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NTSB Reports Show Controller’s Troubled History, Pilot’s Drug Use

May 7, 1991 GMT

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ An air traffic controller who put a jet and a commuter plane on the same runway, causing a fatal crash, was relieved of duty as an Air Force controller 14 years ago and urged to seek psychiatric help, a federal report said.

The National Transportation Safety Board report released Monday also disclosed that controller Robin Lee Wascher had made similar errors during an evaluation shortly before the Feb. 1 crash that killed 34 people.

Ms. Wascher was urged to get psychiatric help shortly after her parents were killed in a 1977 plane crash, according to the report.

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The report, made public as the NTSB opened hearings into the collision at Los Angeles International Airport, also said USAir Capt. Colin F. Shaw had traces of phenobarbital in his blood when he died in the crash. The Federal Aviation Administration prohibits use of the sedative before flying.

Shaw was not at the jet’s controls when the collision occurred. His co- pilot, David Kelly, was flying the plane. FAA spokesman Ted Lopatkiewicz said investigators would determine whether the drug had a role in the accident.

An audio tape the FAA released in March showed that the collision occurred when Wascher directed a USAir Boeing 737 to land on a runway where she had earlier told a Skywest commuter plane to wait for clearance to take off. The FAA gave no explanation of what caused the error.

The hearing that began Monday will include testimony from experts and other witnesses. It will concentrate on the job of controllers, the visibility of airplane running lights and how well aircraft can be seen from the tower.

Wascher, 38, has worked for the FAA as an air traffic control specialist since 1982. She was a controller for the Air Force in Mississippi when her parents’ light plane disappeared after takeoff in 1977. It was never found.

A month later, Wascher told an Air Force flight surgeon that her parents’ death left her ″incapable of controlling traffic safely,″ the report said.

Wascher was relieved of duty and told to visit a military mental health clinic. The day after her examination, she received an honorable discharge.

The report did not detail Wascher’s military discharge and medical record because of privacy concerns. She has refused to comment.

The report, however, contained the following account of her work with the FAA:

Wascher enrolled in the FAA academy in 1982 as one of the replacements hired after President Reagan fired thousands of striking controllers.

The FAA did not have her military records when she was hired. When the agency received them, she was asked to undergo a psychiatric evaluation. A psychiatrist found no evidence of problems that would make her unfit.

Wascher received a satisfactory overall report on her most recent evaluation, but an examiner reported some deficiencies.

The reviewer said her ″awareness was not maintained″ on one plane on a runway while another was coming in to land and the incoming plane aborted its landing attempt. There were no further details.

The report also said tests on Shaw, 48, of Huntington, Md., showed the presence of phenobarbital. A prescription vial dated 1989 was in his flight bag.

The phenobarbital was prescribed for a spastic colon by Shaw’s personal physicians, who said they had warned him not to use the medication while flying.

In applications for FAA medical certificates dating back to 1973, Shaw never reported the use of phenobarbital to aviation authorities, the report said. A pilot must have a medical certificate to remain licensed.