Search continues for bodies in plane wreckage 18 known dead Controller error reported to be focus of inquiry

February 03, 1991|By Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES -- Federal investigators are focusing on indications that a SkyWest commuter plane was directed by a controller into the path of a USAir jetliner landing at Los Angeles International Airport, sources familiar with the crash investigation said yesterday.

The sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said control tower tape recordings indicate that a controller cleared the commuter plane to move onto the runway in takeoff position just before the jetliner touched down.

"It was controller error; the SkyWest plane

was directed onto the runway," said a controller, who asked not to be named. This source was one of two controllers who said they had spoken directly with colleagues who had listened to tape recordings of conversations between the tower and the pilots.

Despite instructions from the control tower, pilots under standard rules of aviation safety are responsible for their own aircraft. Sources said the commuter plane's pilot apparently failed to see the oncoming jet.

Officials from USAir and SkyWest said yesterday that the pilots were following routine instructions in operating their aircraft.

Three sets of skid marks -- one from each set of landing gear on the 737 -- are etched in a straight line down the runway for about 250yards. Then, at the apparent point of impact -- a spot littered with the wreckage of both planes -- the marks take a sharp left turn across a dirt and gravel median, a taxiway and a service road, ending beneath the mangled hulk of the jetliner.

Officials participating in the National Transportation Safety Board investigation cautioned that it was still too early to determine exactly what caused the fatal collision shortly after nightfall Friday.

Possibilities being explored include the commuter pilot misinterpreting instructions from controllers, or the jet pilot landing on the wrong runway. Of the cockpit crews, only the co-pilot of the jetliner survived, and investigators apparently had not yet interviewed him yesterday.

However, once the tapes of the cockpit and controller conversations are reviewed, "it isn't going to be a difficult one to figure out," SkyWest spokesman Ron Reber said.

Although few details from the official investigation were released yesterday, sources familiar with taped recordings of the conversations between the two cockpit crews and traffic controllers suggested the following scenario:

Shortly before 6 p.m., 10 passengers boarded the SkyWest plane, a Swearingen twin-prop Metroliner crewed by Capt. Andy J. Lucas and

First Officer Frank Prentice III. The Metroliner began rolling on Taxiway 47, a north-south avenue that connects the two east-west runways on the airport's south side, 25 Left and 25 Right, with the two east-west runways on the north, 24 Left and 24 Right.

As the Metroliner approached 24 Left, the north runway closest to the terminal complex, aircraft control was passed from "ground control," which handles taxiing operations, to "local control," which handles planes taking off and landing.

At this point, the same local controller would have been handling both the commuter plane and the jetliner.

Although none of those interviewed was willing to specify exactly what happened next, several sources said the controller apparently cleared the Metroliner to take off about a third of the way down the runway, where it is intersected by Taxiway 24.

SkyWest's Metroliners, which don't need the full, 2-mile length of a runway to lift off, routinely enter Runway 24 Left at midpoint for takeoff, said Kristan Norton, a spokeswoman for the airline.

The pilot of the commuter plane apparently failed to see the Boeing -- despite the brilliant landing lights on the approaching jetliner -- as he taxied the Metroliner onto the runway.

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