FAA Control Tower Is Not Always in Control

APRIL 21, 2010

The last recorded conversation of the pilot who crashed into an East Palo Alto neighborhood in February reveals that moments before takeoff he was told twice that there was no visibility on the runway and he was flying at his own risk.

The exchange between pilot Doug Bourn and an unnamed Palo Alto Airport air traffic controller detailed for the first time Tuesday in an audio recording released by the Federal Aviation Administration at the request of the Mercury News does not suggest that Bourn contradicted advice or acted negligently.

But it shows that Bourn had been alerted that the fog was very dense and that air traffic control would not take responsibility for the plane and his passengers, two fellow Tesla Motors employees. All three men were killed when the twin-engine Cessna struck an electrical tower and power line, then crashed onto a residential street.

"The runway is not visible so it's at your own risk," the air traffic controller tells Bourn moments before takeoff. Thirty seconds later, the tower repeats, "I cannot clear you for takeoff because I don't have visibility on the runway, so the release is all yours and it's at your own risk, sir." The pilot's response: "OK, 25 Juliet, rolling," signifying he was taking off. Then he departed.

Moments later, the plane struck the electrical tower, blacking out parts of the Peninsula, then hurtled into a deadly descent toward East Palo Alto. The recording shows that air traffic control did not recognize what had happened, and had also lost power.

Unlike commercial aircraft, personal aircraft face no regulations regarding departure conditions, as long as the pilot is certified to fly using electronic instrumentation instead of visual aids.

Explained local pilot John Fellerman, board member of the Palo Alto-based West Valley Flying Club: "The tower's job is not to have an opinion of whether it is safe or not to take off. The final responsibility rests with the pilot."

The audio recording also shows that Bourn's departure time was a half-hour later than originally scheduled, so his flight plan had to be adjusted. It is not known whether this was an inconsequential delay, or whether it might have caused Bourn to feel rushed. The team was headed to a Tesla meeting in the Southern California city of Hawthorne.

The recordings are now being evaluated as part of the formal investigation of the accident by the National Transportation Safety Board, said NTSB accident investigator Joshua Cawthra in Seattle. "We have specialists reviewing it," he said. "We will review it to see if it is odd or it is normal, and was the controller doing everything he was supposed to do? Could something have been done differently?" The investigation will be completed in a year, Cawthra said.

Source: San Jose Mercury News