicely into being one of New York’s most popular tourist attractions, garnering millions of visitors per year.

In May 1979, as part of a concession agreed with various radio and TV stations across the Manhattan area, the North Tower was fitted with a 362ft television antenna which quickly became home to a majority of the city’s communications and entertainment providers, as due to the incredible size and bulk of the mighty Twin Towers, it was feared that their presence would cause signal blackout to many smaller buildings within the Lower Manhattan area, meaning that, at its highest point, the North Tower of the World Trade Center stood at 1,730ft from the lobby to the pinnacle of the antennamast.

However, while the Twin Towers stood proudly above the Manhattan skyline in the northern hemisphere, in the southern hemisphere, a Boeing 707-387, operating Aerolíneas Argentinas Flight 342 to New York’s JFK airport, began its long flight from Buenos Aires at 08:00am on February 20th, 1981, running a 5,660 mile journey with a stopover in Guayaquil in Ecuador between 12:30 and 1:30pm, and another stopover in Miami between 5:30 and 6:30pm, before continuing its final leg to New York, with an expected arrival time of around 9pm Eastern Standard Time, the flight carrying 49 passengers and 9 crew during its last run into the Big Apple.

Aerolíneas Argentinas has been founded in May 1949 as Aregentina’s flag carrier, and had taken on a contingent of Boeing 707-387s, dubbed ‘Intercontinentals’, in 1965 in order to replace its small fleet of De Havilland Comet 4s, the carrier’s main international routes, as listed in the latest timetable dated November 1st, 1980, comprising 6 individual flights between Buenos Aires and New York JFK per week via various stopovers, and were run by either 707s or the company’s new fleet of Boeing 747-200s, Flight 342 being scheduled to run Mondays and Fridays.

However, the company had garnered something of a cursed reputation on its flights to New York using Boeing 707s, as on January 14th, 1977, Flight 321, carrying 50 passengers and 11 crew on a routine service to Buenos Aires via Rio de Janeiro, stalled while climbing away from JFK airport during a snowstorm and nearly crashed into a Long Island residential area, the closeness of the impact reflected in that the fuselage showed damage consistent with striking trees and household TV antennas, while in March 1980, another Aerolíneas Argentinas flight, this time a cargo run, suffered a number 1 engine fire while climbing out of New York, but was able to safely return to the runway.

On the evening of February 20th, Flight 342 was making its final ILS approach towards JFK airport, and was to be routed via the KMCHI and BUZON waypoints at an altitude of 2,900ft to line up with Runway 13L, the airliner approaching at a bearing of 040 degrees and being routed across the upper New York harbour before making a sharp bank to a bearing of 134 degrees above the Lower East Side of Manhattan Island, while still maintaining an altitude of at least 2,100ft, this approach pattern being the closest of JFK’s landing routes to the skyscrapers of the city’s financial district, including the Twin Towers.

New York airport authorities, however, were acutely aware of the dangers presented of having multiple busy international airports in close proximity to a city comprised almost entirely of tall buildings, a situation brought into terrible realisation on July 28th, 1945, when a US Army Air Force North American B-25 Mitchell bomber, on a routine personnel flight from Bedford Army Air Field, Massachusetts to Newark Airport in New Jersey, became lost in the fog and slammed into the north side of the Empire State Building between the 78th and 80th floors, completely destroying the aircraft and resulting in the deaths of 14 people, although thankfully the 1,250ft skyscraper escaped the impact and subsequent fire without significant structural damage, while on the evening of May 20th, 1946, a United States Army Air Force Beechcraft C-45F Expediter, again on a personnel flight to Newark, crashed into the north face of the 58th floor at the 40 Wall Street tower in Lower Manhattan, killing the five crew of the aircraft but with no fatalities or injuries to the building’s occupants.

Concious that, with the exponential rise in air travel across the world during the 1950s, 60s and 70s, the New York Terminal Radar Approach Control or TRACON, based in Westbury, Long Island, and had been established in 1975 to replace the interim New York Common IFR Room at Kennedy Airport, had installed only weeks prior a ground proximity alarm for aircraft approaching the New York area which alerted controllers to flights which had descended below a safe altitude and were on a potential collision course with the skyscrapers of Manhattan, the minimum safe altitude of this ground proximity system being the very top of the antennamast located on the roof of the World Trade Center’s North Tower.

At around 10:00pm on that cold February night, the on-duty Approach Controller at TRACON was 33-year-old Donald Zimmerman, who, aside from Argentine Flight 342, was also managing eight other flights in the approach pattern for New York JFK, the flight now running around forty minutes late as it came in over the New York harbour in line with waypoint KMCHI, Manhattan island dead ahead as the Boeing 707 descended towards its required altitude of 2,900ft upon reaching this location, and then proceeding down to 2,100ft by the time of reaching waypoint BUZON.

However, due to what the crew would later describe as a garbled message, they had misunderstood Zimmerman’s instruction for the aircraft to descend to 2,700ft and maintain a speed of 180knots, which was instead taken as a request to descend to 1,000ft, all while due to the thick cloud and near zero visibility, the Argentine Boeing 707 had essentially cut the corner off and essentially missed waypoint KMCHI completely, instead proceeding directly to waypoint BUZON at a bearing of around 050 degrees in a north-easterly direction, aimed squarely at the World Trade Center’s twin towers.

Passing below 1,700ft, the ground proximity alarm at TRACON rang out, and Zimmerman was alerted to the fact that one of the airliners in his care had descended below the safe minimum, and with a quick check of his radar screen, noted that Flight 342 was heading straight towards Lower Manhattan and the World Trade Center, his worst fears being quickly realised after he contacted the 707’s crew to confirm their altitude, to which they responded by stating that they were descending through 1,500ft, 200ft lower than the antennamast atop the North Tower.

Faced with the horrifying situation that one of his airliners may be about to crash into the World Trade Center, he immediately ordered that the airliner make a sharp right-hand bank to bearing 180 and climb to 3,000ft, the flight crew acknowledging, and subsequently undertaking a hard turn to starboard which took the airliner away from Lower Manhattan, while all Zimmerman could do was watch helplessly and await his radar screen to update, hoping that it would provide the relief of seeing Argentine Flight 342 moving away from the city, to which it thankfully did, the 707 eventually making a successful landing at JFK following the correct approach.

In the end, it was determined that Zimmerman’s quick actions had averted disaster by a mere 90 seconds, the airliner, flying at a speed of 180 knots, being only 5.1 miles from the World Trade Center by the time he ordered their sharp right-hand evasive manoeuvre, placing it above the Bayonne area of New Jersey, the estimate being that, had the 707 maintained its 1,500ft altitude, it would have impacted directly with the North Tower’s antenna and likely destroyed the aircraft with debris raining down on the Tribeca area of Manhattan, while if the crew had been more prompt in their descent to 1,000ft, it would have instead resulted in the aircraft slamming into the southwest corner of the tower in the vicinity of the 80th to 90th floors, which, aside from killing all occupants of the airliner, would have resulted in substantial damage to the building and likely caused significant casualties due to the presence of the extremely popular Windows on the World restaurant located on the 106th and 107th floors of the building, although in consideration of the airliner’s slow speed, the impact would likely have not been enough to topple the skyscraper as per the later events of September 11th, 2001, the structure having been designed to accommodate such an incident.

In the aftermath of the near-miss, Zimmerman went on an immediate ‘traumatic incident leave’ and retreated to his home of Smithtown, Long Island, although the Federal Aviation Administration, following a review of the incident, eventually cleared him of any wrongdoing the following Thursday, the controller receiving the day after a letter of commendation from Murray Smith, the FAA’s regional director, who cited Zimmerman for ‘outstanding technical skill’ in resolving a ‘dangerous situation, while at the same time, Aerolíneas Argentinas, faced severe scrutiny from the aviation authorities in New York in the wake of this most high profile incident, citing that, in light of the carrier having been involved in three major near-miss incidents during the past four years, there was grave doubt as to the competency of the carrier when training its crew members, and that any shortfall in their training programmes would need to be ironed out if the carrier wished to continue flying into U.S. airspace.

In conclusion, the near-miss of Aerolíneas Argentinas Flight 342 conjures another interesting ‘what-if’ scenario, as with the accidental impact of a Boeing 707 into the World Trade Center during 1981, what ramifications could, or would, have resulted from such a devastating tragedy, and how indeed may it have changed future events, such as the terrorist attacks in 2001 that would eventually topple the mighty skyscrapers.

As is, the incident instead proved to be an incredible stroke of luck for the extremely complex air traffic control systems of the New York area, as had the ground proximity warning system, which was only weeks old at the time, not been installed, or if Zimmerman had failed to notice the course and altitude of the Argentine 707, history could have taken a very different course.