The National Transportation Safety Board
has begun a special inquiry into
hazardous incidents involving control of
planes at the nation's airports.
The agency's longtime concern over
the problem was rekindled by an incident
in Minneapolis March 31 in which a DC-10
jumbo jet that was taking off flew just
50 feet above another DC-10 that had
been cleared to taxi across the takeoff
This was followed by numerous other
incidents, including a nighttime
accident in Birmingham, Ala., June 20 in
which the pilot of a small cargo plane
awaiting clearance for takeoff was
killed. His plane was struck by a
National Guard F-4 Phantom jet that had
been given permission to land on the
runway where the cargo plane was.
The safety board is looking for
recurring reasons for traffic mistakes
at airports - those due to controllers,
pilots or difficulties in communication
between the two. Its goal is to
establish the extent to which the
breakdowns are due to simple human
forgetfulness, overwork, distractions or
inadequacies in training or procedures.
And the board aims to come up with
recommendations for reducing the hazard.
Last week the head of the Federal
Aviation Administration, which operates
the air traffic system, made conference
telephone calls to personnel at more
than 400 airport towers to give his
views on the problem and announce some
corrective measures of his own.
'Surface Error Incidents'
The F.A.A. Administrator, Donald D.
Engen, disclosed that despite previous
preventive efforts the number of airport
traffic conflicts was increasing.
Through July 5, he said, there were 54
''surface error incidents,'' compared
with 41 for the same period in 1984.
Mr. Engen announced two initiatives
to cope with the hazard and said there
would be other follow-up actions.
The immediate step is aimed at
improving coordination between the two
tower controllers usually responsible
for aircraft movements on particular
runways. The ''local'' controller has
the job of radioing permission to pilots
to land or take off on what is known as
the ''active'' runway. The ''ground''
controller radios instructions for
taxiing to and from runways, or across
In busy periods, Mr. Engen said, a
third person, perhaps a supervisor,
should be present to help the two
controllers dovetail their moves ''and
to provide an extra set of eyes.''
''He or she,'' the F.A.A. chief said,
''should insure that proper vigilance,
particularly the scanning of runways,
and coordination is taking place.'' He
noted that of the 54 incidents this
year, ''30 involved some sort of
breakdown in the ground and local
control position coordination
Emphasis on Standardization
In the Minneapolis incident involving
the DC-10's, the controllers, standing
alongside one another, apparently got
their signals crossed on how many planes
would be allowed to taxi across the
active runway before further takeoffs
were permitted. A third ''coordinator''
might have detected the conflict in time
to avert the near-collision.
The second action announced by Mr.
Engen was the acceleration of a program
to standardize the procedures by which
those two control positions would be
Other follow-up actions that
officials say are under consideration
include limiting points at which planes
may taxi across active runways,
developing ''memory aids'' to help local
controllers remember when planes or
ground vehicles, such as snow plows,
have been given permission to move onto
active runways, and equipping the
controllers' training school with a
tower cab where operations for specific
airports could be simulated.
The safety board's special inquiry is
expected to be completed in about three
months. Such investigations are
undertaken occasionally when the board
detects a possible pattern in accidents.
Normally it concentrates on individual
Among the special inquiries conducted
in recent years were studies of commuter
airline safety, the overall
traffic-control system, the ability of
aircraft to tolerate crash forces and
the safety standards for airport design.
The study of the on-the-airport
traffic problem is to be directed by
Jack Drake. Mr. Drake said in an
interview Friday that the survey might
cover more than the eight incidents this
year on which individual investigations
had been started. In addition to the
near-collision at Minneapolis and the
fatal Birmingham accident, they included
a second Minneapolis incident and others
in Philadelphia, Austin, Tex., Midway
Airport in Chicago, Boston, and West
Palm Beach, Fla.