Did FAA brush off ‘mayday’ call from doomed pilot?
February 22, 2008
A Federal Aviation Administration supervisor allegedly prevented controllers from monitoring the emergency distress calls from an aircraft that crashed Sunday near Nevada City, killing a Grass Valley man, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association said Friday.
The crash killed Steven Wilson, 57, a business owner and home-built aircraft enthusiast. The controllers work at the Oakland Air Route Traffic Control Center, which monitors airspace above all of Northern California.
The FAA said the incident was under investigation but added that “the supervisor’s decision had no effect whatsoever on the tragic outcome” because the pilot had called a flight station in the Sacramento Valley for help, not the Oakland Center, FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said.
“The facts of the case don’t support the union’s melodramatic rhetoric,” Gregor said, suggesting the complaint stemmed from the union’s unhappiness with the latest labor contract.
The association disagreed.
“During an actual emergency where someone needs help and their life may depend on the response, it is completely unconscionable,” said NATCA Oakland Facility Representative Scott Conde.
“In 20 years of air traffic control experience, I have never heard of anyone turning off the ‘guard’ channel during an emergency. It is so completely against what we are taught, retrained and reinforced to do, that any normal person would find it unthinkable,” Conde said.
The supervisor turned down the volume of the facility’s emergency frequency and loudspeaker to an inaudible level, claiming “I do not want my controllers distracted,” the union alleged.
“There is absolutely no justification for the supervisor to turn down the guard channel. This frequency is required to be continuously monitored at every FAA air traffic facility and area,” according to Conde.
“This is to ensure coverage and allow controllers to try and gather information on aircraft in distress. Controllers can pinpoint locations and relay information to emergency services. This can dramatically reduce the time that it takes to get assistance to the downed aircraft,” he said.
The FAA spokesman countered that the volume was turned up “very high” and the transmissions were “distracting the controllers from handling another aircraft for which they were responsible.” He called this the more important task, because the pilot of the Grass Valley plane had reported the problem to someone else.
The supervisor involved in the incident had been questioned by the FAA, Conde said. He said the assistant air traffic manger at Oakland Center, Mike Muhl, told him “we’re looking into it” but declined to elaborate. Calls to Muhl were redirected to the FAA spokesman in Los Angeles.
Before the plane crash, a “mayday” distress call came over the “guard” emergency frequency at Oakland Center, the association said. The “mayday” was followed by other emergency-related transmissions – broadcast on a loudspeakers inside the facility – regarding a plane “going down over Grass Valley.”
Three controllers began listening in an effort to understand the call signs involved, according to the association. Then, according to one of the controllers, the supervisor came over and turned down the loudspeakers.
The controllers responded it was their job to always monitor this frequency and they were trying to hear the call signs in order to eliminate the possibility that the aircraft was one in which these controllers had under their immediate control, the union said.
Air traffic controllers are required by the FAA to collect all available information from this “guard” frequency. They are given refresher training annually to never assume that someone else is aware of an unsafe situation or an emergency, but rather to bring that situation to the attention of the proper controller or supervisor, the association said.
The association’s Oakland Center Local represents 163 certified controllers at Oakland, Conde said.
The crash occurred at about 4:50 p.m. on Feb. 17 near a street called Jacks Road, located between Banner Mountain and Highway 20.
The silver aircraft with black and white stripes and a military-type star insignia was upside down on the ground.
A resident of the neighborhood said he heard the plane crash, ran out to the scene, saw no movement inside the plane and ran back to his house to call 911.
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