FAA releases tower tapes of crash on L.A. runway

March 26, 1991|By James R. Carroll | James R. Carroll,Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- They were two simple instructions that spelled disaster.

"SkyWest 569, taxi into position and hold Runway 24-Left," the controller told a commuter plane that was ready to take off from Los Angeles International Airport on the evening of Feb. 1.

Then, a minute later, the controller said: "USAir 1493, cleared to land Runway 24-Left."

The jetliner touched down and smacked into the rear of the smaller plane at more than 150 mph, turning the darkness into a fireball.

"What the hell?" somebody exclaimed as the entangled planes hurtled down the runway in a stream of flames and slammed into an aban

doned building.

Yesterday, the Federal Aviation Administration released the air traffic control tower tapes of the accident that killed 34 people. The recordings reveal that the controller cleared every move the SkyWest Airlines Fairchild Metroliner III made in the minutes before the flight.

Whether the controller, later identified as Robin Lee Wascher, misunderstood the location of the commuter plane is one of the things the National Transportation Safety Board is trying to determine.

Also unclear is whether the controller was too busy to handle the 10 planes she talked to -- including the SkyWest and USAir flights -- in the four minutes leading up to the crash.

During those four minutes, the USAir flight twice called for clearance to land and received no response from the controller; another plane first failed to respond to the controller's instructions, then accidentally changed radio frequencies, temporarily losing contact; and the controller had to double-check the location of two other planes.

"One of the issues the board will look into is controller workload and any other distractions that may have occurred," said NTSB spokesman Brent Bahler.

What is clear from the tapes is that the SkyWest pilot radioed his correct position to the controller and that the controller later instructed him to position his aircraft on the runway. But that position was so far down the runway that the SkyWest plane was put directly into the path of the landing USAir Boeing 737-300.

About 3 1/2 minutes before the accident, SkyWest called the tower:"SkyWest, ah, 569 at [taxiway] 45. We'd like to go from here if we can."

Taxiway 45 is almost one-third of the way down the runway, well into the area a jetliner uses in a normal landing. But lightly loaded planes routinely took off from that point on the runway.

"SkyWest 569, taxi up to, and hold short of, [Runway] 24-Left," the controller said.

"Roger, hold short," the pilot responded.

About a minute later, the controller told the commuter plane he could proceed onto the runway but hold his take-off.

"Traffic will cross downfield," the controller advised. SkyWest again acknowledged its instructions.

In the darkness, the cockpit crew of the approaching USAir jet could not see the commuter plane, which blended in with other airport lights. Subsequent tests by the NTSB confirmed that the smaller plane would have been difficult to pick out.

The unsuspecting USAir pilot acknowledged his clearance to land. It was the last transmission from the airliner.

A minute later came the first indication of the disaster.

"What the hell?" a man's voice said over the airwaves. FAA officials said they were not able to identify the voice.

The controller, apparently made aware of the accident by someone else in the tower or by someone on another frequency, quickly warned another aircraft landing on Runway 24-Right, which is parallel to the accident runway.

"Use caution, we just had an aircraft go off the runway in flame," she said, her voice calm.

A few seconds later, she advised what sounded like another controller about the accident: "OK, we just had a deal. . . . Did she tell you what happened on final? OK, we just had a 737 land and blow up. He went up in flame and he's off the runway right now. Twenty-four Left is closed."

All 12 passengers and crew members died as the Palmdale, Calif.-bound SkyWest plane was crushed under the USAir plane. Twenty-two passengers and crew died on the USAir plane. Ms. Wascher, who went on leave after the crash, recently returned to administrative duties.

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