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FAA Supervisor Prevents Oakland Center Controllers from Monitoring Emergency Distress Call from Aircraft Going Down - (2/22/2008)

CONTACT:     Scott Conde, NATCA Oakland Center, 510-673-0237; Ham Ghaffari, 661-400-2496; 

FREMONT, Calif. – Air traffic controllers at Oakland Air RouteTraffic Control Center last Sunday were deliberately prevented from monitoring the distress calls from a small plane in trouble because a Federal Aviation Administration supervisor turned down the volume of the facility’s emergency frequency and loudspeaker to an inaudible level.
The plane crashed at approximately 4:50 p.m. PST, on private property between Highway 20 and BannerMountain, near Nevada City, Calif., northeast of Sacramento.
Before the crash, a “Mayday” distress call came over what is called the “Guard” emergency frequency at Oakland Center, which monitors and controls airspace above all of Northern California. The Mayday was followed by other emergency-related transmissions – broadcast on a loudspeakers inside the facility – regarding a plane “going down over GrassValley.” Three controllers began listening in an attempt to understand the call signs involved. Then, according to one of the controllers, the supervisor came over and turned the loudspeakers down to an inaudible level, claiming “I do not want my controllers distracted.” The controllers responded by stating that it was their responsibility to always monitor this frequency and that they were trying to hear the call signs in order to eliminate the possibility that the aircraft was one in which these controllers had under their immediate control.
Air traffic controllers are required by the FAA to collect all available information from this “Guard” frequency. They are given refresher training annually 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.
“There is absolutely no justification for the supervisor to turn down the Guard channel. This frequency is required to be continuously monitored at every FAA air traffic facility and area,” NATCA Oakland Center Facility Representative Scott Conde said. “This is to ensure coverage and allow controllers to try and gather information on aircraft in distress. Controllers can pinpoint locations and relay information to emergency services. This can dramatically reduce the time that it takes to get assistance to the downed aircraft.”
Conde added that it is an FAA order that these frequencies be continuously monitored and tested for service. In any normal circumstance, he said, it would be highly inappropriate for any employee of the FAA to turn off the “Guard” channel. Said Conde: “During an actual emergency where someone needs help and their life may depend on the response, it is completely unconscionable. 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.”

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