LEXINGTON, Kentucky – Nearly two weeks since the Comair jet crash that killed 49 people, the air traffic controller on duty at the time has not returned to work, and those who know him are revealing next to nothing — not even his name.
People who know him personally say that he is a 17-year veteran nearing retirement and that he is under strict orders from the Federal Aviation Administration and crash investigators not to speak publicly about the crash or risk losing his job and pension.
"It's the foxhole mentality," said Doug Church, spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. "These are brothers in arms. They have each other's backs."
The names and backgrounds of the now-dead pilot who steered the commuter plane onto the wrong runway and the injured co-pilot who was at the controls are widely known. But the government and the controllers union refuse even to release the list of the 19 controllers who work at the Lexington airport.
The man's fellow controllers are bound by strict guidelines against talking with the media, particularly during an investigation.
Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Laura Brown said there is no reason for her to release the controller's name, either. Brown would say only that he has not been to work since the crash but remains on the FAA payroll.
Although FAA guidelines called for two controllers to be on duty in the Lexington tower the morning of the Aug. 27 crash, only one was there.
Investigators say the controller got only two hours of sleep before reporting for duty and had his back turned and was doing paperwork when the plane turned onto a too-short runway in the dark. The jet struggled to get into the air and crashed.
The National Transportation Safety Board has interviewed him privately and is expected to hold public hearings on the accident eventually. He could be one of the witnesses.
In another recent case, investigators say a tired air traffic controller was involved in the near-crash of two jetliners at the Los Angeles airport. After a two-year investigation, that controller's name still has not been released.