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Controller Gave Helicopter Pilot OK to Cross Jet Path

September 25, 1985|Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Investigators who examined tapes of tower communications concluded today that the pilot of a helicopter that forced a crowded Eastern Airlines jet to abort its takeoff had received clearance to cross the runway, federal officials said.

A spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board said a controller at National Airport in nearby Virginia had given the helicopter general takeoff clearance but had not specified a direction that would avoid crossing the main runway where the Boeing 727 had been cleared for takeoff.

The Eastern jet skidded to a stop about 130 feet from the Potomac River in the Tuesday evening incident.

Eastern's 5 p.m. shuttle flight from Washington to New York, with 175 passengers and a crew of seven, came to rest on ground that had been a river inlet before being filled in only last year as a runway safety extension.

One person sustained minor injuries, and neither aircraft was believed damaged.

NTSB spokesman Bill Bush said that investigators had been told by the controller's supervisors that she thought she had directed the helicopter to take a northwesterly departure route but that an examination of the tapes showed otherwise.

The controller, who was handling helicopters exclusively, was in the airport tower alongside another controller who was handling the departing jet traffic.

FAA spokesman Fred Farrar said the controller was "fully qualified." He said she has been restricted to administrative duties pending further investigation.

The unidentified controller has been on the job since 1978. She was involved in the 1981 illegal strike and was among those fired by the Reagan Administration and later reinstated.

Among the Eastern passengers were David Hartman, host of ABC-TV's "Good Morning America," and New York Daily News executives James Willse and Michael Pakenham. Most passengers were transferred to another Eastern flight to New York.

Hartman told WJLA-TV: "I think people took a lot of deep breaths. And was I scared when I looked up and saw the water coming? You bet."

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