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NTSB report on near collision in Mississippi cites controller, tower

By Mike M. Ahlers, CNN
updated 12:10 PM EST, Thu January 19, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Incident occurred in June at the Gulfport-Biloxi Airport in Mississippi
  • NTSB: Controller sent two planes on intersecting flight paths; one crossed in front of the other
  • Controller was retrained, recertified and is back on the job, according to FAA
  • NTSB report raises questions about air traffic control management

Washington (CNN) -- An air traffic controller unintentionally placed a passenger jet and a single-engine plane on a collision course at a Mississippi airport last summer, causing the planes to pass within 300 feet of each other in midair, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

Though neither plane had to swerve, the pilot of the passenger jet commented, "Wow, that was close," and the controller's supervisor later told investigators it was a "miracle" no one died.

The NTSB report, while placing blame squarely on the controller's shoulders, also raises questions about the overall management of the Gulfport-Biloxi Airport control tower.

The report said Robert Beck, the 23-year veteran controller involved in the incident, had been suspended for tardiness, absenteeism, and failing to report a DUI arrest. And it quotes one supervisor as saying Beck "had a history of professional deficiencies" that included "taking shortcuts with phraseology and not complying with standard checklist procedures."

Nonetheless, that same supervisor said he considered Beck to be a safe controller and Beck was allowed to work as "controller in charge" at the facility and as an "on the job instructor" for rookie controllers.

Following the June 19 close-call incident, Beck was suspended and decertified, but he has since been retrained, recertified, and is back on the job at the Mississippi airport, the Federal Aviation Administration said.

CNN was unable to reach Beck by telephone Wednesday evening and Thursday morning for comment.

The FAA said it also made "management changes" at the tower after the incident, but it did not elaborate.

"The FAA is committed to running the safest air transportation system in the world," spokeswoman Brie Sachse said in a statement.

The incident happened last June, at a time when the FAA was still reeling from media reports of air traffic controllers sleeping and being inattentive.

According to the NTSB, Beck, who was nearing the end of his 8-hour shift, cleared a Cessna 172 for takeoff on one runway, and 16 seconds later cleared the passenger jet for takeoff on another, setting them on intersecting flight paths.

As the Cessna lifted off and climbed to 300 feet, the jet passed directly in front of it at the same altitude. The planes passed within 300 feet of each other, the NTSB said.

The first officer, who was at the controls of the jet, did not see the plane, but his captain commented, "Wow, that was close!" he told investigators.

The passenger jet, ExpressJet flight 2555, carried 50 passengers and a crew of three. The Cessna had two on board, a student pilot and an instructor.

In a "factual report" by an NTSB investigator, the air traffic controller's supervisor said that, in his opinion, "the incident occurred because (the controller) was not paying attention."

Beck told investigators he cleared both planes to take off, but anticipated the Cessna would take three to five minutes to get airborne, the report says. He "considered it inconceivable that the Cessna departing runway 18 could have conflicted with the (Embraer 145 jet) off of runway 14," the report says.

The controller did not see the near collision, but found out the next day the incident was being investigated, the NTSB said.

After reviewing the incident, Beck "realized that he had messed up and was wrong," the NTSB investigator's report said, and Beck "professed that he has probably used this procedure before to expedite traffic."

Beck told investigators that, other than suspensions for tardiness, he "had no other problems at the facility and considered the facility management to be just plain mean," the report says.

The incident also gives fodder to critics of FAA management.

According to the NTSB's investigative report, Beck's supervisor said a trainee had reported that Beck "was in the back of the room with his feet up and eyes closed" while conducting on-the-job instruction. Afterwards, the report says, Beck was not authorized to conduct on-the-job training, but "had not been advised and was not aware" of the restriction.

After the June incident, he was restricted from working as a local controller, although no one told him, the report says.

The NTSB cited the controller as the probable cause of the incident, and did not cite the FAA management. But in a statement, NTSB Chairwoman Deborah A.P. Hersman said the incident could have been catastrophic and said there is no substitute "for professionalism at every level of an air traffic control facility, from the management to the individual controllers, all of whom are responsible for the safety of the flying public."

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association, which represents rank-and-file controllers, said it is taking the NTSB report 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," said NATCA spokesman Doug Church.

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