FAA knew of wake turbulence before air crashes

June 06, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

The Federal Aviation Administration's top scientist warned -- before two fatal airplane accidents -- that wake turbulence from Boeing 757 jetliners would cause a "major crash" if the agency failed to take preventive measures, internal documents show.

The documents reveal for the first time that experts within the FAA itself had, before the tragedies in Billings, Mont., and Santa Ana, Calif., expressed serious concerns about the potential danger to planes operating behind 757s.

Eleven days before the Billings crash on Dec. 18, 1992, killed eight people and a year before the Santa Ana accident of Dec. 15, 1993, claimed five lives, chief scientist Robert E. Machol predicted a "catastrophe" because of 757 wake turbulence at a meeting with the FAA's hierarchy.

Yet it wasn't until after the Santa Ana accident that FAA Administrator David R. Hinson first drew nationwide attention to the problem, issuing a bulletin instructing air traffic controllers to alert pilots routinely to the threat posed by 757s. The plane's unique, fuel-efficient design creates invisible, "horizontal tornadoes" emanating from each wingtip that are more powerful and last longer than any produced by other aircraft its size.

"I was the first guy within the agency who got up and said we're likely to have a catastrophe, a real catastrophe . . . if we don't do something," Mr. Machol said recently.

The 226 pages of FAA letters and memorandums were obtained by the Los Angeles Times under the Freedom of Information Act.

Sources have also provided the Times with documents indicating that agency officials were concerned about how Mr. Machol's warnings might be viewed. On one of his memos, an official jotted a note that Mr. Machol should temper his words.

The FAA has resisted efforts to increase separation distances between 757s and tailing airplanes because it could potentially decrease the number of flights at airports. That could cut into revenues.

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