Out of Control

When air traffic control shares blame for fatal crashes

The following is a list of fatal crashes between 1982 and 2006 in which air traffic controllers were at least partly to blame.

Aug. 3, 1981 — About 12,500 controllers go on strike, protesting low wages and long hours. President Reagan orders them back to work, and then fires 11,580 controllers who stayed on the picket line and prohibits FAA from ever rehiring the strikers. FAA permanently replaces them with rookies.

Jan. 23, 1982 — Boston, Massachusetts. A World Airways DC-10 attempts to land in icy, snowy conditions but slides off the runway into Boston Harbor. The NTSB partly blames controller for not issuing a weather advisory to the pilot.
2 dead, 4 seriously injured.

Details

Editor's note: This article appeared originally in the East Bay Express.

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Dec. 20, 1983 — Sioux Falls, South Dakota. An Ozark Airlines DC-9 crash-lands in a snowstorm and its right wing clips a snow-clearing truck. The NTSB blames the controller for not telling the pilot about the snow-removal equipment.
1 dead, 2 seriously injured.

Aug. 25, 1985 — Auburn, Maine. A Bar Harbor Airlines Beech 99, carrying Samantha Smith, a thirteen-year-old who drew international attention when she toured the Soviet Union, crashes on approach. The NTSB partly blames controller for giving "improper" instructions.
8 dead; no survivors.

Aug. 31, 1986 — Cerritos, California. A single-engine Piper veers off course and collides midair with an Aero Mexico DC-9 heading to LAX. The NTSB faults the Piper's pilot and "the limitation of the air-traffic control system to provide collision protection." But a federal jury in 1989 disagrees, putting some of the blame on the controller after experts determined that the Piper had appeared on the controller's radar 62 times prior to the crash.
82 dead, 8 seriously injured.

Jan. 15, 1987 — Salt Lake City, Utah. A single-engine plane veers off-course and strikes a Skywest Metroliner on approach for landing. The controller had told the Skywest pilot to look out for a Boeing 727, but said nothing about the single-engine plane. A federal judge rules in December 1990 that the controller was mostly to blame.
10 dead; no survivors.

Nov. 17, 1987 — Denver, Colorado. A Continental Airlines DC-9, its wings covered in ice after sitting on the tarmac for 27 minutes in a snowstorm, crashes on takeoff. The NTSB partly blames controller for "inadequate monitoring" of the plane, but says the pilots were mostly at fault.
28 dead, 28 seriously injured.

Dec. 26, 1989 — Pasco, Washington. A United Express commuter plane nosedives into the ground in icy conditions. The NTSB partly blames controller for giving the pilot "improper" landing directions.
6 dead; no survivors.

Jan. 18, 1990 — Atlanta, Georgia. The right wing of an Eastern Airlines Boeing 727 clips a King Air commuter flight that had landed moments before and was sitting just off the runway. The NTSB blasts the controller, saying the controller had cleared three planes to land in a 49- second period and then became distracted.
1 dead, 1 seriously injured.

Jan. 25, 1990 — Cove Neck, New York. An Avianca Airlines Boeing 707 runs out of fuel while circling JFK and crash-lands sixteen miles from the airport. The NTSB partly blames the FAA and controllers for "inadequate traffic flow management." The controller had placed the jet in a holding pattern three times for a total of one hour and seventeen minutes.
73 dead, 81 seriously injured.

Dec. 3, 1990 — Detroit, Michigan. On a foggy afternoon, a Northwest Boeing 727 headed for takeoff plows into a Northwest DC-9 that entered the same runway. The NTSB partly blames controllers for failure to alert pilots of possible runway incursion; for inadequate visual observation; for failing to issue proper taxiing instructions in low visibility conditions; for issuing "inappropriate and confusing" instructions; and for having inadequate backup supervision for inexperienced staff on duty.
8 dead, 10 seriously injured.

Feb. 1, 1991 — LAX. A USAir Boeing 737 lands on the same runway occupied by a Skywest commuter plane awaiting takeoff. After impact, the two planes careen off the runway and slam into a concrete building. The NTSB blames a controller who mistakenly thought the Skywest plane was not on the runway.
34 dead, 13 seriously injured.

Totals from 1982 to 1992: 253 dead, 147 seriously injured.

Aug. 12, 1993 — President Clinton says controllers fired by Reagan can reapply for their jobs. About 1,100 eventually are rehired. In 1998, Clinton's FAA signs the best contract in controllers' history.

July 2, 1994 — Charlotte, North Carolina. A US Air DC-9 is caught in a violent thunderstorm that includes extreme wind shear before smashing into trees and a house. The NTSB partly blames controller for failing to warn pilot about bad weather.
37 dead, 16 seriously injured.

Nov. 22, 1994 — St. Louis, Missouri. A TWA DC-9 taxiing for takeoff plows into a Cessna that was about to take off on the same runway. The NTSB puts primary blame on the pilot of the Cessna, but in 1998, a federal jury says controllers were also at fault because they did not keep track of the Cessna and failed to warn its pilot.
2 dead.

Totals from 1992 to 2006: 39 dead, 16 seriously injured.

 
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