The Federal Aviation Administration denied yesterday that last month's near-collision of an Eastern Airlines jet and a helicopter at National Airport occurred when the control tower was understaffed because 20 air traffic controllers were out playing golf.
FAA officials were responding to a syndicated column by Carl Rowan that appeared yesterday in The Washington Post and other newspapers.
Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.), who confirmed for Rowan an initial report linking the two events, said yesterday that the incident needs further investigation.
An accident was averted Sept. 24 when the pilot of an Eastern Boeing 727 shuttle flight to New York, with 175 passengers aboard, slammed on the brakes and brought the aircraft to a halt just 40 yards from the Potomac River. No serious injuries were reported.
FAA officials said that the morning golf outing referred to by Rowan was an annual employe event meant to boost morale, and that it was in no way related to the near-collision, which occurred shortly after 5 p.m.
"The golfing outing had nothing to do with the staffing of the 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. shift, which is the staff on which the incident occurred," FAA Deputy Assistant Administrator Robert Buckhorn said yesterday.
Rowan, who has written a number of columns recently on air safety, reported that "the Eastern pilot had to abort his takeoff because the airport control tower was undermanned in favor of a golf outing."
Buckhorn said the tower was fully staffed at all times that day, with 17 controllers and assistant controllers and three supervisors on duty during the outing, constituting a normal staff.
Had the controllers not been playing golf at the Enterprise Golf Course in Largo, FAA officials said, they would have been away from the tower anyway.
"Those people were not scheduled to be on the shift in any event," said FAA Assistant Administrator Stephen Hayes.
In a telephone interview yesterday, Rowan said he stood by the accuracy of his report, which he said was based on conversations with a number of air controllers, some of whom were in the tower during the incident. Rowan said an official at the control tower denied that there was a golf outing when the columnist contacted the FAA earlier this week.
"The people who were in that tower tell me they were short-staffed," Rowan said. "I believe them."
According to Rowan's column, Oberstar said an investigator on the House subcommittee looking into air safety had confirmed the details in Rowan's report. Oberstar, who heads the oversight committee of the House Public Works and Transportation Committee, said "the substance of it is accurate," but during a press conference yesterday seemed to retreat from an initially strong stance.
"The absolute truth of the circumstance has yet to be established," he said.
The National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the incident, is not expected to release its report until early next year.
Rowan's report publicly identified for the first time the two controllers who apparently cleared the aircraft for takeoff.
The column characterized control supervisor Fred Bolster as being in a "frenetic triple role" when he cleared the Eastern jet for takeoff, saying that Bolster was supervising, working as a controller and training a new controller that afternoon.
The supervisor was most likely handling the controls as part of the new controller's training session, Buckhorn said.
The second air controller, Pat Dew, was placed on administrative leave and underwent recertification before going back to work Oct. 3, according to FAA's Buckhorn. He called the procedure routine.