HAWTHORNE — Tape recordings of the final words between the pilot of an ill-fated private jet and air traffic controllers just before the aircraft crashed in Santa Ana show that controllers did nothing improper, Federal Aviation Administration officials said Friday.
Controllers warned the pilot, Stephen Barkin, repeatedly that he needed to reduce his speed because he was gaining on a jetliner ahead of him. Although Barkin was not told that the jetliner was a Boeing 757 or warned that his craft could be caught in dangerous wake turbulence, FAA officials said the tapes show that he was given more information than required by federal regulations.
On the tapes, played during an FAA briefing here, Barkin can be heard acknowledging three advisories from controllers to slow down as he gained on a United Airlines Boeing 757 landing ahead of him. He also said in his final words to the John Wayne Airport tower: "OK, we're slowing . . . "
Barkin, who is heard earlier on the tapes saying that he has the United jet in sight, was even told he could fly a curvy path in order to increase his distance from the aircraft ahead of him, according to the tapes, which included separate conversations with a regional radar facility in El Toro and the John Wayne Airport tower.
"Westwind . . . traffic you're following is at 150 knots; you can S-turn as necessary to follow that traffic," an unnamed controller at Coast Terminal Radar Control is heard telling Barkin.
"OK, we'll slow it up and do what we have to," Barkin replied.
Investigators have said that Barkin was still flying the Westwind executive jet too fast. But they have also said that speed may not have been the important factor in the Dec. 15 crash near the Santa Ana Auto Mall, that killed all five aboard, including the top two executives of the In-N-Out hamburger chain.
Instead, the crash probe has focused on the issue of the 757's wake turbulence, which may have caused the Westwind to roll over and plummet, out of control, nose first into the ground. Wake turbulence has been known to affect aircraft following up to seven miles behind a 757.
Investigators for the National Transportation Safety Board, which is still trying to determine the cause of the accident, have said Barkin flew below the path of the 757, which is dangerous because the 757's powerful wake turbulence--mini-tornadoes extending off the aircraft's wingtips--drops toward the ground.
But the NTSB has said Barkin may not have been aware of the extent of the danger ahead of him.
The NTSB has not released transcripts of the conversations taped by the cockpit voice recorder, which contain remarks made inside the plane. But investigators said that when they played the tape they heard a question about a control problem and what to do about it.
Barkin was never told he was following a Boeing 757 even though the FAA last year issued a warning to controllers about the potentially dangerous wake turbulence caused by 757s. Moreover, the agency was aware of research and recommendations suggesting an increase in the distance between 757s and aircraft following them.
This has prompted criticism of the FAA by pilots for being concerned with airline profits, which decline when separation between aircraft is increased, at the expense of safety.
On one of the two tapes released Friday, a Coast TRACON controller in El Toro is heard telling Barkin: "Westwind . . . following a United Boeing jet on base--two o'clock--four miles southeast--bound 4,000 (feet)--descending," a reference to both planes' positions when Barkin was still about five miles from the airport.
However, the FAA maintains that controllers were not required to tell Barkin the specific model of Boeing aircraft he was following. And at Friday's briefing, the FAA insisted that the tape recordings and transcripts show that the transmissions were, as one agency official put it, "strictly routine."
Much of the information given to Barkin was provided "voluntarily," said George Barnett, a supervisor in the FAA's air traffic division. "They were not required by procedure."
Barnett said he would not speculate about changes he may feel are indicated as a result of the Dec. 15 crash. And he repeated the FAA's position that, under current regulations, it was Barkin's responsibility to maintain proper separation from the 757 because he was flying under visual flight rules.
From time to time, Barnett said, controllers give advisories to alert a pilot to conditions whether the rules require them to or not. For example, Barkin was given advisories about the 757's altitude, but simply as a voluntary assist in locating the aircraft in front of him, Barnett said.
FAA spokeswoman Elly Brekke said that controllers differ in style and approach to such communications, which sometimes depend on how busy they are.
Many pilots who fly into John Wayne Airport have said controllers often told them when they were following 757s, even though there was no specific warning about wake turbulence.
"It's different from controller to controller, and even airport to airport," Brekke said.
But since the Dec. 15 crash, the FAA has asked controllers to advise pilots when they are flying behind 757s and give wake turbulence warnings.
FAA officials declined to speculate about what caused the Westwind to crash, adding that the NTSB has not yet ruled out factors other than wake turbulence, such as mechanical failure.
The release of the tapes coincided with the first wrongful-death lawsuit filed in the crash by survivors of one of the five victims, Philip R. West, an executive of the In-N-Out chain.
The complaint, filed in Orange County Superior Court by West's widow, Lori, and son, Michael, seeks unspecified damages from the Westwind's owner, Robert Gumbiner, founder of the FHP health organization, Management Activities Inc., Gumbiner's aircraft leasing firm, and Martin Aviation, which chartered the plane from Management Activities.