Controller Sends Pilot Killed in Crash to Nonexistent Runway

Did ATC error doom pilot?

Accident investigators are trying to determine why a New York-area air traffic controller directed the pilot of a Beech Bonanza who died in the crash of his airplane earlier this month toward a nonexistent airport in the middle of an industrial area, possibly giving the man false hope as he desperately searched for a suitable emergency landing spot.

According to an audio recording of the ATC communications posted on LiveATC.net, the pilot radioed that he was having problems and needed to divert to Long Island’s Farmingdale Airport, telling the controller moments later, “I’m gonna have to take it down to the closest spot.”

The New York departure controller can be heard on the recording suggesting several options, including Farmingdale, LaGuardia, JFK and White Plains airports. The pilot, who was flying westbound at 6,500 feet, made a turn back toward Farmingdale. When he indicated he wouldn’t make it, the controller suggested “Bethpage Airport,” the old factory airport of the Grumman Aircraft Corp.

The problem with that idea is the closed airport has been completely erased by time and today is densely populated by industrial buildings, including major shipping hubs for UPS and FedEx Ground, as shown in the Google Earth image below. There is nothing resembling a runway, and it would be about the last place one would want to attempt a forced emergency landing.

Yet for some reason, the unidentified controller insists there is a runway there, directing the pilot to the airport at “10 o’clock and four miles. You’re just about lined up on the extended centerline.”

The pilot, who is understandably having trouble locating a runway that isn’t there, asks for guidance. “About 12 o’clock and four miles now,” the controller says. “It looks like you’re set up right on the extended centerline for the runway there.”

The controller then tells the pilot Farmingdale Airport is about three miles beyond to the southeast.

“I’m losing altitude, this is about the best I can do altitude wise,” the pilot radios. “Give me this airport again, I’m not seeing anything.”

“There’s a strip right about your 12 o’clock and three miles.” Moments later the controller adds, “The strip is a closed airport, I just know there is a runway there, about 11 o’clock and a mile and a half now.”

Site of the nonexistent “Bethpage Airport.”|

The Bonanza ended up crashing on a section of the Long Island Rail Road between the towns of Bethpage and Hicksville at about 7:45 a.m. on August 16 mere feet from where the runway, closed for 25 years, used to be. A passenger who survived the crash with serious injuries told investigators the engine quit after a loud “pop” and smell of oil.

The old airport is not shown on sectional charts nor is it included in navigation databases. Investigators will now try to figure out why the controller was so certain the runway still existed, if his erroneous guidance distracted the pilot during the critical in-flight emergency and whether a more suitable landing spot could have been reached.

In its preliminary report issued this week, the National Transportation Safety Board said “an examination of the area of the former Bethpage Airport revealed that industrial buildings occupied the former runway surface area.”

When asked about the duty status of the controller, an FAA spokeswoman said the agency could not discuss an open investigation.

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