Bloomberg News

Controller in Near Plane Crash Raises ‘Professionalism’ Concern

January 23, 2012

Jan. 18 (Bloomberg) -- An air-traffic controller who caused a near mid-air collision in June near Gulfport, Mississippi, had been repeatedly disciplined and was described by another controller as “unsafe,” according to a government report.

The tower also was not properly staffed, and the incident was not logged in after it occurred, as required by the Federal Aviation Administration, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board said in a report released today.

“The investigation revealed a number of deficiencies within the ATC facility that contributed to this incident,” the NTSB said.

The NTSB last May added “professionalism” of pilots and air-traffic controllers to its list of most-wanted safety enhancements. “There have been a disturbing number of individual incidents of non-compliant behavior, intentional misconduct or lack of commitment to essential tasks,” the safety board said on its website last year.

A JetLink Embraer SA ERJ 145 regional jet operated for United Continental Holdings Inc. came within about 300 feet of a privately owned Cessna 172 propeller plane shortly after they took off at almost the same time from different runways at Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport on June 19, the NTSB said. The two planes were carrying 55 people.

‘That Was Close’

“Wow, that was close,” the captain said he told the co- pilot afterward, according to the NTSB report.

The incident was caused by controller Robert Beck, who cleared both planes to take off at about the same time, according to NTSB documents released today.

Another controller told investigators that he saw the planes accelerating for takeoff and tried to warn Beck, who didn’t react, according to the report.

“We take reports like these very seriously,” Doug Church, a spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said in an e-mail. “We welcome the examination of this incident by federal officials and plan to work with the FAA to continue to improve the safety of our aviation system.”

An FAA manager at the airport tower, Ron Burrus, told investigators “it was a miracle that no one died,” according to the documents.

Beck “had a history of discipline problems that included absence without leave,” according to a manager cited in the report.

Controller Dennis Hilton, who also worked at the tower, said he rated Beck’s performance as a controller as “D-,” the NTSB said.

“Mr. Hilton stated that he considered Mr. Beck unsafe and that he avoided working with him when possible,” the NTSB documents said.

The NTSB is investigating cases in which air-traffic controllers fell asleep while on duty last year. The FAA last year reported it had discovered nine instances in which controllers fell asleep or didn’t respond to radio calls from pilots.

--Editor: Bernard Kohn

To contact the reporter on this story: Alan Levin in Washington at alevin24@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bernard Kohn at bkohn2@bloomberg.net


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