Air controllers deny negligence

Pilot blamed for taking defendants' advice over cockpit alarm

Two air traffic controllers pleaded not guilty Thursday to professional negligence in connection with injuries passengers sustained when their jumbo jet made a radical maneuver to avoid a midair collision in January 2001.

Attorneys for Hideki Hachitani, 30, and Yasuko Momii, 35, argued at the opening session of their Tokyo District Court trial that the accident was caused by an error by the pilot of one of the planes, who instead of heeding a cockpit collision alarm followed a mistaken order by one of the two controllers.

Hachitani and Momii also addressed the court, but only to admit they were on duty at the Tokyo Air Traffic Control Center at the time.

Hachitani was a trainee and Momii his supervisor in the leadup to the near-miss over Yaizu, Shizuoka Prefecture, when the alleged negligent miscommunication prompted the captain of Japan Airlines Flight 907, a Boeing 707 bound for Naha, Okinawa Prefecture, from Tokyo’s Haneda airport, to execute a radical evasive dive, injuring about 100 passengers and crew.

The trial, the first involving air traffic controllers charged over a near-miss incident, was preceded by a demonstration involving about 100 fellow civil servants.

Police had pursued negligence charges against the pilot of Flight 907, but prosecutors dropped the case.

The accident occurred at around 4 p.m. on Jan. 31, 2001, when Flight 907 and JAL Flight 958, a DC-10 en route to Narita airport from Pusan, South Korea, were established on a collision course.

Trainee Hachitani was alerted to the impending collision and tried to prevent it but mistakenly ordered Flight 907, which had been climbing, to descend because he had erroneously thought he was talking to Flight 958, prosecutors said.

The captain of Flight 907 followed the order and the 747 came close to colliding with Flight 958. The two planes came within about 105 to 165 meters of each other.

The captain of Flight 907 disregarded a cockpit collision alarm in trusting the controller, then realized the danger and took evasive action, diving the 747 under the DC-10, resulting in the injuries.

The two controllers are specifically charged with causing, through their alleged negligence, the injuries of 57 of the hurt passengers who filed criminal complaints.

Momii is accused of failing to realize Hachitani had issued the wrong order and of failing to correct the situation.

A lawyer for Hachitani acknowledged the trainee mixed up the flight numbers when he gave the order, but denied negligence was committed.

“Merely holding air traffic controllers responsible will not lead to exposing the cause of the accident,” the lawyer said, indicating various factors led to the mishap.

Using a personal computer-operated system in court to project a virtual replay of the incident, prosecutors said Momii failed to listen as Hachitani gave the wrong order because she was keeping track of other aircraft.

Both Momii and Hachitani realized the two planes were coming dangerously close to each other via a radar warning system, prosecutors said.

“Hachitani did not realize he said the wrong flight number, and believed he had given the correct order to descend,” the prosecutors stated.

After Hachitani gave the wrong descent order to Flight 907, the pilot repeated the order back to the controller as is routine and for confirmation, but Hachitani failed to notice the response, and Momii, assuming the order had been given to the correct aircraft, mistook it as a response from Flight 958, the prosecutors said.