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Controller Says She Confused Similar Planes

February 08, 1991|ERIC MALNIC and TRACY WOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

An air traffic controller told federal investigators that last week's Los Angeles airport disaster occurred after she mistook a commuter plane on a taxiway for a similar SkyWest plane that was sitting on a runway, officials reported Thursday.

The unidentified controller also told investigators in a three-hour interview Wednesday that she cleared a USAir Boeing 737 for landing on the same runway because she did not see the SkyWest plane.

In the first public account of her version of events, federal investigators said that missing paperwork also was a possible factor in the collision that claimed 34 lives last Friday at Los Angeles International Airport.

The controller said she did not realize that the SkyWest Metroliner had moved onto Runway 24-Left because she had confused it with a similar Wings West Airlines plane that was stuck on a taxiway behind a larger aircraft about 2,000 feet to the east.

Even though the controller recalled clearing the SkyWest plane to move onto the runway, she thought it had not moved, so she cleared the USAir jet to land, officials said.

She realized later that she never actually saw the SkyWest plane, either on the taxiway or after it moved into the path of the larger airliner swooping in to land at more than 130 m.p.h.

The disaster killed all 12 people on the SkyWest plane, including a Federal Aviation Administration employee, as well as 22 people on the larger USAir jet. Although the sandwiched planes erupted in flames and slid into an abandoned airport fire station, 67 USAir passengers survived.

The tragic series of events occurred during what the controller described as "light to moderate" traffic, said James Burnett, the National Transportation Safety Board official leading the investigation. In the seven minutes before the crash, he said, the controller handled 15 aircraft.

Burnett said the controller, interviewed at an undisclosed location, recalled SkyWest Flight 569 asking for permission to move onto the runway for takeoff. She did not recall the pilot saying it was on Taxiway 45, about one-quarter of the way down the runway.

She told investigators that she looked at the airfield and saw a Metroliner on another taxiway and assumed it was SkyWest 569. In fact, she later learned, it was the Wings West flight.

The controller said she was unaware of the Wings West plane, at least in part because paperwork on that flight had been misplaced. The person in charge of such "flight slips," which confirm that a proper flight plan has been filed, accidentally put the slip for the Wings West plane into his own "in" basket instead of the controller's "in" basket, she said.

When the SkyWest plane asked to move onto the runway to prepare for takeoff, she gave permission. The SkyWest plane moved onto the runway, part way down its 10,285-foot length, but she said she never saw it.

Instead of watching the SkyWest plane, she said she was watching the Wings West plane near the end of the runway, 2,000 feet away. "She never, ever saw Flight 569," Burnett said. "She never physically saw it."

The controller said she never heard the SkyWest airplane crew tell her by radio that it had moved onto the runway. However, transcripts of tape recordings of the radio chatter show that she did acknowledge that transmission from the crew, officials said.

At this point, she recalled hearing USAir Flight 1493 ask for permission to land on the same runway. This is the only such request the controller recalled hearing from the USAir jet, but officials said transcripts show at least two such transmissions.

Thinking that the SkyWest craft had been unable to move onto the runway, she said, she cleared the USAir plane to land.

Moments later, Burnett said, "she saw an explosion" on the runway.

Still unaware that she had guided two planes to the runway at the same time, Burnett said, "she believed (the explosion) to be a bomb."

There was no explanation of how the controller missed seeing the SkyWest plane when she visually scanned the runway before clearing a landing by the USAir jet.

Other controllers have told investigators that they sometimes had trouble with glare from overhead lights, but Burnett did not say if they experienced such difficulties along that runway nor did he say if investigators believe glare might be a factor in this crash.

He also did not say if the controller in charge of Runway 24-Left had reported experiencing glare problems last Friday.

Meanwhile, more information is trickling in about the background of the controller.

After graduating from the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City in 1982, in the first class promoted after thousands of striking controllers were fired by former President Ronald Reagan in 1981, she worked at an airport in Greenville, Miss.

The controller, who has not been identified by federal investigators, left that "Level 1" field, which has little traffic and no approach radar, for a much larger, Level 3 airport in Gulfport, Miss.

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