An air traffic supervisor testified Thursday that he did not realize controllers at Los Angeles International Airport were hindered by control tower glare until he read newspaper accounts that the problem may have contributed to February's runway disaster.
Investigative records show that at least three controllers have told the National Transportation Safety Board that they had difficulty observing planes in some areas at LAX because of glare from lighting fixtures atop airport buildings.
One of the controllers, Robin Lee Wascher, testified Wednesday that the glare was especially troublesome in the area where she lost track of a SkyWest commuter plane that was struck moments later by a USAir jetliner in the fiery Feb. 1 collision that killed 34.
Wascher, who cleared the jetliner to land on the same runway where she had positioned the commuter liner for takeoff, has accepted blame for the crash, saying that she confused the SkyWest plane with another aircraft.
Wednesday's testimony centered largely on the concerns of some controllers, pilots and federal investigators about the way the Federal Aviation Adminstration has been handling air traffic control procedures and resolving problems at LAX.
In her interviews with federal investigators, Wascher complained about glare from the light standards that were positioned to illuminate the ramp areas around the passenger gates at Terminal 2.
The NTSB files include a copy of a letter by Lee B. Bard, manager of the terminal, noting that shortly after the rebuilt terminal reopened in May, 1988, the tower contacted the company "regarding glare."
NTSB records state that another controller, Sheri Arslanian, reported that she and her co-workers had complained about the troublesome lights before the accident and that some adjustments were made. Arslanian said she was told that the controllers would have to learn "to live with" the lights.
Controller Eliot Brann said there had been glare problems from lights both inside and outside the tower.
However, the controller's supervisor, Leonard Mobley, testified Wednesday that "at no time, in no place, did anyone say to me . . . that there were any problems with lights." Ted Davies, the man who preceded Mobley as tower supervisor, testified Wednesday that no one had told him about the glare problem either.
Mobley, who became supervisor at the tower last year, told an NTSB hearing--convened at the Airport Hilton Hotel this week as part of an investigation to determine the cause of the crash--that he took corrective action as soon as he read about the glare problem in published accounts of the accident.
He said Wascher's complaints about the light standards on Terminal 2 "highlighted the point that other lights needed work too."
Eventually, he said, more than 75% of the ramp lighting fixtures were readjusted to reduce glare problems.
NTSB staff members asked Mobley why he had failed to fill assistant controller jobs at the tower as authorized by the FAA in 1988. Although these positions are staffed by fully qualified controllers on a regular basis at other major airports, Mobley said Wednesday that they are only infrequently filled at the LAX tower.
No assistants were on duty the night of the crash, and NTSB staffers have suggested that help from an assistant might have helped Wascher avoid the mix-up that led to the crash.
Mobley said he has only 33 of the 38 personnel authorized for the tower, and because of his limited resources, he cannot staff all the authorized positions all the time.
The supervisor said that when he suggested staffing the assistants' positions he met strong resistance from the controllers who reacted to the proposal with "fear." He said the controllers were uncomfortable with the prospect of having another controller, serving as an assistant, looking over their shoulders.
Richard Bamberger, regional representative for the National Air Traffic Controllers Assn., said in an interview Wednesday that the controllers' reluctance was not based on fear at all. Instead, he said, it was based on Mobley's failure to define the duties and responsibilities of those staffing the assistants' positions.
At most FAA towers, controllers fill out a small slip of paper with basic information about each flight as the plane comes within the jurisdiction of the facility. As the responsibility for the plane passes from controller to controller with the movement of the aircraft, the slip of paper moves, too, following the plane from controller to controller.
This standard procedure follows directives from the FAA.
But unlike most other major facilities, the tower at LAX deviates from the standard FAA procedure, Mobley admitted Wednesday. He said some of the LAX controllers--the "ground controllers" who direct planes along the airport taxiways--are skipped during the slip-passing process. The slips hopscotch over the ground controllers, passing directly from controllers who assign initial departure clearances to the controllers who guide takeoffs.