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Military, FAA at odds over unresponsive jet

/ Source: The Associated Press

With an unresponsive commercial jet missing its landing and no one knowing what was happening in the cockpit, federal aviation officials say they alerted the military about the wayward flight that failed to respond to nearly a dozen calls.

The military denies any alarm was raised. While investigation has focused on whether the pilots were sleeping, the Feb. 13 incident prompted congressional concern Wednesday and reveals a possible breakdown in communications despite all the measures installed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The Federal Aviation Administration said it properly and promptly alerted the military through various channels about the unresponsive go! jet from Honolulu to Hilo at 21,000 feet carrying 40 passengers and three crew members.

"We reported the event in an appropriate and timely manner," FAA spokesman Ian Gregor in Los Angeles said Wednesday.

Gregor said the FAA notified both the Hawaii Air National Guard and the Domestic Events Network, an interagency teleconferencing system established after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Military responders, however, said the agency never expressed any fear of danger.

"There was no expression of concern, causing us to necessitate a scramble," said Maj. Gen. Robert G.F. Lee, the state's adjutant general and commander of the Hawaii National Guard.

Lee said the F-15 jets are always on alert and ready to go. He said the incident needs to be sorted out.

"If there's a case of even a hint of a communications breakdown, we have to solve this crap," he said.

U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, sent a letter Wednesday to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, requesting more information on the incident.

Abercrombie, chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on air and land forces, questioned why military jets were not scrambled to investigate, or possibly escort the airplane.

"The incident raised serious questions about the safety of passengers and flight crews, and the efficiency of our national response system," wrote Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, in the letter obtained by The Associated Press.

Flight 1002, which left Honolulu at 9:16 a.m., ended up overshooting Hilo International Airport by 15 miles, according to the FAA.

The pilots are being investigated by the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board for possibly falling asleep on the brief, 214-mile flight. They have also been grounded by go!'s parent company, Phoenix-based Mesa Air Group.

The FAA emphasized that it can neither request nor order military jets to scramble.

"The decision to scramble, or not to scramble, was theirs and not ours," Gregor said. "We provided them with accurate and timely information and that's where our role ends."

Joseph Gutheinz, a former inspector for FAA and Transportation Department, said the responsibility falls on the FAA to not only make the alert, but to follow up and keep the military informed.

"If you have an urgent situation, you don't make one call and leave it at that," he said. "In the home of Pearl Harbor, you would think they would get it."

With the jet headed over the ocean, away from the population center, it's unclear whether the situation warranted a scramble. Until the aircraft overshot Hilo, it was following its correct flight path.

The FAA said it provided the information it had that "put the event in its proper context."

However, it's evident that the air traffic controller was concerned.

In recordings obtained by AP, the controller is heard repeatedly trying to contact the pilots and even talking to the pilot of another go! airlines flight in hopes of reaching Flight 1002.

"I'm worried he might be in an emergency situation." the controller says.

Finally, about 44 minutes into the flight, the controller was able to establish radio contact and told the flight crew to change course and head back to Hilo, where they landed safely about 15 minutes later, according to the NTSB.

Abercrombie requests an update on the results or progress of the investigations.

"Nearly two months after the event, there has been no definitive explanation by any federal authority," he wrote. "This prevents necessary remedial steps from being taken to address deficiencies with the airline and/or the appropriate federal agencies responsible for emergency notification systems critical to national security."

Abercrombie added that suspicions over the pilots falling asleep also continue to linger.

Homeland Security spokeswoman Amy Kudwa said the department will respond to the congressman's letter directly and not through the media.

The NTSB said the aircraft had experienced no mechanical or pressurization problems and reported skies were clear that morning. However, the agency gave no conclusion in its preliminary report why the plane overshot the airport.

NTSB spokesman Ted Lopatkiewicz said its report could take a couple more months because the investigation requires the same work and timeline as an accident inquiry, including examining the pilots' records, their work schedules as well as training and scheduling practices of the airline.

"We look at a lot of things, not just what the pilots tell us," he said.