Fact Check

Close Call

Does a photograph show two airliners in dangerously close proximity?

Published Jan 30, 2006

Claim:   Photograph shows two airliners in dangerously close proximity.

Status:   Multiple — see below.

Example:   [Collected via e-mail, 2006]

A Near Miss?

Disaster seemed certain when a photographer captured these planes on course to collide over east London.

To the onlookers below, the aircraft looked set for a horrific mid-air crash.

Click to enlarge

Origins:   The

above-displayed photograph captures jets operated by Japan Airlines and DHL global delivery service seen flying over the West Ham football club's Upton Park ground in London just after 3:00 PM on 28 January 2006. According to the Daily Mirror, the photographer who snapped the image began taking pictures when it looked from his vantage point as if the two planes were "on a collision course." However, both planes landed safely at Heathrow Airport, and the Civil Aviation Authority said no near miss had been reported.

Asserting that the airplanes pictured were actually dangerously close to one another based upon this single photograph is problematic. Photographs of large objects far from the observer taken with telephoto lens are frequently deceptive; their "flatness" (i.e., the compression of depth of field) can make objects appear far closer together than they actually are. (With no other visual reference points to go by, and without knowing how far the photographer was from his subjects, estimating the true distance between the planes shown in this picture is quite difficult.)

As a DHL spokesman quoted in a BBC news report noted:

A spokesman for DHL said photographs could be "incredibly deceptive".

"In the picture, they look like they are close together but it doesn't mean they are. And in fact they were not," he said.

"If there had been any incident of them being close together, there are all sorts of systems which would have gone off, both in the plane itself and at air traffic control — but there wasn't any report of an incident."

The spokesman said there was no question that either aircraft had strayed from its proper path, which should mean there was a distance of some two and a half miles between them.

Last updated:   30 January 2006


  Sources Sources:

    BBC News.   "Planes 'Seen in Close Encounter.'"

    29 January 2006.

David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.

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