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Controller Can’t Recall Seeing Piper on Radar

Times Staff Writers

The air controller who was in charge of ill-fated Aeromexico Flight 498 told federal investigators Wednesday that he was working two positions, and has no memory of seeing any radar echo on his screen from the Piper Cherokee Archer II that collided with the DC-9 jetliner a mile above Cerritos on Sunday.

But National Transportation Safety Board investigators pointed out that there were at least six other radar echoes on the screen at the time of the collision, and added that it is “not unusual” for air controllers to do two jobs at a time.

Dr. John Lauber, who is in charge of the NTSB investigation, said he believes the Piper’s echo was visible. Members of his team flew simulated missions Wednesday, duplicating the flight path of the Piper in the area where the collision occurred.

Three Profiles

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“Using an aircraft similar in all respects to the (Piper),” Lauber said, “we flew the path in three different profiles: With all on-board electronic equipment up and operating in mode C (with a transponder sending altitude readings), with the transponder sending the 1,200 code (the code normally transmitted when an airplane is proceeding by visual flight rules) and with the transponder on standby. . . .”

Each mission, he said, was clearly visible on radar.

“There was no problem seeing the aircraft in any mode,” Lauber said, adding that this result appeared to confirm earlier digital readouts of the computer tapes from the air controller’s radar.

Yet the controller apparently did not notice the echo.

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“He does not recall a return from the (Piper) at all,” Lauber said.

Asked how this could happen, Lauber said the controller had many other things to do at the time.

“We have data,” he said, “indicating at least six other returns (echoes) in the area. Many other aircraft were involved . . . and we understand that he (the controller) was working both the radar and handoff positions.”

This, he explained, means that while the controller’s primary responsibility was still the monitoring of his own radar position and maneuvering the aircraft within it, he was also responsible for “handing off,” or formally transferring control of various aircraft from his sector to adjacent sectors--a job that usually requires another trained expert.

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But such a doubling-up is normal, Lauber said, during times of light air traffic--such as the minutes before noon last Sunday, when the jetliner and the private airplane met and plunged to earth.

Lauber said the air controller was able to do both jobs from his usual position.

Fully Qualified

“He didn’t have to move from spot to spot to do it,” the chief investigator said, “and he was fully qualified to handle both positions.”

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Asked what the air controller could have done, even if he had noticed the echo from the Piper, Lauber considered the question for a moment, and replied:

“Among other things . . . precisely what he did. Or he could have given a routine traffic advisory (as he did for another, similar, airplane spotted in the vicinity).”

Earlier, Lauber had said it now appears that the small airplane had violated air space restricted to commercial aircraft equipped with more sophisticated gear.

“The (Piper) was not operating with clearance,” Lauber said. “It was not operating within regulations.”

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Have Tracked the Piper

Investigators now say they have tracked the Piper, carrying pilot William Kramer, 53, his wife and a 26-year-old daughter, from the point of the collision back to the point where it entered the restricted air space.

Lauber said the Piper entered the restricted area about two minutes before the crash, and if the pilot had seen the jetliner, “two minutes would have been plenty of time” to avoid a collision.

Investigators said they have established the fact that the Piper had its strobe lights and landing lights on--a common practice of small planes to increase their visibility to other aircraft in busy areas.

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Lauber said the field phase of the investigation is now “winding down,” and he expects to return to Washington by the end of the week. Experts there, he said, appear to have obtained “good data on all four channels” of the DC-9’s flight data recorder.

This would include information on the jetliner’s air speed, heading, altitude and vertical acceleration at the time of the collision--all data that Lauber said could be “critical” to determining the cause of the crash.

‘Series of Failures

In the end, however, he admitted that he does not expect to find a single cause for the disaster.

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“An accident,” he said, “only happens because of a . . . series of failures.”

Meanwhile, in Long Beach, experts zeroed in on the shattered tail section of the Aeromexico DC-9 and the twisted wreckage of the Piper, struggling to determine the cause of their disastrous encounter.

“The focus is on these pieces,” said structural engineer John White, who heads the National Transportation Safety Board’s wreckage inspection effort, “because this is where we have evidence that two airplanes came in contact.

“We have had eyewitness accounts that the small aircraft hit forward of the tail section, but at this point, we haven’t found any evidence of that.”

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The tail section of the airliner and the remains of the light airplane lay side by side Wednesday in a vacant lot beside a McDonnell Douglas hangar on the west side of Long Beach Municipal Airport.

Almost Intact

White said the light plane was recovered almost intact--except for the top of the cabin, which was sheared off by the force of its impact with the jetliner--at the crash site, but experts had to reassemble the aft portion of the DC-9 from larger bits and pieces found at the crash site.

From these remnants, he said, experts may be able to determine the exact angle at which they collided a few minutes before noon Sunday, dooming 67 passengers and crew in the two airplanes and at least three others on the ground.

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(The number of victims on the ground was expected to rise as the coroner’s office completes identification of remains recovered from the crash site).

White, who also served on a NASA investigative team that reconstructed parts of the space shuttle Challenger, said he also hopes that examination of the wreckage may yield evidence to determine the exact speed of both aircraft and the direction in which they were flying.

He said the physical inspection of the wreckage should be completed by today and he will return to Washington to analyze the findings and recreate the collision, using models and correlating impact information with other sources, such as radar data, to determine what caused the collision.

A Better Idea

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“Then--and only then--will we have a better idea of what really happened,” White said.

The NTSB official said his team is looking for anything--dents, scratches, gouge marks or even paint chips--to determine the impact point.

White displayed a piece of the jetliner’s vertical stabilizer that bore rubber skid marks caused, he said, by the nose wheel of the smaller airplane. He said that much of the forward portion of the jet “disintegrated” on impact, which made recovery of those parts “nearly impossible.”

The left wing of the Piper--though mostly intact--was visibly crushed.

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Authorities have said they believe the smaller airplane struck the jetliner near its tail. And White said “several chunks” of the Piper were embedded in the left side of the jetliner’s stabilizer--a long, flat and slightly curved airfoil positioned at the top of the tail section. The stabilizer determines the pitch of the aircraft--nose up or nose down--while in flight.

Blocks From Crash Site

After the midair collision, emergency crews found the stabilizer of the DC-9 several blocks from the point where the jet crashed to earth. White said the stabilizer is believed to have broken loose at the time of the collision.

“Everything we have found,” he said, “is consistent with a midair collision.”

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There were other developments Wednesday: San Francisco attorney Melvin Belli said he is ready to file the first personal injury suits in the case.

“We have four of them (suits), and we’ll probably have a lot more,” Belli said. “We’re suing Aeromexico, the people on the small plane, the United States, the state (of California), the owners of the plane or planes involved and various individuals.”

Belli said the suits will be filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles.

Federal court suits do not specify monetary damages, but Belli said he expects the amounts to be “substantial.” He said the federal government will be named as one defendant in the actions because of the role that air controllers may have played in the tragedy.

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Piper’s Pilot Praised

Kramer, pilot of the smaller airplane, was remembered Wednesday by an official at the Torrance-based metals company where he worked as “a quiet and serious executive.”

Charles E. Emery, a senior official with International Light Metals, said Kramer was hired by the firm as director of technology last October after a nationwide search. He said Kramer was charged with overseeing quality control at the plant, which manufactures metal parts, such as window frames and axles, for major aircraft builders.

Since moving south last fall from Spokane, Wash., Emery said, Kramer had “flown frequently” over the Los Angeles Basin.

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“To the best of my knowledge,” he said, "(Kramer) was very familiar with the area and the airspace.”

Emery is also a light plane pilot, but said he had never flown with Kramer.

Given a Physical

Referring to reports that Kramer had suffered a heart attack only minutes before the midair collision, Emery said Kramer had shown no signs in recent weeks of any illness or physical difficulties.

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When hired last fall, he said, Kramer was given a routine new employee physical and was found to be “fit and in good health.”

The Cerritos City Council Wednesday night proclaimed Aug. 31 to Sept. 10 a “Week of Remembrance” for victims and survivors of the crash, and their friends and relatives.

The council asked all governmental agencies to fly their flags at half-staff during that time and officially encouraged public donations to the Cerritos Disaster Assistance Fund, established to aid survivors in recovery from the catastrophe.

Times staff writers Kai Ito and Steven R. Churm contributed to this article.

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