NEWARK — A recent report by federal aviation officials on a near-midair collision at Newark Liberty International Airport noted that one of the two jets took 15 seconds to roll for takeoff after receiving clearance.
But in the NTSB's subsequent probable cause finding issued last week, the safety board laid the blame for the near crash solely on the Newark air traffic controller.
That has prompted some to question the NTSB's narrow finding of probable cause and its failure to explore why an ExpressJet pilot waited those crucial 15 seconds, a delay that Newark's air traffic manager, Russell Halleran, believed was the main cause of the narrowly avoided catastrophe.
"Mr. Halleran thought the main cause of the incident stemmed from ASQ4100 delaying his takeoff roll for 15 seconds," states a March 17 Factual Report on the incident by the National Transportation Safety Board, referring to the ExpressJet's flight number.
Though the NTSB acknowledged that those 15 seconds allowed a United Airlines jet to fly two miles closer to the runway intersection where the near collision occurred, the board determined that it was the controller's responsibility to maintain adequate separation between the two aircraft, to monitor whether his plan was being executed and, if not, to issue new orders.
"I was very surprised," Mike Reilly, a retired air traffic controller at Newark Liberty, told NJ Advance Media, referring to the NTSB's finding.
Had the ExpressJet taken less time to take off, Reilly said, it would have been up and away long before the other plane involved, a Boeing 737 landing on a perpendicular runway, was anywhere near setting down. If the ExpressJet pilot could not roll immediately, Reilly said, he should said so to the controller.
"If they need time on the runway and they have to spool the engines up, it's the pilot's responsibility to let us know that," said Reilly, who retired two years ago after 22 years in the control tower, 17 of them Newark Liberty.
Asked why the NTSB did not include the delay as a cause or factor contributing to the near-collision, the board released a statement asserting that the pilot had not broken any rules, while emphasizing the controller's ultimate responsibility for preventing collisions.
And while the safety board offered a hypothetical reason for the delayed takeoff, the NTSB chose not to say why it failed to find out what had caused the delay.
"ExpressJet's estimated 15 second delay after the aircraft was cleared for takeoff, while not anticipated by the controller, was acceptable under the regulations and might have been necessary to ensure needed operational and safety procedures were completed before takeoff," read the statement, which was attributed to Dana Schulze, NTSB Deputy Director of the Office of Aviation Safety. "An appropriate action in the interest of safety in a case like this would have been for the controller to cancel the takeoff clearance or provide a timely go-around instruction to the landing aircraft."
ExpressJet declined to say why its Embraer took those 15 seconds to start rolling.
"Flight 4100 was under the control of Air Traffic Control while departing Newark Liberty International Airport on April 24," company Spokesman Jarek Beem stated in an email. "Our crew followed ATC instructions and took off as directed."
The near-miss, which occurred on the sunny, windy morning of April 24, 2014, was a startlingly close encounter for commercial airliners that stunned even veteran air traffic control officials and terrified passengers who watched it out their cabin windows. The ExpressJet plane with 50 passengers on board had just gotten airborne when it flew 400 feet below the United Airlines plane carrying 160 passengers.
The controller, a 24-year veteran of the job, had been tasked with weaving a string of flights departing on a south-north runway through a succession of flights arriving on the perpendicular landing strip, an auxiliary runway in use at the time because of construction work on Newark's second north-south runway.
The controller had cleared the ExpressJet for takeoff with the United jet 3.1 miles to the southeast. But 15 seconds later, when the controller noticed that the ExpressJet had only just begun to roll with the United jet now only a mile away, he directed the United pilot to "go around," or abort the landing and circle back for a second try. The controller also instructed the ExpressJet pilot to watch out for the United jet.
The ExpressJet pilot put the nose of the aircraft down, staying low to the ground despite having just lifted off, while the United pilot pulled up sharply.
In its finding last week, the NTSB stated the probable cause of the incident as "the local controller's failure to comply with Federal Aviation Administration separation requirements for aircraft operating on intersecting runways."
The air traffic controller found to be at fault in the incident, a former Air Force controller who had worked at Newark Liberty since 2003, did not shirk responsibility, according to the NTSB, which stated that he acknowledged "he did not send UAL1243 around early enough."
The FAA declined to comment on any disciplinary measures the controller faced. His union, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, also declined to comment.
The ExpressJet "Pilot Statement," one of a dozen documents included in the NTSB investigative docket, was not a statement by the pilot at all. Unlike the lengthy first-person accounts offered by the two United pilots, the ExpressJet statement is a brief memo from an ExpressJet company official that ignores the 15-second delay entirely.
It stated: "The crew reported that, after a line up and wait clearance, they were cleared for takeoff. Takeoff was normal."
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