An air freight company Thursday blamed federal air traffic controllers for Wednesday night's fiery ground collision between two planes at Mitchell International Airport.
Freight Runners Express, which owns the two cargo aircraft that hit each other, issued a statement saying that controllers told both of the veteran pilots to move on the intersecting taxiways where they collided. One pilot was slightly injured in the resulting fireball.
The federal government has spent millions of dollars on ground radar systems at Mitchell over the past 12 years, trying to prevent ground collisions between planes and other vehicles. But the current $14.5 million system is focused only on runways and isn't designed to prevent taxiway collisions, an FAA spokeswoman said.
Besides, on a clear night as on Wednesday, ground controllers would have been watching the runways and taxiways through the control tower windows, not looking at the radar screen, said Elizabeth Isham Cory, an FAA spokeswoman in Des Plaines, Ill.
According to Cory, Freight Runners and Airport Director C. Barry Bateman, the crash occurred after the two twin-engine propeller planes landed on parallel runways shortly after 8 p.m. If fitted for passengers, the smaller plane would seat 10; the larger one, 15.
The smaller plane, Freight Runners Flight 1539, a Cessna 402 piloted by James Kremsreiter, arrived from Baraboo and landed on Mitchell's smaller east-west runway. Kremsreiter then taxied around the terminal.
About the same time, the larger aircraft, Freight Runners Flight 1509, a Beechcraft 99 piloted by Charley Stephenson, arrived from Stevens Point and landed on the airport's main east-west runway. Then Stephenson turned off on a taxiway.
They collided at the intersection of those two taxiways and a third taxiway.
The cause of the crash remains under investigation. But Milwaukee-based Freight Runners pinned the blame on controllers.
"Both aircraft were operating in controlled areas under explicit instructions of air traffic control," the Freight Runners statement said. "One aircraft was given instructions by (the tower) to exit a high-speed taxiway, and the other aircraft was issued unrestricted clearance by (ground control) to move on an adjoining taxiway.
"The aircraft collided where the taxiways intersected. Neither pilot was notified by (air traffic control) of the impending conflict at the intersection, which would have prevented this accident."
In an interview, Freight Runners General Manager Robert Sevier said the pilots couldn't see each other because of "a blind spot" at the intersection.
Cory and Bateman confirmed both aircraft were in contact with the tower.
But Cory said she and Freight Runners were prohibited from discussing the possible cause of the accident by the rules of National Transportation Safety Board investigations. The NTSB, however, has not formally decided whether to launch an inquiry, said Keith Holloway, an NTSB spokesman in Washington, D.C. If the NTSB does not step in, the FAA would run the investigation.
As for Freight Runners' statement, Holloway said, "The NTSB does not jump to conclusions so early."
Freight Runners said Kremsreiter has 48 years of experience and Stephenson has 37 years of experience. Stephenson suffered minor burns to his hand, scalp and face, the company said.
In the 1990s, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association voiced alarm about several near-collisions on Mitchell's runways.
The airport wasn't in line for a top-of-the-line ground radar system, but under pressure from the Wisconsin congressional delegation, the FAA agreed to experiment with a system designed for maritime use. Mitchell became the first U.S. airport to test that system and in 2003 was the first to install the latest system.
Since Oct. 1, 2001, Mitchell has had 18 minor runway incidents, none posing a serious risk of collision, among more than 1.5 million takeoffs and landings, Cory said.
But the ground radar is intended to prevent collisions in poor visibility on runways, where high-speed takeoffs and landings leave little room for error, Cory said. It wasn't designed for taxiways crowded with slow-moving aircraft and vehicles, she said.
"The thing would be going off all the time if you had it configured for the taxiway," Cory said.
Wednesday's collision was the second runway accident at Mitchell in less than a week. On Sunday, a Northwest Airlines DC-9 ran off the end of a runway, slightly injuring one passenger.
But Bateman said the events were unrelated and not cause for concern.
"There's no trends here," Bateman said.
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