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Warnings by El Toro Controller Helped Avert Air Collision

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Times Staff Writers

After three warnings from an air traffic controller in El Toro, the pilot of a jumbo jetliner approaching Los Angeles International Airport with 386 passengers on board swerved at the last moment to avoid a light plane less than 500 feet away, aviation officials said Wednesday.

A flight attendant and a passenger suffered minor injuries--a bruised arm and a small cut on the hand--when the Air New Zealand jetliner dived suddenly to the left Sunday night to avoid the unidentified plane about 20 miles east of Santa Catalina Island, according to the official and an airline spokeswoman.

“A controller was the one who caught this,” said Randy Moore, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Assn. local at the Terminal Radar Approach Control Facility in El Toro.

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As the Boeing 747 was flying at about 300 m.p.h. at 3,000 feet, controller Mike Desrosieres said he warned that another aircraft was in the area and that the two planes were about 8 miles apart. Desrosieres issued a second warning to the jetliner when the aircraft were within 2 miles of each other, and a third when the planes were one-quarter mile apart.

“It was a mandatory-type instruction to avoid a collision,” said Desrosieres, who has been a controller at the facility for 7 years. “There was a little urgency in my voice by then.”

Desrosieres declined to speculate about why the 747 pilot did not heed earlier warnings. “At times, pilots are reluctant to make turns,” he said.

The Air New Zealand pilot reported that the light plane--believed to be a twin-engine Cessna--also took evasive action, according to Gary Mucho, an investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board office in Los Angeles.

The NTSB investigator said his office will study radar tape recordings in an attempt to identify the light plane by determining where it went after the incident.

“But that could be very difficult,” Mucho said. “There were a lot of planes out there.”

Diane Anderson, a spokeswoman for the airline, said Air New Zealand’s Flight 6 took off from Papeete, Tahiti, at 5:25 a.m. local time Sunday on the last leg of a journey that had begun the night before in Auckland, New Zealand.

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Mucho said the jet was descending on its final approach to LAX about 5:15 p.m. Los Angeles time when controllers advised the pilot that another plane was approaching, “nose to nose,” on a collision course.

“When they spotted the other plane, they took evasive action . . . and then went on in and landed,” Mucho said. “The two minor injuries were treated and released.”

Mucho said the incident apparently took place outside the restricted airspace of the Terminal Control Area that surrounds LAX. The light plane was not required to be under the guidance of air traffic controllers, Desrosieres said.

Under such circumstances, it would be up to the pilots to “see and avoid” one another, with the pilot of the jetliner--which was operating under FAA guidance--receiving the benefit of advisories from air traffic controllers.

Just 4 minutes after the Air New Zealand collision was averted, Desrosieres said he handled another close call involving an America West plane that had just taken off from John Wayne Airport. The America West plane was about a mile from a small aircraft when Desrosieres directed the pilot to climb and turn left, he said.

That incident was not filed as a near-miss with the Federal Aviation Administration because “it wasn’t imminent,” he said.

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Desrosieres said the head of the nation’s air traffic controllers in Washington called Monday to congratulate him for catching the Air New Zealand near-miss. “He just said, ‘These things happen at times and it’s unfortunate, but I’d like to to thank you folks for a job well done,’ ” Desrosieres said.

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