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PIX11 INVESTIGATES: Survivor of deadly helicopter crash shocked that air traffic control back on the job

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NEW YORK (PIX11) — Jordan Wells was 18 years old when on a rainy night on Sept. 27, 2008, she and her friend were being transported to the hospital via a Maryland State Police helicopter, this after her car hydroplaned off of a Maryland road.

The flight never reached its destination.

“They said for everyone in the helicopter, it was 100 percent unsurvivable, including me. They said there is no way I should have survived it. It was only by the grace of God that I lived through this accident,” said Wells recalling the accident.

The debris from Trooper 2 was discovered scattered in the woods near Andrews Air Force Base. Four people died in the crash. Wells miraculously survived, but it came at the expense of her right leg, which had to be amputated below the knee.

“I mean, there are so many people and I don’t want to point fingers, because I’m one of them that dropped the ball that night and it really was a perfect storm,” she said.

To this day, Wells struggles with survivor’s guilt. While the battle has been challenging, it should be noted that the National Transportation Safety Board found fault with the pilot, the State of Maryland — as well as multiple air traffic controllers for being a contributing factor to the deadly crash.

“Different air traffic controllers did drop the ball,” Wells told PIX11 in her first television interview in more than four years.

The NTSB’s investigation of the crash found the pilot’s workload increased as a result of the poor skills of the controllers, “Stephen was the pilot and he called in for help and he was asking for help and they walked away, without their headphones on,” said Wells.

According to the NTSB’S Air Traffic Controllers Group – Chairman’s Factual Report, controllers from three Washington D.C. area facilities, including the towers at Reagan National Airport and at Andrews Air Force Base, were identified.

Teal Hyman was the controller at Andrews and the last one to be in contact with the flight. Due to poor visibility as a result of weather, Trooper 2’s pilot requested an “Airport Surveillance Radar” approach. The maneuver is known in aviation circles as a “blind landing” where the pilot relies upon the controller for navigational guidance.

The controller during the procedure is to provide exclusive support, meaning they cannot work other flights. Hyman, who was alone at the time and had more than 20-years of FAA experience, informed the pilot requesting assistance that the Trooper 2’s flight was the first aircraft they had seen in a long time and that she was not qualified in her training to assist with an ASR approach, as detailed in this NTSB video presentation of the crash.

Gregory Winton is the aviation attorney who represented Wells following the crash. He described Hyman’s performance as follows: “It was her actions and more likely her inactions that contributed to that accident.”

Winton, a pilot himself added, “The NTSB categorized the FAA’s actions in this case as casual and sloppy. I’d say it was casual and sloppy at its best.”

Winton finds the crash additionally disturbing due to the significance of where Hyman was based, “We’re talking about Andrews Air Force base. You would think that the best controllers in the world would be working there because that is where the President keeps Air Force One.”

Marine One flies to Andrews as well, Winton adds that the tower and Andrews plays a role, “When Air Force One lands and receives a clearance to land, it comes from the control tower at Andrews Air Force Base which is where Ms. Hyman was working that evening.”

Less than ten days following the crash, an FAA memo called for an action plan proposing that all controllers be certified and current on all positions of operation in the control tower.

Months later, the official NTSB accident report noted that approximately 75% of the controllers at Andrews achieved the required qualifications for ASR approaches. Subsequently, the FAA suspended ASR approaches at Andrews because of an internal dispute.

As for Hyman, the FAA‘s online employee directory clearly shows that she is still working at the control tower at Andrews. In fact, the air traffic controller union has her listed online as the safety representative at Andrews.

When PIX11 informed Wells that Hyman was still on the job, she was perplexed, “Hmm. I was told she lost her job. I don’t know.” When told again that Hyman was still employed at Andrews, Wells said, “ Well I would hope that she learned her lesson.”

For many it is striking, because it is the same airport that the President of the United States uses. When this point was presented to Wells, she said, “That is very striking to me.”

In an extensive investigation, PIX11 has identified 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 dollars.

Winton, who at the start of his career defended Air Traffic Controllers and the FAA, found the numbers bothersome, but was not taken aback.“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.”

What make the Trooper 2 case more intriguing, is the that the variety of mistakes committed came in airspace that is well known throughout the aviation industry – as the most secured in the nation.

“The D.C. airspace is very complex, because of all the restricted airspace and the concerns for Homeland Security,” said Barry Newman an aviation attorney out of Jacksonville, Florida. Listen to how he describes the controllers that manage the airspace not only occupied by the President, but also commercial airliners: “I’d believe the best of the best controllers are probably located here, New York and Atlanta where the air-traffic is the heaviest.”

As for Newman’s perspective on controllers who are back on the job following an accident? He was not too surprised as a result of his experience with other crashes, where controllers were back on the job in a matter of “days.”

Wells says that motherhood and religion have made it easier for her to forge ahead. As she reflected during our conversation, she shared that there will never come a day where the site or sound of a helicopter will not transport her back to the woods near Andrews and the lives lost in the deadly crash.

“At first I used to cry as soon as I’d hear it. I wouldn’t even get sad first, I would just breakdown crying.” However, Wells that over time that has changed and it now has a new meaning. “Its’ a reminder I was meant do so much more in this world.

It should be noted that Wells was compensated in a settlement with the U.S. Government. Winton, who was in the room during our entire interview with Wells, did not discuss details of the settlement.

After our story aired, the FAA released the following statement late 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.”

2 comments

  • Dennis Cunningham

    I am a commercial and instrument-rated pilot with more than 45 years of experince, as well as 25 years of experience as an air traffic controller. Your article peaked my interest, so I read the entire NTSB report on this accident. From my perspective, it's clear that although the primary cause of the accident was pilot error, there were dozens of other errors, made by a large number of different people of varying job descriptions, that contributed to the accident and the chaotic aftermath.

    However, of all the different people involved, Teal Hyman, (the controller cited in the article) is by far the LEAST culpable. She was not qualified to conduct an ASR approach, so quite properly denied the pilot's request for one. Such requests are fairly unusual, and generally fall into one of two categories: practice approaches, and those requested because the aircraft is in an emergency status. Trooper 2 was neither, and the pilot had more than a dozen other options, all of them better than an ASR approach conducted by a controller not qualified to provide such services. Her FAA managers can be deservedly criticized for not providing her that training, but she certainly shouldn't be pilloried for declining to provide a service for which she was not qualified. Given the circumstances, her response to the pilot's request was entirely appropriate.

    Defaming Ms. Hyman as you have doesn't contribute to a better understanding of this accident, or the actions of controllers, for your viewers and readers. Moreover, your assertion that she should have lost her job over the incident displays an appalling lack of understanding of the events that transpired.

    You owe Ms. Hyman an apology.

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