Poor radar, shortage of controllers may have been factors in crash Planes were directed to same runway

February 05, 1991|By New York Times News Service

LOS ANGELES -- A fatal airplane collision that initially seemed to be the result of a mistake by a harried air traffic controller might have also involved long-standing problems, including the use of unreliable radar equipment and a chronic shortage of air traffic controllers, federal investigators said yesterday.

An air traffic controller handling planes landing and taking off on Runway 24L at Los Angeles International Airport on Friday apparently forgot she had told a SkyWest commuter airplane awaiting takeoff to wait at the center of the runway about a minute before she told a USAir Boeing 737 it could land on the same strip. The two collided, killing 34 people, the last of whom -- USAir passenger Richard D. Ronk, 33 -- died yesterday from burns.

But investigators said yesterday that they had turned up information suggesting that these factors might have played a role:

* Radar equipment used to track the location of taxiing planes was broken the night of the crash and is generally in poor repair. Spare parts are not available at the airport to fix the equipment when it breaks down.

* Only one air traffic controller was handling takeofffs and landings at the time of the accident despite a decision made after previous close calls to provide an assistant controller.

* The controller's view of the runway collision may have been blocked by lighting poles between the tower and the runway.

The controller is expected to be interviewed today by the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the accident, and her testimony is likely to provide important new details about what happened. It will be months before the investigators reach conclusions about what caused the accident.

The controller, who has not been identified, had been working for the Federal Aviation Administration for eight years and was fully qualified to perform all the jobs in the control tower, investigators said.

Asked yesterday whether the ground radar was now operating properly or whether an additional controller has been working since the accident, a spokesman for the FAA, in Los Angeles, Fred O'Donnell, refused to say.

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