Daytona Radar Didn't See Christmas Twister

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...

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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