Crash that sent pilot to closed runway prompts FAA changes

AP News
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Posted: Apr 12, 2017 1:51 PM

MINEOLA, N.Y. (AP) — When pilot Joseph Milo reported engine trouble, an air traffic controller directed him to a nearby airfield.

But the airfield had actually closed 25 years earlier, and industrial buildings occupied its former runway. Milo crashed a quarter-mile away and died.

His death has prompted the Federal Aviation Administration to update its procedures to include weekly accuracy checks of its radar video maps.

The erroneous information was one of several factors cited by the National Transportation Safety Board in its investigation of the Aug. 16, 2015, crash. It also said Milo had several drugs in his system and was slow to react to the emergency.

The NTSB said the probable causes were a "controller's provision of erroneous emergency divert airport information to the pilot" and Milo's "improper decision to delay turning toward a suitable runway once he realized that an engine failure had occurred."

Milo, 59, of Westhampton Beach, was flying a passenger to Morristown, New Jersey, when his single-engine aircraft hit a railroad crossing in Hicksville, east of New York City. His passenger survived.

The pilot told an air traffic controller he was "having a little bit of a problem" and would have to "take it down." He said he would attempt to get to Republic Airport in Farmingdale, which was about 8 nautical miles away at the time of the emergency.

The controller then provided information about a closer runway called the "Bethpage strip," which was the site of a former airport associated with defense contractor Northrup Grumman. The controller told the pilot the airport was closed but said a runway was there. It turns out the airfield had been closed in 1990, and industrial buildings now stood on the former runway.

The NTSB found that at the time of the crash, the FAA did not require periodic review and validation of radar video maps and had no procedures to ensure that nonoperational airports were removed from RVMs system wide."

"I can't believe controllers didn't know Bethpage was closed," said Michael Canders, director of the aviation center at Farmingdale State College, who read the NTSB report. "There is a saying in aviation that rules and regulations regarding policies and procedures are frequently written half in blood."

Since this accident, the FAA has corrected its internal procedures to ensure all nonoperational airports are removed from radar video maps in the U.S. FAA spokesman Jim Peters said the new system became operational Nov. 28, 2016. He said all radar video maps are now checked weekly for accuracy.

He declined to comment on the NTSB report and provided no information on whether the controller faced any discipline. A spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association also declined to comment.

The NTSB investigation also noted that Milo had several drugs in his system, including "amphetamine was significantly higher than the therapeutic range." The NTSB report said Milo "was likely abusing the drug and that he was impaired by it at the time of the accident."

The investigation found that two minutes, 18 seconds had elapsed and that the airplane had lost about 2,000 feet of altitude before the pilot realized he had lost power.

"If the pilot had turned immediately after he realized the engine had lost power, he would have had adequate altitude to glide to a suitable runway," investigators said.

Douglas Latto, an aviation attorney representing Milo's family, called the drug issue a "red herring," saying the pilot had a chronic back problem. "If you listen to his voice on the tape, he was in total control," Latto said.

"This crash was caused by one factor and one factor only: The air traffic controller directed Mr. Milo to a runway that had closed. That is beyond comprehension."

Latto said the family plans to sue.

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Follow Eltman on Twitter at @feltman41.

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Associated Press researcher Jennifer Farrar in New York contributed to this report.