NATCA/FAA Rancor Cranked Up

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Both the National Air Traffic Controllers Association and the FAA have turned up the volume on their rancorous relationship and it's all about an air traffic control supervisor's decision to cut the sound on a tragedy playing out in northeastern California. In a news release, NATCA is alleging that "controllers at Oakland Air Route Traffic Control Center last Sunday were deliberately prevented from monitoring the distress calls from a small plane in trouble" when the supervisor cut the sound on the loudspeaker system that was playing radio transmissions on the guard frequency concerning the engine-out emergency that ultimately led to the fatal crash of Steve Wilson's RV-7 near his home of Grass Valley, Calif. They also suggest the action by the supervisor is contrary to recurrent training taken by controllers that teaches them "to never assume that someone else is aware of an unsafe situation or an emergency, but rather to bring that situation to the attention of the proper controller or supervisor." But FAA spokesman Ian Gregor told AVweb in an e-mail that by the time the controllers in Oakland had tuned in, the plane had already crashed and all they heard were transmissions from another pilot who saw the crash and was circling the wreck waiting for help to arrive. Gregor said the supervisor could tell from the transmissions that the situation was being handled by another facility (an FSS in Rancho Murietta) and that there was nothing his staff could do to help the pilot. He was also concerned that the blaring speakers would distract controllers from handling traffic. But, of course, neither side was prepared to leave it at that.

Gregor accused the union of exploiting the accident as part of a disinformation campaign to try and get a better labor-relations deal from the FAA. "This is yet another example of the controller union leaders making unsubstantiated claims in their ongoing attempt to attack FAA management because they're unhappy with a labor contract that we put in place a year and a half ago," said Gregor. NATCA portrayed the supervisor's actions as reprehensible and against FAA policy. "During an actual emergency where someone needs help and their life may depend on the response, it is completely unconscionable," said Oakland NATCA representative Scott Conde. "In 20 years of air traffic control experience I have never heard of anyone turning off the 'Guard' channel during an emergency. It is so completely against what we are taught, retrained and reinforced to do, that any normal person would find it unthinkable." The NTSB doesn't mention anything about the radio transmissions in its preliminary report and the people of Grass Valley are mourning the loss of a well-liked businessman and family man. "He was a family man who loved his wife," his daughter Katie Wilson told The Union newspaper. "He really loved his grandchildren."