The air traffic controller working when a plane and helicopter crashed near Frederick Municipal Airport in 2014 missed a radio transmission from the plane just before the deadly crash, according to her deposition.
A jury deciding the wrongful-death suit against Midwest Air Traffic Control Services heard the taped testimony Wednesday and Thursday from Charlotte Happle, a controller working in Frederick on Oct. 23, 2014, when a Cirrus plane and helicopter struck each other, killing the three people aboard the helicopter.
The families of two of the people aboard the helicopter are suing Midwest, claiming the company’s negligence was responsible for the deaths of Christopher Parsons and William Jenkins. Breandan MacFawn, of Cumberland, also died in the crash.
Midwest argues that the company is not responsible for the crash because the pilots bore the responsibility of avoiding each other and their actions could have prevented the crash.
Midwest’s attorneys highlighted several radio communications they say should have made both pilots aware of each other. Even though Happle did not expressly warn them of incoming traffic, the information she relayed over the radio gave them enough information to avoid each other, they argued.
Happle communicated with the Cirrus by radio as it approached. She instructed the pilot, Scott V. Graeves, to check back in when he was 3 miles from the airport.
She told investigators that she never heard Graeves radio in when he was 3 miles away. But transcripts show that he did contact the control tower and she later realized she must not have heard it.
Attorneys for the families argue that she didn’t hear it because she was busy clearing a jet on the ground for takeoff.
Another controller in the tower offered to help her clear the jet, but she declined. While the duties of controlling traffic on the ground and in the air can be done by different controllers, Happle said, it was not unusual to combine the tasks.
Happle had years of experience at Federal Aviation Administration control towers, she said. Until she came to Frederick a little less than a year before the crash, she had worked only at towers with radar. Frederick Municipal Airport does not have radar.
Without radar, Happle had no way of knowing at what altitude the aircraft were flying at unless the pilots reported it to her. The pilots did not report their altitude before the crash.
At the time of the crash, she assumed that helicopter pilots wouldn’t fly higher than 900 feet without permission from the tower because of policies in place at the airport.
Fixed-wing planes are supposed to stay at 1,300 feet.
“You can frequently lose sight of them, so the altitude was a stopgap,” she said.
The helicopter was flying above 900 feet at the time of the crash.
Air traffic control expert R.P. Pete Burgess, who analyzed the crash, determined that Jenkins, who was flying the helicopter, wasn’t aware that helicopters were supposed to stay below 900 feet unless authorized to fly higher by the control tower.
Attorneys for Midwest asked him about radio messages that could have alerted the helicopter pilot to incoming plane traffic, but ultimately, he said, the traffic controller had the responsibility to warn the aircraft of each other’s positions.
“I’m going to rely on the controller to do their job,” he said.
The case is scheduled to continue through April 7.