NEW YORK (PIX11) – In an extensive investigation surrounding air traffic controllers, PIX11 News has identified several controllers nationwide who played a contributing factor in deadly crashes who remain employed by the Federal Aviation Administration, working out FAA towers or control centers.
Gregory Winton, a former Department of Justice and FAA attorney who represented air traffic controllers before going into private practice in Maryland, had the following reaction to PIX11’s investigation:
“Personally speaking over the last 25 years, of having practiced aviation law, I can’t think of a particular instance where there was an accident involving air traffic control negligence where that controller was removed from their primary responsibility for directing traffic as a result of the accident.”
One of the cases that PIX 11 News examined was the deadly mid-air crash over the Hudson River on August 8, 2009. The mid-air collision between a sightseeing helicopter and an airplane left 9 dead.
In its accident report, the National Transportation Safety Board stated that controller Carlyle Turner’s non-pertinent telephone conversation contributed to the crash. While on duty, Turner and an airport colleague had a conversation about a scheduled BBQ and a dead cat found earlier in the day on a runway. At one point in the more than two-minute call, the federally employed Turner even cracks a racial joke.
Manhattan aviation attorney Justin Green represented the family of the helicopter pilot. Green says that the call still haunts him to this day. “It was an absolute dereliction of duty, somebody who stopped doing their job and basically was screwing off on the job.”
PIX 11 News found Carlyle Turner living a suburban lifestyle in Chesapeake, Virginia. He is now working out of the air traffic control tower at Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport, a frequent destination and fly-over zone for high performance aircraft from the military as well as commercial jetliners.
How did U.S. Senator Charles Schumer react when presented with PIX 11 News findings? “It totally surprised me. In fact at first I thought, that can’t be right.”
Senator Schumer, who vividly remembers the crash, was dismayed that Turner was still working out of an FAA tower. “Even if this gentleman was totally rehabilitated, it sends such a bad signal that they shouldn’t do it.”
U.S. Senator Cory Booker had the following reaction after listening to Turner’s phone call. “It’s jarring to see, to know that that really led to people’s lives being lost.”
The story of Carlyle Turner resonates with Barry Newman. The Florida aviation attorney had a case from an October 26, 2009 flight where a Texas controller lost his focus, literally. “The controller was required by his FAA medical certificate to wear glasses while controlling traffic and he wasn’t wearing his glasses that day.”
The controller in the case, Mike Farrior, admitted to not having his glasses in a handwritten statement attained by PIX11 News. Additionally, Newman says his vision was not the only issue.
“The controller decided to set his preferences so that he had a bright blue screen which was the same color as the worst of the weather so the two blended together, where on a black background the worst of the weather would have stood out very brightly.”
In a federal lawsuit, attorneys argued that as a result the pilot flew into hazardous weather. The aircraft went down killing all four people on-board.
As for Farrior? He’s still with the FAA. In fact, he was back on the job weeks after the deadly crash, telling investigators that he had acquired glasses and now wears them during air traffic duties.
PIX11 News examined 15 deadly crashes since 1998 where actions by air traffic controllers were a contributing factor. Those crashes resulted in 54 deaths. The litigation resulting from several of these crashes came at a steep price to American taxpayers. Public records indicate that the federal government has made either verdict or settlement payments of more than $100 million.
Additionally, our investigation revealed that Turner and Farrior are not alone. We uncovered several other controllers involved in a number of these deadly crashes who are currently listed on the FAA’s online employment directory, working out of FAA towers or control centers.
As part of our investigation we approached the National Air Traffic Controllers Association as well as The Air Line Pilots Association, both unions declined to participate. They weren’t the only ones.
On the mission page of the FAA website, the agency uses such words as safety, accountability and transparency. PIX 11 News went to the FAA’s headquarters in Washington D.C., hoping that the FAA would be transparent about accountability measures surrounding Carlyle Turner as well as other controllers, because at the very core of our investigation is the public’s safety.
“This is a huge embarrassment to the FAA,” says Arthur Wolk, an aviation attorney based out of Philadelphia. A pilot himself, listen to how Wolk describes the collaboration between pilots and controllers. “We as pilots depend on air traffic control. It is our lifeline.”
As for the FAA allowing controllers who have contributed to deadly mistakes going back to control towers or centers?
“What really this is the government’s stonewalling what amounts to incompetent behavior that can, does, and has resulted in death,” says Wolk.
Justin Green, who represented the family of the chopper pilot in the Hudson mid-air crash, echoes those sentiments. He also believes that the agency is vested in creating a positive image of its controllers. “I think the FAA obviously has an interest in not having the controllers blamed.”
PIX11 had an interest in what influential lawmakers on Capitol Hill had to say about our investigation, but Senator Jay Rockefeller who chairs the senate committee that oversees transportation, as well as Representative Frank LoBiondo, the Chair of the House Subcommittee on Aviation, declined our interview requests.
Representative John Mica on the other hand, was available. “It does need to be changed, people need to be held accountable.” The Florida Congressman is the former Chairman of the House Transportation Committee as well as the former Chairman of the House Aviation Sub-Committee.
“The bad players, and they’re just a handful, but they have caused death, mayhem and they’re still on the job. That’s not fair,” said Representative Micah during an interview at his legislative office in the shadows of the Capitol.
Senator Schumer did not hold back either. “When I heard about Turner I was shocked, so in hearing that there are others makes me even more worried.”
In fact, New York’s senior senator now wants to hear from the same agency that failed to respond to us, the FAA. “I’m not going to tell them how to do it, but I want to hear what they’re saying.”
Representative Mica, whose party loyalty sits across the aisle from Senator Schumer, is in agreement. “If we have to haul people in before congress and seek again the information you have already found which is public record and then act responsibly, we need to do that. “
It should be noted that while the NTSB does find fault with pilots in nearly every crash, in the cases where the Federal government made payouts that PIX11 News examined, it was not only the families of the victims who were compensated, but also relatives of the pilots.
On Tuesday, there was congressional reaction to PIX 11 News investigation. A spokesman for the Representative Frank LoBiondo, the Chairman of the House Aviation Subcommittee said that New Jersey congressman had reviewed the report. The spokesman, Jason Galanes, also issued the following statement,
“Safety has been and continues to be the top priority for the Aviation Subcommittee. Chairman LoBiondo has raised the issues reported by PIX11 with officials at the FAA and NATCA to understand and secure the full facts in these instances.”
A spokeswoman for the FAA released the following statement to PIX11 News Tuesday night:
“The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) operates the safest aviation system in the world. The FAA achieves that record by investigating every accident and incident that occurs in the system to determine whether it could pursue further improvements to continue to enhance aviation safety.
“Non-punitive safety reporting systems also encourage controllers and other aviation professionals to report safety incidents so the FAA can fully understand what happened and implement any necessary corrective actions. If the FAA determines an act a controller committed that led to an incident or accident was intentional or grossly negligent, the controller is excluded from using those non-punitive systems.
“However, controllers have the same due-process rights as other federal employees and also are covered by the provisions of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association contract. Federal privacy laws preclude the FAA from disclosing personnel information about specific employees.”