WASHINGTON (AP) – An air traffic controller with a history of disciplinary problems nearly caused a midair collision between a regional airliner and a small plane last year, the National Transportation Safety Board said Wednesday.
A regional jet operated by ExpressJet and a single-engine Cessna came within 300 feet of colliding after they were cleared to take off on intersecting runways at Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport in Mississippi on June 19, according to NTSB officials and documents released by the board.
There were 53 passengers and crew aboard the regional jet, an Embraer ER145. A student pilot, accompanied by a flight instructor, was flying the Cessna 172.
Airport tower controller Robert Beck first cleared the Cessna to take off on runway 18, according to the documents. About 16 seconds later, Beck cleared the regional jet, Continental Express Flight 2555, to take off on runway 14, which crosses runway 18. No warning was issued to either pilot about the other plane even though another controller who heard the takeoff clearances told investigators he shouted a warning to Beck, “You’ve got two rolling!”
Both planes were at the same altitude, about 300 feet above the airport, when they passed within 300 feet laterally of each other. As the planes passed, the ExpressJet captain exclaimed to his co-pilot: “Wow, that was close.” One air traffic manager told investigators, “It was a miracle that no one died,” according to an NTSB summary of investigators’ interviews.
The airliner was bound for Houston’s Bush Intercontinental Airport, where it landed uneventfully. The plane was operated for Continental before it fully merged its operations with United Airlines.
Afterward, air traffic officials told investigators Beck had “a history of professional deficiencies that included taking shortcuts with phraseology and not complying with standard checklist procedures,” the documents said.
Beck, a controller for 23 years, also had been suspended several times within the last five years for tardiness, absenteeism and failure to report an arrest for driving under the influence. Beck also had been removed from duties training less experienced controllers after a trainee complained that “Mr. Beck was in the back of the room with his feet up and eyes closed” while conducting training sessions, the documents said.
The Associated Press was unable to reach Beck by telephone for comment.
Beck is still an air traffic controller at the Gulfport airport, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, which operates the nation’s air traffic control system.
“The FAA made management changes at Gulfport following the incident in June and suspended and decertified the controller involved. The controller was retrained and has been recertified,” the agency said in a statement.
The NTSB has elevated air traffic controller and pilot professionalism to its list of top safety concerns in response to a series of incidents over the past several years, including a 2009 accident in which a controller in New Jersey was talking on the phone to a friend about barbecuing a dead cat when a small plane he had handled collided with an air tour helicopter, killing nine people.
“The lack of focus in this near midair collision (in Mississippi) between a commercial jet and a small private plane is a reminder that a single mistake can have potentially catastrophic consequences,” NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman said in a statement.
“While most individuals in the aviation industry are focused and professional, events like these continue to occur, which means there’s still more work to be done to ensure that air travel is as safe as possible,” she said.
Last spring, FAA officials instituted several changes in the scheduling of air traffic controllers after several controllers were caught sleeping on duty or, in one case, watching a movie.
Doug Church, a spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said the union takes incidents like the near-collision in Mississippi “very seriously.”
“We welcome the examination of this incident by federal officials and plan to work with the FAA to continue to improve the safety of our aviation system,” Church said.
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