Former tower chief defends controller

Aug. 22--The former manager of the Blue Grass Airport tower defended the air traffic controller on duty when Comair Flight 5191 crashed, thanked the community for its support and said the Federal Aviation Administration and the controllers union are both pursuing agendas as they spar over tower staffing levels.

"The families of the victims are never far from my thoughts," said former tower manager Duff Ortman, who answered e-mailed questions from the Herald-Leader in his first extended public comments.

Ortman has remained silent since the crash, which killed 49 people after a regional jet took off from the wrong runway. The one-year anniversary of the crash is Monday, and a variety of public and private memorial services have been planned.

Ortman declined an in-person interview, and he refused to answer questions about safety issues raised by the crash. He said that his unscheduled deposition in nearly three dozen civil lawsuits related to the crash is the proper forum in which to answer such questions.

"Not commenting publicly has been very difficult, given the enormity of the tragedy and the misinformation that characterized the immediate aftermath of the accident," Ortman wrote. "Everyone seemed to have an agenda and I did not want to minimize the pain of the families by engaging in an unseemly public debate. It seems to me that such a debate can be viewed as trivializing their loss in the interest of sensationalism."

The day of the crash, FAA officials in Washington denied that two controllers were supposed to be working in the tower, which is owned and managed by the agency. (During the crash, the tower was staffed with only one controller, Christopher Damron. His back was turned when Flight 5191 took off from the wrong runway and crashed.)

Two days later the FAA acknowledged that staffing policies had not been followed, after a November 2005 staffing memorandum written by Ortman was leaked to news media. The FAA had issued verbal guidance to control towers that two controllers must be on duty for all shifts at any airport, such as Lexington, that handles both control tower observations and radar operations.

But Ortman, in consultation with his boss, hub manager Darryl Collins in Cincinnati, began understaffing the overnight shift in May 2006 after a controller retired, according to a transcript of Ortman's interview with the National Transportation Safety Board.

Ortman had warned his superiors that he could not fully staff the overnight shift without an increase in his overtime budget from $17,000 to $92,000.

Nonetheless, high-ranking officials in the FAA called Ortman a "renegade" and speculated that he would be fired, in an e-mail exchange days after the crash that was obtained by The Associated Press in September 2006. Ortman was not fired, and he retired in June.

The e-mails are a sore point for Ortman. He said a senior official apologized to him, but the FAA never publicly corrected the e-mails even though the NTSB had documents to the contrary.

"Although personally difficult, the e-mails did little to add to the facts other to perhaps show that the acting service area director (John McCartney) was detached from staffing issues in the field," Ortman said.

Ortman called Damron an excellent controller. Just weeks before the accident Damron was recognized for preventing two airplanes, being monitored by another controller, from getting too close together, called a loss of separation in aviation jargon.

"Chris is an excellent air traffic controller and an even better person, well-liked and respected by his co-workers," Ortman said. Damron has not spoken publicly since the crash.

The weeks immediately after the crash were tough for controllers, Ortman said. Two controllers missed work on trauma leave. An incident stress counselor was brought in to meet with employees with the assistance of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, Ortman said.

"We were just trying to breathe one day at a time," he said.

The halls of the tower were "literally wallpapered" with cards and letters of compassion from the community, Ortman said. A local church even catered weekly meals.

"I've never adequately thanked our community, local pilots, and churches for the encouragement and support they provided during those difficult days," Ortman said.

After the crash, Lexington became ground zero for the intense labor dispute between the FAA and the controllers union. In 2006 the FAA declared an impasse in collective bargaining and imposed -- over the union's protest -- rules affecting work schedules, leave and pay.

More than 250,000 contract grievances were filed nationally after the impasse, but only one formal grievance in Lexington during Ortman's last two years, he said.

He said he agreed with the controllers' union "that the agency has been slow to inject new hires into the training pipeline, which can take 2-3 years to complete."

The FAA has repeatedly contended that staffing nationwide is adequate, and it says it has hiring plans in place to add new controllers as older controllers begin to retire.

Ortman said the FAA can realize significant cost savings by reducing staffing at overstaffed facilities; that money can then be used to pay for modernizing "an aging air traffic controller system." But fewer controllers means fewer leave opportunities for controllers who stay at those towers and less dues for the national union, he said.

"It seems to me that both parties have agendas regarding facility staffing issues," he said.

In both 2005 and 2006, Ortman made a push for a regional air traffic control center in Indianapolis to take over radar duties in Lexington during overnight hours. He said it was a way to cope with limited staffing.

But Ortman said those efforts "became entangled in agency red tape." Plans floated by the FAA in 2005 to completely shut down the Blue Grass tower at night, with radar duties taken over by Indianapolis Center, were rejected as a "political nightmare," he said. The FAA has said it was one of many discussions regarding staffing.

Such plans also faced stiff opposition from the union, Ortman said.

Comair Flight 5191 crashed after it took off from Runway 26, which is half as long as the primary Runway 22. Even though there were differing airport diagrams in circulation the day of the crash, each showed that pilots were supposed to cross Runway 26 to get onto Runway 22, Ortman noted.

"The question I wrestle with is, 'At what point did the pilots think that they had crossed Runway 26?'" he said.

IF YOU GO: A public memorial service for the 49 victims of the Comair crash will be at 2:30 p.m. Sunday at Southland Christian Church, 5100 Harrodsburg Road. Doors will open at 2:15 p.m.

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