Dec. 29--DAYTONA BEACH -- A Comair passenger jet about to land at Daytona Beach International Airport was on a collision course Monday with a tornado that air-traffic controllers knew nothing about.
Aviation officials failed to warn the controllers about the Christmas Day twister that could not be detected on the type of weather radar used at the airport, the Federal Aviation Administration acknowledged Thursday.
Making matters worse, the controllers' union says, a recent policy change banned radios from the tower that could have received an alert sent 20 minutes before the tornado touched down.
The tornado's 120-mph winds smashed hangars and 50 parked planes at the airport, and caused $30 million worth of damage in Daytona Beach. The Comair jet with 45 passengers and three crew members that left from New York's LaGuardia Airport landed safely about 20 minutes after the funnel touched down.
The weather-radar systems at the Daytona Beach airport, like those at Sanford and many other smaller airports, show only rain levels. A regional weather station in North Florida, one of two the FAA operates in the state, should have relayed the danger to the Daytona controllers, who saw only a fast-moving, heavy rainstorm around them, said Kathleen Bergen, an FAA spokeswoman in Atlanta.
"The controllers in Daytona Beach had no information about tornadoes," Bergen said.
She said Thursday that she did not know why National Weather Service meteorologists who work at the regional station in Hilliard did not notify the controllers, or whether they tried but were unsuccessful.
FAA officials said Orlando International Airport is equipped with technology that can detect wind shear, tornado activity and severe-weather systems.
Daytona alerts 'very vague'
The Daytona Beach airport receives daily, computerized weather alerts from the Hilliard facility, said Kelly Raulerson, an air-traffic-control specialist at DBIA and the facility's union representative. But she characterized them as "very vague" and covering hundreds of miles of airspace rather than a specific, immediate threat.
Raulerson said she doesn't think the control center could have sent the Daytona controllers the information Monday quickly enough. That's why traffic controllers have long relied on radios tuned to stations carrying the Emergency Alert System as a backup.
But Raulerson and other union officials say the controllers were left in the dark on Christmas Day because the FAA banned radios from work areas in control towers. If the six people on duty -- two of whom were in the tower's glass-enclosed cab -- had known of the dangers, they would have diverted the plane to another airport, shut down the tower and evacuated to safety, Raulerson said.
"We have no way of knowing of an emergency radio broadcast," she said. "The agency has put us in harm's way by not having this backup system."
The National Air Traffic Controllers Association is calling for the FAA to allow radios back in the control towers' cabs and radar rooms, where air traffic is monitored, and used Monday's incident as a rallying point.
In September, the FAA banned radios, TVs and cell phones from work areas in towers as part of a policy change in contract negotiations.
FAA: Ban meant for music
Bergen, of the FAA, said the ban was to eliminate distractions from background music and was never intended to prohibit weather radios, which don't play music but simply alert listeners to hazardous conditions.
Contract proposals prepared by the FAA state "since radios and televisions are allowed in designated non-work areas they are NOT allowed in the operating quarters." There's no specific reference to weather radios.
Doug Church, a national spokesman for the union, said local managers removed radios from control towers nationwide, even though they knew they were being used to monitor for weather alerts.
Traffic controllers across the country have since complained about the loss of their radios and say the Christmas Day tornado here wasn't the first time safety was compromised.
The union cited three other instances:
At the Raleigh-Durham, N.C., tower, controllers were unaware of a chemical-plant explosion near the airport that evacuated 70,000 people and left a toxic cloud over the area, which several planes flew near. They learned of the explosion after the fact.
In Hayward, Calif., controllers could not get up-to-the-minute reports on a mild earthquake nearby. They were called afterward by a manager to find out whether everything was OK.
At DuPage Air Traffic Control Tower in Illinois, a tornado came within two miles of the tower, but controllers couldn't see more than a quarter-mile out the window because of heavy rain.
Weather radios put back
On Wednesday, two days after the twister struck, the FAA manager in Daytona placed weather radios in the two rooms used by controllers to direct air traffic.
During Monday's storm, Comair Flight 5580 from New York was 14 miles east of Daytona Beach at 1:40 p.m. when the pilot lost communication with the tower's radar room because power failed at the airport. The pilot was able to speak with two men in the tower's cab, who couldn't see anything outside, Raulerson said.
"It was a total whiteout," Raulerson said of how the controllers described conditions. The two men are prohibited from speaking to the media by the FAA, which allows union representatives to speak on their behalf, she said. The controllers told her the windows seemed to breathe in and out. "The tower never knew what was coming."
They were oblivious to a weather alert sent out by the National Weather Service at 1:25 p.m., warning that a tornado would be near Daytona International Speedway at about 1:35 p.m. The racetrack is adjacent to the airport.
FAA data showed the jet was on course to land at 1:44 p.m., Raulerson said. The tornado struck 150 yards from the tower at 1:45 p.m.
The controllers could see on the radar they had a fast-moving, severe storm near them, so Raulerson said they diverted the plane to the north and had it remain offshore until the weather passed. It landed safely at 2:06 p.m. and taxied past the destruction the tornado left in its wake.
The tower sustained no damage, and no injuries were reported.
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