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FAA Ordered to Pay $1.1 Million in Plane Crash

November 25, 1986

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ The government must pay $1.1 million in damages because of errors made by air traffic controllers before a 1982 plane crash that killed two men, a judge has ruled.

However, Assistant U.S. Attorney James Stotter, representing the Federal Aviation Administration, said he disagrees with the finding by U.S. District Judge Consuelo B. Marshall. He said the agency has two months to decide whether to appeal.

Ms. Marshall ruled last week that the FAA was 60 percent responsible for the crash that killed pilot James J. Thielman, 55, and his passenger and son- in-law, Edward Blankenship, 29, in Santa Barbara County. Their single- engine Bellanca aircraft crashed into the mountains above Montecito.

The judge ruled that Thielmann was 40 percent responsible because he hadn’t complied with regulations requiring him to have recent experience in ″flying blind,″ using instruments and radioed directions.

The pilot’s relatives sued the FAA, alleging the crash resulted from the actions of the controller at the Santa Barbara Airport tower.

The crash ″occurred because the (controllers) with the responsibility to direct the aircraft and monitor its progress on radar and advise of any deviation from course ... neglected to perform their prescribed duties,″ the judge wrote in her decision.

The judge said the controllers lost radar contact with the plane but didn’t notify the pilot. Then, she wrote, the controllers failed ″to take timely corrective actions that would have prevented the crash.″

The judge’s ruling criticized the actions of two controllers, Robert Harrison and Robert Gabrielson, but neither was named individually as a defendant in the lawsuit.

Harrison, who retired in 1984, had worked for the FAA since the mid-1950s.

Gabrielson still works at the Santa Barbara Airport tower. He was hired in August 1981, less than a month after 14 local controllers walked off the job as part of a nationwide strike.

Gabrielson had previous experience as a controller in the military, and there was never any contention that either was unqualified.

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