Controller in L.A. crash had troubled record, reports show

May 07, 1991|By Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES 5/8 5/8 — LOS ANGELES -- The air traffic controller involved in the Los Angeles runway disaster last February had been relieved of duty as a military controller 14 years ago and urged to seek psychiatric help after her parents died in a light plane crash, federal reports disclosed yesterday.

In addition, the reports note that during her most recent performance evaluation, the controller lost track of a plane taxiing onto a runway on which another plane was about to land -- an incident that sounds similar to the one that led to the collision Feb. 1 of a USAir jetliner and a commuter plane at Los Angeles International Airport. Thirty-four people were killed.

The reports also state that the pilot of one of the planes involved in the collision had traces of phenobarbital, a strong sedative, in his system when he died in the crash. Federal rules prohibit a pilot from using such drugs before a flight.

The investigative reports were made public as the National Transportation Safety Board opened hearings here as part of its continuing investigation to determine the causes of the collision. The board's conclusions and recommendations are not expected for several months.

Investigators said the accident occurred when controller Robin Lee Wascher cleared the USAir jetliner to land on the same runway on which she had just positioned a SkyWest commuter liner for takeoff.

Ms. Wascher had been an Air Force sergeant, working as a controller at a military field in Mississippi, when her parents' light plane disappeared June 11, 1977, after taking off from Eureka, Calif. The plane has never been found.

A month later, she told an Air Force flight surgeon that the death of her parents left her "incapable of controlling traffic safely," according to NTSB reports.

The NTSB says the Air Force promptly "grounded" Ms. Wascher and told her to visit a military mental health clinic. She was examined at the clinic 15 days later. The next day, she was given an honorable discharge from the service.

She eventually became a civilian air traffic controller for the FAA, and in 1989 she was assigned to the control tower at Los Angeles International Airport.

Ms. Wascher, 39, has told investigators she was handling planes using the two north runways Feb. 1 when she confused the SkyWest commuter plane with another aircraft and accidentally directed it into the path of the landing USAir jetliner, a Boeing 737.

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