ON THE COLD, rainy morning of Dec. 1, 1974, Merle W. Damerson, an air traffic controller, was watching several airplanes on his radar screen, strategically guiding them into Dulles International Airport. One was a TWA Boeing 727 jet bound from Indianapolis to Washington that had been rerouted through Dulles, instead of National, due to fierce crosswinds.
Periodically Dameron checked the TWA flight, keeping an eye on all the planes on his screen. Suddenly he focused on the TWA flight, started to see it flying at an altitude below 2,000 feet in an area where the Blue Ridge mountains range almost that high.
Dameron radioed to the flight, "TWA, say your altitude." There was no response.
TWA flight 514 had slammed into the side of a mountain, missing the top by 70 feet, killing all 92 passengers and crew members aboard.
In the wake of the crash, there were lawsuits filed by relatives, lawsuits filed by the wives of the pilots, lawsuits filed by the owner of part of the mountain. There were the long, arduous hearings held by the National Transportation Safety Board and always there was the intricate complex question of whether pilot or air traffic controller was responsible.
The Safety Board issued its report nearly a year after the crash and found the probable cause of the accident "inadequacies and lack of clarity in air traffic procedures which led to a misunderstanding on the part of pilots and air traffic controllers regarding each other's responsibilities."
Today, Merle W. Damerson, who is 54, lives in Vienna with his wife and children. He is no longer an air traffic controller, a job he had for 25 years in three different sates - Alaska, Vermont, and then at Dulles in Virginia for 13 years - and had grown to love. He now runs a construction company business and goes to school at Nova, which he attends along with his 13-year-old daughter. He is studying for an associate degree in construction management.
"I think I'm pretty well over," said Damerson, who has a hearty, throaty voice. "It bothered me for a while, not because I felt I had done something wrong, but because so many people died. It took about a year and a half to two years to really get over it.
"This is one of those things that happen," he continued. "I don't think you'll ever stop traffic accidents."
After a couple weeks of sick leave and testimony before the National Transportation Safety Board, Damerson went back to his air traffic controller job for about a year. He found his friends there supportive, but he had become "much more cautious.
"I started widening the space between planes," he said. Whereas before the crash, he might have kept planes coming into the airport three miles apart, he kept them five miles apart after the crash. "I was overly cautious," he said.
Then one day, Damerson was clearing a private plane for approach to the Martinsburg Airport. "I turned him over to the Martinsburg radio," Damerson recalled. "But I'm still responsible for his coming in without contacting other planes."
Damerson estimated when the private plane would arrive in Martinsburg and held back other planes while waiting for the private plane to arrive. "But he didn't arrive and he didn't. I thought Oh, my God, I've got another one in the mountains."
It turned out that the small plane pilot had become disoriented, started his approach over, and simply arrived safety but 15 minutes late.
"It really shook me up, I said 'That's it.'"
Damerson is delighted with his new career and there's "not so much pressure." But he misses air traffic controlling. "What I miss most is the camaraderie among the people," he said. "It's basically a young man's job. As you grow older, you tend to get more cautious."
Dameron has a commercial pilot's license. "I don't fly now. I would love to, but I can't afford it." He has no qualms about flying on commercial airplanes. "Flying doesn't frighten me at all. The air traffic controllers are a fine bunch of people, they're conscientious, and they do . . ." he paused, as if searching for the right words, "the best they can."