Controller Says Her Error Caused Runway Collision

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

In dramatic testimony Tuesday, an air traffic controller accepted blame for February's fatal runway collision in Los Angeles and the co-pilot of one plane told how his pilot died in the flaming wreckage.

It was the first public appearance by 38-year-old controller Robin Lee Wascher since the accident and the first time she acknowledged publicly that her mistake led to the crash.

Federal investigators say that because of her confusion, Wascher positioned a SkyWest commuter plane on a Los Angeles International Airport runway where she had just cleared a USAir jetliner to land. The jetliner struck the commuter plane in a fiery explosion that killed 34.

Although investigative records show that Wascher believed initially that the jetliner had been destroyed by a bomb, she testified Tuesday that a short time after the accident, she figured out that the USAir craft had struck the smaller SkyWest craft.

"I realized something went wrong," she said. "I went to the supervisor and I said, 'I think this (the SkyWest plane) is what USAir hit.' "

Wascher testified during the second day of National Transportation Safety Board hearings to determine the factors that led to the twilight crash. The board's conclusions and recommendations are not expected for months.

The auditorium at the Los Angeles Airport Hilton hotel rustled with anticipation as the slight, brown-haired woman--clad in gray pants and a tweed jacket--made her way to the witness stand.

Speaking calmly in succinct, measured phrases, she described her confusion before the accident. She said she directed the SkyWest metroliner onto the runway at a midpoint intersection, but she thought she was talking to the pilot of a Wings West metroliner that was on a taxiway near the end of the runway.

This error positioned the SkyWest plane directly in the path of the landing jetliner. But Wascher said rooftop lights in her line of sight created glare on the control tower windows and made it difficult to see small planes at the intersection where the SkyWest plane was positioned.

The controller also said that in the moments before the accident, she lost radio contact with the Wings West plane.

"Is this accident caused by mistaken identity?" an NTSB staff member asked her Tuesday.

"Yes, it is," she replied.

Her testimony came after the surviving co-pilot of the jetliner told how he heard his pilot die in the crash.

"I heard two groans from Capt. Shaw," co-pilot David Kelly said. "I could not see him (because of smoke that filled the cockpit), but I heard two groans. I've never been around a person dying, but I'm positive that what I heard was his death at that moment."

Kelly, the only member of the two cockpit crews to survive, said there had been "no indication of trouble" as his jetliner approached the airport.

He said he scanned the airfield through the evening darkness and, in fact, Shaw mentioned to him that things were "looking good" as their jet prepared to touch down on LAX's Runway 24-Left.

"As far as we could tell there was nothing down the runway--anywhere," said Kelly, who was at the controls of the big plane. "We touched down right where I had thought we would, about 1,200 feet down the runway. . . .

"Just as I lowered the nose . . . that's when I saw in the windscreen the silhouettes of two props--quickly, rapidly, filling the windscreen. . . . That airplane all of a sudden showed up out of nowhere. . . .

"The sound was almost overwhelming of two airplanes colliding," he said. "There was crunching metal. There was an explosion. . . . "

Kelly said that after striking the other plane, his jetliner began skidding off the runway to the left, heading toward an unused fire station beside the adjacent taxiway.

"I could see Capt. Shaw's hands, attempting to shut down the engines," Kelly said. "And I'm doing everything I can to get that airplane stopped, but it won't stop. . . . We impacted that building very, very violently. . . ."

Kelly said that as the plane lurched to a stop, the cockpit filled with smoke. It was then, he said, that he heard Shaw's groans.

"I could see flames on the right side. I could feel the heat on the soles of my feet. . . . I unbuckled myself and tried to lift myself out, but my leg was stuck. . . .

"I tried maybe three or four times to get myself out, but I wasn't able to," he recalled. "At that point, I thought I was going to die. Then, like a miracle, I had a vision of my wife and kids. . . . It seemed like I had some inner strength that I can't really explain. I knew I had to get out of there. I made one more effort, and my shoe came off and my leg came free." Kelly said he was unable to pull himself through the shattered windscreen, but moments later firefighters drenched him with a hose and rescue crews dragged him to safety.

"I remember yelling to them that the captain was still on board, that there were 89 people on that airplane," Kelly said.

In all, 22 of the 89 died, including Shaw, along with all 12 aboard the SkyWest plane. Kelly suffered a ruptured tendon in his knee, a slight separation of the pelvis and lesser injuries.

The NTSB said toxicological tests have revealed traces of the sedative phenobarbital in Shaw's system, but pharmacologists say the concentrations were so low that they probably had no effect on his ability to fly. Kelly said the captain was "alert" and performed well prior to the crash.

"Without a doubt, Capt. Shaw was one of the most professional pilots I've ever flown with," Kelly said.

The co-pilot testified Tuesday that as the Boeing 737 approached LAX, the tower controller (Wascher) failed to answer Shaw's first radio request for clearance to land. Kelly said that while this lack of response is not all that unusual, it underlined the LAX tower's reputation "for doing things different."

Asked by NTSB member Susan M. Coughlin if pilots approaching LAX have come to "expect the unexpected"--as compared to other airports--Kelly responded that "LAX is No. 1 on my list."

NTSB staff members noted that the cockpit crew of the Boeing 737, which was monitoring Wascher's radio frequency, should have been able to hear her direct the SkyWest plane onto the runway. They asked Kelly why he and Shaw didn't realize what was happening and abort their landing attempt.

Kelly explained that Wascher was talking to more than a dozen other planes while the USAir jetliner was landing. He said he and Shaw were too busy with the landing to be able to monitor and analyze all the calls directed at other aircraft.

Wascher was an Air Force controller before signing on with the Federal Aviation Administration as a civilian controller in 1982, and questions have arisen about emotional problems she may have had during her military service.

Barton Pakull, an FAA psychiatrist who reviewed Wascher's military medical records, testified Tuesday that while there were two incidents that caused him some concern, he saw no evidence of medical instability that would hamper her conduct as a controller.

While not elaborating, h He said the first incident involved "an acute disappointment" she suffered shortly after joining the Air Force.

Pakull said there were reports that she began drinking heavily and "taking some pills," but these reports were never documented and she denied them.

He said the second incident involved the death of her parents in a 1977 light plane crash. NTSB records show that she told the Air Force the deaths left her incapable of serving as an air traffic controller--and she later received an honorable discharge.

She was not questioned Tuesday about her medical history.

Pakull said he reviewed the records in 1983, several months after Wascher was hired in the drive to replace striking controllers fired by President Ronald Reagan. The doctor concluded that Wascher was qualified for air traffic control work and said he has no reason to reconsider that judgment.

Asked about the delay between the time Wascher was hired by the FAA and the review of her military medical records, Pakull acknowledged the practice of "clearing people conditionally" in the post-strike era but said that practice is no longer followed.

NTSB records show that during her most recent performance evaluation--in December, 1990--deficiencies were noted, among them an instance in which she apparently lost track of a plane taxiing onto a runway on which another plane was about to land.

Bob Gore, the FAA supervisor who did the evaluation, downplayed these reports Tuesday, saying it was primarily a matter of Wascher using poor phrasing while directing traffic.

"She did nothing wrong," he said.

The records show Wascher received an overall rating of "satisfactory" on the review.

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