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Tower Was Not at Fault in Near Miss, Tape Shows

Times Urban Affairs Writer

A tape recording of conversation between the John Wayne Airport control tower and a private pilot shows that the controller gave proper instructions just before the pilot made a wrong turn Friday afternoon and nearly collided with a Continental Airlines jet over Newport Beach, an air traffic controller said Monday.

The incident was the first near-miss of 1989 for the Federal Aviation Administration’s control tower at John Wayne, said Douglas Kingsbury, the National Air Traffic Controllers Assn. representative at the tower.

“The tape has been played, and the Beechcraft pilot was definitely told to turn left, but he turned right,” Kingsbury said.

However, the tape recording also showed that the Beechcraft pilot never acknowledged the controller’s left-turn instruction, Kingsbury added.

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Continental’s Flight 176--a Boeing 737 carrying 132 passengers to Denver--was forced to turn suddenly to avoid the smaller, single-engine Beechcraft Bonanza, FAA officials said. The two aircraft passed within 100 feet, the officials said.

The jetliner had just left the runway, after the takeoff of the slower Beechcraft.

FAA officials declined to release the name of the Beechcraft pilot pending results of the agency’s investigation. FAA spokeswoman Elly Brekke said she did not know if the Beechcraft pilot had yet been interviewed as part of the inquiry, nor what disciplinary action, if any, usually follows such incidents. She said the agency is still investigating the possibility that the pilot misheard the “turn left” instruction as something like “turn west” or “head west.”

The FAA investigators conducting the investigation could not be reached for comment.

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The John Wayne tower handles aircraft in the immediate vicinity of the airport, unlike the FAA’s troubled, understaffed Coast Terminal Radar Approach Control facility at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.

Poor working conditions and understaffing at Coast TRACON have led to an error rate (involving loss of the required three-mile separation between aircraft) more than twice that of TRACON facilities in Seattle, Ontario and Sacramento.

On May 7, Coast TRACON alerted pilots in time to avoid three separate midair collisions between small planes and jetliners.


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