An incident that thankfully ended with some fairly rattled pilots and passengers but no more than a little lost tire rubber begs the question of who is training whom at some of the nation's air traffic control towers. The National Air Traffic Controllers Union says two trainee controllers were in on duty by themselves in the Lehigh International Airport tower when a Mesa Airlines CRJ700 had to swerve (as in the sudden deviation from a straight path) to avoid a just-landed Cessna 172 while taking off from the Allentown, Pa., airport. The widely accepted estimate is the RJ, with 60 passengers aboard, missed the 172 by about 10 feet while decelerating from 120 knots. According to the NTSB, the Cessna was told to take an early taxiway exit but missed and the pilot reported he or she was heading for the next taxiway. The trainees missed that and, thinking the 172 had left the runway, cleared the RJ for takeoff.
The Mesa crew apparently heard the 172 pilot's report that the controllers missed but started the takeoff. They were almost at rotation speed when they spotted the Cessna and swerved to miss it. While no one is so disputing the facts of the incident, NATCA is suggesting a shortage of qualified controllers played a role and it's sure to come up at a meeting of the House Aviation Subcommittee on Thursday to discuss--runway safety. "The FAA is so desperate to staff its towers they are forced to work trainees by themselves without adequate numbers of experienced controllers there to work with them," said NATCA President Patrick Forrey. "This has exposed the inexperience of our new workforce. It's unfair to these trainees and should be unacceptable to the flying public." The Mesa flight (operating for United) was cancelled.