A federal court judge has ruled that Salt Lake air traffic controllers were 51 percent responsible for a Jan. 15, 1987, midair collision over Kearns that killed 10 people.
U.S. Judge Thomas Greene concluded in a 37-page ruling that the air traffic controller in charge of the SkyWest Metroliner in its final seconds before the collision should have seen the private plane on the radar scope and alerted the Metroliner to its presence.Survivors of the four pilots killed in the collision sued the federal government, contending both planes showed up on the radar screen, and air traffic controllers at Salt Lake International Airport were negligent in not notifying SkyWestof the private plane's presence.
Greene agreed. Although private-plane pilots Chester Baker and Paul Lietz entered restricted airspace unlawfully moments before the collision, Greene concluded air traffic controllers were responsible for the collision.
Greene awarded the Baker family $387,000 and the Lietz family $377,000. The survivors of the SkyWest pilots settled with the government for an undisclosed amount part way through the three-week trial in October.
"We're pleased the judge ruled in favor of Michelle (Baker's widow)," said Robert Wallace, Baker's attorney. "She suffered a substantial loss. This will go a long ways toward assisting her."
"I'm just glad it's over," Baker said.
Wallace's enthusiasm was tempered by the prospect the federal government would appeal Greene's ruling. "That's the only dark cloud hanging over this victory," he said.
Greene's ruling noted:
- The probability of the pilots in the two planes being able to see each other would have been greatly increased if the pilots of the SkyWest plane had been notified of the other plane's presence.
- Even though controllers testified they did not see the private plane on their radar scope, a replay of the information recorded by the radar showed the private plane on the screen for several minutes before the collision.
- Recordings of statements made by traffic controller Michael Dawson in the moments before the collision showed that he did alert another plane to the private plane's presence, even though he testified it did not appear on his radar screen.
- Visibility at the time of the accident made it difficult to see each other without assistance from air traffic controllers.
- The final controller was too preoccupied with expediting air traffic and did not pay enough attention to safety precautions that "could have and should have been taken."
Attorneys for the Lietz family and the federal government could not be reached for comment.