Crash of Flight 5191

Tower chief was criticized in FAA e-mails

The day after the plane crash that killed 49 people, high-ranking officials with the Federal Aviation Administration suggested that the Lexington air traffic manager was a “renegade” and speculated he would be fired for having only one controller on duty at the time.

In Aug. 28 e-mails obtained yesterday by The Associated Press, the FAA’s Eastern and Western terminal services directors discussed the decision by Blue Grass Airport tower manager Duff Ortman to staff the overnight or “mid” shift with one controller, despite an FAA directive that there should be two.

“Just FYI that despite the mandate ... to have two people work the separate positions on the mids -- the Lexington manager was only scheduling one person on the Saturday to Sunday morning mids,” Eastern director John McCartney wrote to his West and Central colleagues. “Would have been good for that to be shared with the Hub manager. No factor in the accident but -- the (air traffic manager) is accountable for his decision.”

McCartney also wrote that he was trying to verify there were “no other renegades left and not staffing the mids.”

A little over an hour later, Western terminal director John Clancy responded that Ortman “will probably be removed as manager of the facility.”

Ortman could not be reached for comment yesterday. FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said Ortman’s status has not changed since the crash.

“We’re working closely with the NTSB on this ongoing investigation and these e-mails involve premature and ill-informed speculation by employees not directly involved in the investigation,” Brown said.

After mistakenly turning onto a runway that was too short, Comair Flight 5191 struggled to get airborne, then crashed. Investigators said the plane made the wrong turn after the sole controller on duty turned his back to do some paperwork. The co-pilot was the sole survivor; he was seriously injured.

In a policy outlined in a directive last November, the FAA said two controllers must be on duty for all shifts at any airport, such as Lexington, that handles both control tower observations and radar operations.

“We know there are many cases of understaffing around the country,” said Doug Church, spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers’ Association, the union that represents rank-and-file controllers. “It’s unfortunate the FAA appears to be more interested in finger-pointing than coming up with a solution.”

Ortman, who has not commented publicly about the crash, also was the subject of a Dec. 1 letter a Lexington air traffic controller sent to the FAA’s Accountability Board.

“Mr. Ortman has created an incredibly intimidating and hostile work environment,” the controller wrote. “Not only do the vast majority of controllers worry about the security of their jobs, but this anxiety in the workplace should be considered a legitimate safety concern for the flying public since controllers are not in a healthy state of mind while working traffic.”

Last week, Brown said she couldn’t comment on the complaint, citing confidentiality rules pertaining to personnel matters.

Follow more of our reporting on

See all 10 stories