NTSB interviews reveal problems with Hobby air traffic control tower

By Joel Eisenbaum - Investigative Reporter

HOUSTON - Channel 2 Investigates has learned the National Transportation Safety Board uncovered serious issues with Houston Hobby air traffic control following a plane crash that killed three people in 2016.

Dana Gray, 46; her husband Tony Gray, 52; and his brother, Jerry Gray, 54, died when the Cirrus aircraft Dana Gray was piloting crashed near Hobby Airport June 9, 2016.

The Grays had flown from Oklahoma to visit a family member in a Houston hospital, but Dana Gray was unable to land.

The plane was equipped with an airframe parachute that never deployed.

Conventional wisdom is that Dana Gray was too low for the parachute to be effective.

“They killed my family,” Licia Gray said in a recent interview.

The NTSB found both the pilot’s actions and Hobby air traffic controllers' actions were contributing factors in the fatal crash, but both the family and an independent expert believe the crash would have been avoided had Hobby’s tower have followed proper protocol.

“This was 16 minutes in tower airspace with incomplete, unnecessary instructions and distractions,” former FAA supervisor Pete Burgess concluded.

Dana Gray was attempting her third go-around at low speed and low altitude when the plane lost lift, stalled and crashed in the parking lot of a hardware store.

Burgess, now a consultant, reviewed the details of the crash, including the tower audio, for Channel 2 Investigates.

“They had no idea what they were doing,” Burgess said.

Three separate controllers, one of them in training, another coming on for a shift change, issued various landing and go-around instructions to Gray.

However, a letter of agreement in place between Hobby’s tower and approach control should have kept Hobby’s tower controllers from repeatedly issuing new landing instructions, after the plane missed its first landing attempt.

Both best practices and the agreement mandate that approach control handle go-arounds.

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“Following that letter of agreement is mandatory,” Burgess said.

Approach controllers, who operate out of the IAH complex, specialize in lining planes up for landing.

In this case, Hobby controllers administered the critical tasks of sequencing and spacing. Burgess said this was a serious oversight and the discrepancy is noted in the NTSB report.

APP USERS, CLICK HERE TO OPEN NTSB FINDINGS DOCUMENT

 

 

 

APP USERS, CLICK HERE TO OPEN NTSB CONTROLLER INTERVIEWS DOCUMENT

 

 

APP USERS, CLICK HERE TO OPEN ATC FACTUAL REPORTS DOCUMENT

 

 

“Unfortunately, these controllers at Hobby don't have the training we had years ago in sequencing and spacing,” Burgess said.

Repeatedly, Dana Gray, guided by Hobby’s tower controllers, was unable to slot in between larger passenger jets to make a safe landing.

“I didn’t understand all the run-around, still to this day I don't understand why,” Blaze Gray, son of Tony and Dana Gray, said.

The Air Safety Institute, a nonprofit organization promoting pilot safety and connected to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), dissected the crash as well, and found a series of deficiencies involving both pilot and controllers.

An interview with the front line manager on duty during the crash revealed that Hobby had struggled recently with tight staffing levels, spotty performance reviews and communication issues.

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“Mr. Kinkelaar could not explain why HOU (Hobby Airport Tower) had their recent issues, but has found that some people weren’t engaged like they should have been. Some controllers have never seen certain situations and that opened up opportunities to coach them. If he had to grade the facility management efforts to brief employees about issues and events he would (give) them a 'C to C minus,'” the NTSB investigation stated.

James Kinkelaar was later transferred to Atlanta.

The FAA would not answer specific questions posed Channel 2 Investigates about the incident, but did send a statement.

“Safety is the FAA’s top priority. The agency and its highly trained employees continuously seek ways to improve the safety and reliability of the world’s safest and most complex air transportation system. Any suggestion that overall safety at Hobby Airport is compromised is not supported by the facts,” FAA communication manager Lynn Lunsford wrote.

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