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Air Controller's Nightmare: 'I Lost an Airplane'

December 03, 1986|BOB BAKER and CATHLEEN DECKER | Times Staff Writers

Calmly and deliberately, eight times within three minutes, air traffic controller Walter R. White called over the radio to Aeromexico Flight 498. Eight times, there was no answer.

"All of a sudden, Walter turned, and he said--he didn't holler--he said to the supervisor, 'Russ, I think I lost an airplane,' " one of the dozen controllers working with White last Aug. 31 recalled recently.

Thus occurred the event that placed White before the microphone at Tuesday's National Transportation Safety Board hearing into the collision over Cerritos between Flight 498 and a small private plane. White, 35, the controller guiding Flight 498 toward Los Angeles International Airport, spoke to the Aeromexico pilots for the last time only 10 seconds before their plane plunged to earth.

Clad in a three-piece, gray suit, White testified carefully and impassively. Often, coolly, he asked safety board members to rephrase their questions.

It was a public display consistent with his behavior as the Cerritos air crash unfolded, and consistent as well with his private personality. Friends and co-workers describe White as a low-key, conscientious air controller.

"He is absolutely one of the best, one of the finest in the system in all respects," one co-worker said.

"A nice, quiet guy," another described White. "One of the worst it could happen to."

Tragedy not being selective, it did happen to Walter Richard White, six years into his career as a federal traffic controller.

White's friends on Tuesday were reluctant to add to the hubbub surrounding the controller, and an FAA spokesman said it was "not appropriate" for the agency to say anything about White.

But information disclosed at the hearings and confirmed by fellow workers portrayed White as a man with an extensive and long-held interest in aviation. He received a bachelor's degree in professional aeronautics and a master's degree in business, and spent three years in the U.S. Army as an air traffic controller. He holds a civilian pilot's license and a flight instructor's license.

On Nov. 30, 1980, according to personnel records, he joined the Federal Aviation Administration as an air traffic controller. He was immediately posted to the control tower at Brown Field Municipal Airport in San Diego. After working there for a year, he transferred to nearby Montgomery Field, where he spent two years. Both San Diego airports handle small planes.

In 1982, he began working at the regional air traffic center located at El Toro Marine Corps air base in Orange County, and in 1984 moved to the Los Angeles TRACON--Terminal Radar Approach Control--facility.

On Aug. 31, he was responsible for guiding airliners approaching Los Angeles from the east, a job he had been certified three months earlier to perform. He was in the sixth hour of an eight-hour day when a Piper Cherokee Archer, which White insists did not appear on his radar screen, collided with the tail of the Aeromexico DC-9.

White was initially uncertain about what had happened. "Aeromexico 498, Los Angeles approach," he messaged repeatedly.

"To say at that time that I thought he (Flight 498) had crashed would be incorrect," White told federal investigators Tuesday. "But I had a feeling that something was wrong."

An American Airlines pilot passing over Cerritos confirmed White's suspicion by describing a tower of smoke swirling skyward.

The crash stunned White, enough so that he still cannot remember events from the following days.

White took a two-week vacation, then returned and briefly resumed work as a controller.

Then, friends said, he decided to request an administrative position. While one of his friends said that White has made a remarkable recovery from the trauma of the crash, another friend, fellow controller Karl Grundmann, said it may be too much to expect White to again sit behind a radar screen.

"I don't think he will ever come back," Grundmann said.

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