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Edition: U.S. / Global

N.Y. / Region


Published: February 27, 1981

Federal officials said yesterday they had asked for statements from the crew of an Argentine jet to aid their inquiry into why the plane, flying in clouds, came close to crashing into a television mast atop a World Trade Center tower in lower Manhattan at 10:05 P.M. last Friday.

The air-traffic controller who ordered the Aerolineas Argentinas plane to reverse course immediately when it was only three to four miles from the tower was quoted by the head of his union local as saying he ''did not know if the plane would hit the tower at that distance.''

The controller, Donald Zimmerman, was said to have been so shaken afterward that, as frequently happens after a close call, he had gone on sick leave.

Recalling two other hazardous incidents in the New York area since 1977 in which Argentine planes were involved, Representative Jonathan B. Bingham, Democrat of the Bronx, wrote the Federal Aviation Administration urging an examination of the ''credentials of pilots flying for'' the airline.

He said: ''Three 'near misses' by one airline seems extraordinary. I don't believe we should sit back and wait for a catastrophe before taking action. If there is some problem with Aerolineas Argentinas, it must be corrected if that airline is to continue to fly into U.S. airspace.''

The plane, carrying 49 passengers and a crew of nine on a flight from Guayaquil, Ecuador, was headed northeast in preparation for a landing at Kennedy International Airport. But for a still unexplained reason, it was at an altitude of 1,500 feet instead of 2,700 feet, to which it had been assigned.

This put the plane on a line more than 200 feet below the tip of television mast atop the Trade Center's North Tower. The controller, Mr. Zimmerman, recognized the danger when the plane was less than 90 seconds flying time from the Trade Center. He saw the altitude error on his radarscope. The F.A.A. said an automatic warning system sounded simultaneously. He radioed the plane:

''Argentine 342, what's your altitude?'' ''One thousand, five hundred,'' came the reply. ''Argentine 342, turn right, immediately right turn heading one eight zero,'' ordered the controller. This meant a sharp turn to due south.

The Argentine crew acknowledged. Then the controller continued his emergency directions: ''Argentine 342. Climb. Climb immediately. Maintain 3,000.''

At this point, the tape of the air-ground transcriptions is so garbled that its exact words are hard to decipher. But the crewman on the radio appeared to suggest that the plane had been cleared to descend to 1,000 feet, and he asked: ''What happened?''

Moments later, after the crew had radioed that the plane had climbed safely to 3,000 feet, the controller answered: ''I gave you a speed of 180 and two seven - 2,700 feet. Maintain 3,000 feet for now. I'll take you out for another approach.'' ''O.K., sorry, sir,'' came the voice from the plane, adding that the crew had understood the plane to be cleared down to 1,500. The controller said: ''There was a building up there ahead of you that was quite high.'' Paul Amato, chief of the controllers' union local to which Mr. Zimmerman belongs, said he had been so unsure that the plane would avoid a crash that he could not bear looking at the radarscope, and turned away. The radar control center is in Hempstead, L.I.

The two previous near-disasters involving Argentine airliners occurred in January 1977, involving a Boeing 707 that took off in a snowstorm, and on March 1980, involving a cargo plane.



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