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...


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.

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