An air traffic controller told federal investigators that last week's Los Angeles airport disaster occurred after she mistook a commuter plane on a taxiway for a similar SkyWest plane that was sitting on a runway, officials reported Thursday.
The unidentified controller also told investigators in a three-hour interview Wednesday that she cleared a USAir Boeing 737 for landing on the same runway because she did not see the SkyWest plane.
In the first public account of her version of events, federal investigators said that missing paperwork also was a possible factor in the collision that claimed 34 lives last Friday at Los Angeles International Airport.
The controller said she did not realize that the SkyWest Metroliner had moved onto Runway 24-Left because she had confused it with a similar Wings West Airlines plane that was stuck on a taxiway behind a larger aircraft about 2,000 feet to the east.
Even though the controller recalled clearing the SkyWest plane to move onto the runway, she thought it had not moved, so she cleared the USAir jet to land, officials said.
She realized later that she never actually saw the SkyWest plane, either on the taxiway or after it moved into the path of the larger airliner swooping in to land at more than 130 m.p.h.
The disaster killed all 12 people on the SkyWest plane, including a Federal Aviation Administration employee, as well as 22 people on the larger USAir jet. Although the sandwiched planes erupted in flames and slid into an abandoned airport fire station, 67 USAir passengers survived.
The tragic series of events occurred during what the controller described as "light to moderate" traffic, said James Burnett, the National Transportation Safety Board official leading the investigation. In the seven minutes before the crash, he said, the controller handled 15 aircraft.
Burnett said the controller, interviewed at an undisclosed location, recalled SkyWest Flight 569 asking for permission to move onto the runway for takeoff. She did not recall the pilot saying it was on Taxiway 45, about one-quarter of the way down the runway.
She told investigators that she looked at the airfield and saw a Metroliner on another taxiway and assumed it was SkyWest 569. In fact, she later learned, it was the Wings West flight.
The controller said she was unaware of the Wings West plane, at least in part because paperwork on that flight had been misplaced. The person in charge of such "flight slips," which confirm that a proper flight plan has been filed, accidentally put the slip for the Wings West plane into his own "in" basket instead of the controller's "in" basket, she said.
When the SkyWest plane asked to move onto the runway to prepare for takeoff, she gave permission. The SkyWest plane moved onto the runway, part way down its 10,285-foot length, but she said she never saw it.
Instead of watching the SkyWest plane, she said she was watching the Wings West plane near the end of the runway, 2,000 feet away. "She never, ever saw Flight 569," Burnett said. "She never physically saw it."
The controller said she never heard the SkyWest airplane crew tell her by radio that it had moved onto the runway. However, transcripts of tape recordings of the radio chatter show that she did acknowledge that transmission from the crew, officials said.
At this point, she recalled hearing USAir Flight 1493 ask for permission to land on the same runway. This is the only such request the controller recalled hearing from the USAir jet, but officials said transcripts show at least two such transmissions.
Thinking that the SkyWest craft had been unable to move onto the runway, she said, she cleared the USAir plane to land.
Moments later, Burnett said, "she saw an explosion" on the runway.
Still unaware that she had guided two planes to the runway at the same time, Burnett said, "she believed (the explosion) to be a bomb."
There was no explanation of how the controller missed seeing the SkyWest plane when she visually scanned the runway before clearing a landing by the USAir jet.
Other controllers have told investigators that they sometimes had trouble with glare from overhead lights, but Burnett did not say if they experienced such difficulties along that runway nor did he say if investigators believe glare might be a factor in this crash.
He also did not say if the controller in charge of Runway 24-Left had reported experiencing glare problems last Friday.
Meanwhile, more information is trickling in about the background of the controller.
After graduating from the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City in 1982, in the first class promoted after thousands of striking controllers were fired by former President Ronald Reagan in 1981, she worked at an airport in Greenville, Miss.
The controller, who has not been identified by federal investigators, left that "Level 1" field, which has little traffic and no approach radar, for a much larger, Level 3 airport in Gulfport, Miss.
Her last stop before Level 5 Los Angeles International was at the airport in Aspen, Colo., a smaller, Level 2 facility. Aspen handles an average of about 3,200 takeoffs and landings every month, said FAA Air Traffic Manager Joseph E. Saladino. Los Angeles International averages more than 54,000 such operations a month.
At each airport, including Los Angeles, the woman achieved "full performance level," the highest skill rating available.
J.T. Mahon, an air traffic controller instructor at the FAA Academy, said the woman's career path was not unusual and should have given her enough experience to handle the high volume at LAX--a pressure-filled post where controllers are expected to keep traffic flowing, to "churn 'em and burn 'em," regardless of how fast they arrive.
"You had a person who had eight or nine years of experience and knew the rules," he said.
The adequacy of federal rules and regulations, both on the ground and in the air, is likely to come under increasing scrutiny because of the disaster.
Mayor Tom Bradley on Thursday directed city fire officials to recommend ways to increase aircraft safety, including wider use of non-flammable materials in jetliners, and use the information to lobby for regulatory reform in Washington.
Federal officials have exclusive authority over airline safety, but city Fire Chief Donald Manning said the fire deaths in last week's collision "(beg) a look from another angle."
Bradley said he ordered the probe because of evidence that "many USAir passengers survived the initial impact but were killed by fire and smoke inhalation as they tried to reach the exits of the airplane."
He said the investigation will be conducted by the Airline Passenger Compartment Fire Life Safety Committee, a new panel of fire officials and fire safety consultants. Airlines and aircraft manufacturers also may be represented on the committee, city officials said.
Federal officials, who are still investigating how the two passenger planes were cleared to use the runway at the same time, were cool to Bradley's suggestion. FAA spokesman Fred B. O'Donnell said the agency "welcomes comments and suggestions, especially as they apply to safety," but maintained that current standards are adequate.
Manning challenged that assertion, saying that his inspectors would shut down a building or nightclub if it had the same narrow aisles and limited exits found on commercial airliners.
Deputy Fire Chief Davis R. Parsons, who will head the safety probe ordered by Bradley, told the city Fire Commission that the USAir jetliner's flammable interior reduced some passengers' chances "of exiting and survival."
Parsons said no one at the scene realized two aircraft had collided "until a firefighter noticed a propeller jammed into the wing engine of the 737," about 10 minutes after arriving at the scene.
Times staff writers Glenn F. Bunting, Rich Connell and Mark A. Stein contributed to this story.
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(San Diego County Edition) AIR CRASH VICTIMS
Following are those identified so far as victims in the crash of a USAir 737 and a SkyWest commuter plane at Los Angeles International Airport: USAir Pilot:
Colin Shaw, 48, Huntingtown, Md. Flight attendant:
Deanna Bethea, 22, Annandale, Va. Passengers:
Robert Cole, 27, Washington
Jennifer Dow, 18, Millbury, Mass.
Robert Dow, 46, Millbury, Mass.
Phillip Fleming, 44, Los Angeles
Lisa Mandalfino, 28, Columbus, Ohio.
Martha O'Neill, 46, Sutton, Mass.
Jimmy Perdue, 19, U.S. Navy, parents in Huntsville, Ohio
Richard Ronk, 33, Mansfield, Ohio
George Weth, 55, McLean, Va.
Rosemary Weth, 59, McLean, Va.
Dawn Withers, 24, Gahanna, Ohio
Richard Withers, 24, Gahanna, Ohio
David Sharp, 44, Cheltenham, England
Michelle Stambaugh, 24, Columbus, Ohio
Andrew Lucas, 32, Pismo Beach, Calif.
Frank Prentice, 45, Los Osos, Calif. Passengers:
Michael Fuller, 30, Lancaster
Scott Gilliam, 33, Palmdale
Judy Janisse, 38, California City, Calif.
Bryan Martin, 36, Palmdale
Edwin Reid, 38, Palmdale
Debra Roberts, 34, stationed with husband at U.S. Air Force base at Lajes in the Azores
Krishani Srijaerajah, 18, Quartz Hill, Calif.
Jeffery Steen, 30, Palmdale
NOTE: Additional names have not yet been released.