While attorneys for the families of those killed in a 1987 midair collision over Kearns blame federal government for the accident, the federal government blames the pilots of both planes for not maintaining proper lookout.
In opening statements Monday, an attorney for the federal government said that the 1987 collision was caused, first, because the pilot of the smaller plane flew into restricted air space without alerting controllers at the Salt Lake International Airport and, second, because pilots in both planes failed to maintain proper lookout for other planes."On the day of the crash, visibility was 20 miles. There was no reason the pilots couldn't have seen each other," said Richard Nevitte, attorney for the federal government. "The only reason the pilots didn't see each other is because they just didn't look."
A battery of experts - including controllers, pilots, economists and accident-reconstruction specialists - began to testify in U.S. District Court Tuesday in the second day of what is scheduled to be a three-week trial. Widows of four pilots - two in each plane - killed in the collision between a SkyWest metroliner and a privately owned Mooney are suing the federal government for $5 million and reasonable damages. The widows allege that air traffic control on the day of the collision was negligent.
Attorneys for the widows argued Monday that the SkyWest pilots didn't see the Mooney because air traffic controller Mike Dawson had drawn their attention in a different direction by advising them to look for a Western Airlines jet in their vicinity. Up until the moment of the collision, SkyWest pilots kept reporting to Dawson that they were looking for the Western jet - in the opposite direction the Mooney came from.
Attorneys for the federal government suddenly decided to begin their opening statements Monday after attorneys for the widows spent 11/2 hours building their case for negligent air traffic control.
Federal attorney Richard Nevitte told U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Greene that he had not intended to give his opening arguments Monday, apologized for not having his notes with him and launched into rebuttal of the plaintiff's claims.
"The ultimate responsibility for the safe operation of an aircraft lies with the pilots," Nevitte said. "The pilots have a duty to see other aircraft and avoid them. That's an inescapable duty."
The air traffic controller had no way of knowing the Mooney was flying at 7,000 feet - within the path of the SkyWest metroliner - because the transponder in the Mooney only broadcast its location, not its altitude, Nevitte said. It would be illegal for the Mooney to be at 7,000 feet without advising the controller that it had flown into restricted air space, Nevitte said. Pilots can lose their license for such violation.
"The Mooney entered the (restricted air space) from the south and was a violator," Nevitte said.
Since the controller had received no such information from the Mooney, the controller was justified in assuming that the Mooney was either flying below the restricted air space or above it and well out of the path of the metroliner, Nevitte said.
Nevitte responded to the plaintiffs' argument that the controller was required to alert planes of other traffic in the air by saying the law requires controllers to give traffic advisories when they don't have more pressing duties.
While acknowledging that air traffic was light to moderate on the day of the collision, Nevitte argued that air traffic controller Dawson - the controller in charge of the SkyWest plane - was very busy in the 1 1/2 minutes before the collision and did not have time to give out traffic advisories.
The federal government reviewed the radar and audio tapes on the day of the collision and determined that "good control work" was being done, Nevitte said. He noted that there were five controllers in the room at the moment of the collision - some of them monitoring each others' screens - and no one saw the Mooney even though tapes show it appeared on the screen.
"Things happen that we don't understand, can never reconstruct or determine the cause of," Nevitte said. "But five controllers didn't see that Mooney."
Nevitte proposed that because none of the controllers saw it, a radar glitch may have kept the Mooney from showing up on the screens the moments before the collision.
But U.S. District Judge Thomas Greene didn't buy that interpretation. "I don't know that because the controllers didn't see the plane is evidence of a glitch," he said.
Nevitte acknowledged the glitch was his own interpretation of events.
Law requires that all suits against the federal government be tried before a judge instead of a jury. Greene reconvened his court at the Salt Lake International Airport Monday afternoon where attorneys gave him a tour and an explanation of controllers' working conditions on the day of the collision.