NTSB: Controller nearly caused midair collision

WASHINGTON (AP) — An air traffic controller with a history of disciplinary problems nearly caused a midair collision between a regional airliner and a small plane last year, the National Transportation Safety Board said Wednesday.

A regional jet operated by ExpressJet for Continental-United Airlines and a single-engine Cessna came within 300 feet of colliding after they were cleared to take off on intersecting runways at Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport in Mississippi on June 19, according to NTSB officials and documents released by the board.

There were 53 passengers and crew aboard the regional jet, an Embraer ER145. A student pilot, accompanied by a flight instructor, was flying the Cessna 172.

Airport tower controller Robert Beck first cleared the Cessna to take off on runway 18, according to the documents. About 16 seconds later, Beck cleared the regional jet, Flight 2555, to take off on runway 14, which crosses runway 18. No warning was issued to either pilot about the other plane.

Both planes were at the same altitude, about 300 feet above the airport, when they passed within 300 feet laterally of each other. As the planes passed, the ExpressJet captain exclaimed to his co-pilot: “Wow, that was close.” One air traffic manager told investigators, “It was a miracle that no one died,” according to an NTSB summary of investigators’ interviews.

The airliner was bound for Houston Bush Intercontinental Airport, where it landed uneventfully.

Afterward, air traffic officials told investigators Beck had “a history of professional deficiencies that included taking shortcuts with phraseology and not complying with standard checklist procedures,” the documents said.

Beck, a controller for 23 years, also had been suspended several times within the last five years for tardiness, absenteeism and failure to report an arrest for driving under the influence. Beck also had been removed from duties training less experienced controllers after a trainee complained that “Mr. Beck was in the back of the room with his feet up and eyes closed” while conducting training sessions, the documents said.

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