How One Tweet Started Fake “Near Miss” Stories

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On February 24, a number of aviation social media accounts and news outlets broke a story about a supposedly serious runway incursion at Johannesburg’s OR Tambo Airport in South Africa. They painted the ‘incident’ as having potentially serious consequences, labeling it as a ‘near miss’.

It turns out that was far from the truth.

The backstory

Illustration: Flightradar24

The matter involved two aircraft, one being a Lufthansa Boeing 747-8i registered D-ABYJ operating flight LH573 from Johannesburg (JNB) to Frankfurt (FRA), and a South African Airways Airbus A320 registered ZS-SZE, operating flight SA422 from Port Elizabeth (PLZ) to Johannesburg (JNB). The ‘event’ took place on February 23, 2024.

On February 24, a popular aviation account on Twitter published a tweet about a supposed near miss involving these two aircraft. From the FlightRadar24 replay, it shows the Lufthansa 747 accelerating down Runway 03 Left with the South African A320 crossing the same runway via Taxiway L.

The Twitter/X account initially claimed that both aircraft almost collided, suggesting that the South African A320 crossed the runway without permission, but it’s unclear how that assumption was made. In the very video they referenced, the Lufthansa was well within taxi speeds, hitting about 16 knots when it reached the taxiway L intersection.

This tweet was also picked up by another big Twitter/X account which usually covers air safety incidents. From there, a number of smaller media groups published their stories based on a variation of these two tweets.

With no information to back these claims (e.g. reports from ATC or airports officials or even ATC recordings), it’s not clear how these social media accounts came to the conclusion that there was runway incursion.

What really happened

As word of this supposed incident spread, staff members at Johannesburg’s tower chimed in on Facebook stating that the claims were completely false, noting that FlightRadar24’s ground data is notoriously inaccurate (a problem with ADS-B data in general below certain altitudes above ground level).

They indicated that the pilots of the Lufthansa 747 weren’t too pleased with the weather conditions ahead of them (based on readings from their aircraft’s weather radar) and wanted to loop around in hopes that it would clear by then. The controller cleared them to taxi along the runway, and also cleared the South African A320 to cross the same runway via Taxiway L.

Given that they were some distance apart, and both at normal taxi speeds, the supposed runway incursion never existed in the first place. Aircraft are cleared to cross each other all the time with adequate advisories. They were never given a takeoff clearance either, so there was no need for a rejected takeoff.

The 747 vacated the runway via Taxiway H, then proceeded down Taxiway C to the end where it re-entered Runway 03L for takeoff.

The Aviation Herald’s Simon Hradecky also added his input, confirming the same with some additional information. He noted that the Lufthansa entered the runway around 18:16Z/8:16 p.m. (local time), “then waited in position until about 18:17:23Z then taxied, never exceeding 25 knots over ground”.

Based on his analysis of the data, the aircraft started its takeoff roll at 18:42:00Z, hitting 41 knots before reaching the aiming markers (versus 13 knots during the taxi). The aircraft also hit 70 knots past the first fixed distance markers (versus 21 knots during the taxi).

Once this new information came to light, the news outlets covering this story either deleted their posts entirely, or amended them to reflect the non-incident.

The short lesson here is that ADS-B data should never be truly relied upon. While it is a helpful tool to get a general idea about a situation, you will never see airport or investigative officials using it as part of official analyses.

[Featured Photo: TJDarmstadt/Flickr (CC BY 2.0 Deed) ]

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