The air traffic controller involved in the Los Angeles runway disaster last February had been relieved of duty as a military controller 14 years ago and urged to seek psychiatric help after her parents died in a light plane crash, federal reports revealed Monday.
In addition, the reports say that during her most recent performance evaluation in December, 1990, the controller lost track of a plane taxiing onto a runway on which another plane was about to land--an incident that sounds eerily similar to the one that led to the Feb. 1 collision that killed 34 people at Los Angeles International Airport.
The reports also state that the pilot of one of the planes involved in the collision had traces of phenobarbital, a strong sedative, in his system when he died in the crash. Federal rules prohibit a pilot from using such drugs before a flight.
Some critics say these disclosures are symptomatic of continuing problems with the agencies that oversee the nation's aviation system.
"This . . . certainly raises alarming questions," said Rep. Barbara Boxer (D-Greenbrae), chairman of a House subcommittee that oversees the Federal Aviation Administration.
The investigation reports released Monday indicate military records on the controller involved in the crash were not received by the FAA until after she was hired in 1982. Boxer said she will hold hearings on the quality of personnel who were hired to replace striking controllers fired by President Ronald Reagan in 1981. "I'm going to look at whether . . . the FAA lowered their standards, " she said.
Boxer also said the FAA has been "playing with disaster" by foot-dragging on an array of safety improvements, such as replacing an outdated, troublesome ground radar system at LAX that figures in the crash probe.
The investigative reports were made public as the National Transportation Safety Board opened hearings here as part of its investigation into the causes of the collision. The board's conclusions and recommendations are not expected for several months.
Investigators said the accident occurred when controller Robin Lee Wascher cleared a USAir jetliner to land on a runway where she had just positioned a SkyWest commuter liner for takeoff.
Wascher had been an Air Force sergeant, working as a controller at a military field in Mississippi, when her parents' light plane disappeared on June 11, 1977, after taking off from Eureka. The plane has never been found.
A month later, she told an Air Force flight surgeon that the death of her parents left her "incapable of controlling traffic safely," according to NTSB reports.
The safety board says the Air Force promptly "grounded" Wascher and told her to visit a military mental health clinic. She was examined at the clinic 15 days later.
The next day, she was given an honorable discharge from the service.
Citing privacy concerns, the NTSB and the Federal Aviation Administration have withheld details of Wascher's medical records and the reasons for her military discharge from the investigative reports that are being made public.
She eventually became a civilian air traffic controller for the FAA and, in 1989, she was assigned to the control tower at Los Angeles International.
Wascher, 39, has told investigators she was handling planes using the two north runways on Feb. 1 when she confused the SkyWest commuter plane with another aircraft and accidentally directed it into the path of the landing jetliner, a Boeing 737.
The 737 touched down on the runway and slammed into the commuter plane, and both aircraft exploded in flames.
Colleagues have said the lapse was not typical of Wascher, and federal investigators have not suggested that any incidents from her past in any way contributed to February's accident. Wascher told investigators she had no permanent emotional problems as a result of her parents' deaths.
Wascher has not responded to requests for comment from the news media.
Records show that Wascher enrolled at the FAA academy on Feb. 28, 1982, as one of the replacements hired after thousands of striking controllers were fired by President Ronald Reagan. At the time she was hired, the FAA did not have copies of her military medical records, according to the safety board.
After an unspecified delay, the FAA received and reviewed her Air Force records, and the safety board says this review prompted the FAA "to request Ms. Wascher to undergo psychological and psychiatric evaluations as a condition of continued employment."
Following these evaluations, psychiatrist Bart Pakull of the FAA's Office of Aviation Medicine reported on April 7, 1983, that there was "no evidence of sufficient psychopathology to come to any determination that this applicant would be medically unqualified for air-traffic control work," the board said.
"Ms. Wascher's FAA medical records contained no further entries on this matter or other information to indicate any inability to meet applicable FAA standards," the safety board added.