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Odd string of Delta Air Lines incidents prompts an FAA probe. Spate of mistakes by crews of a top-rated carrier puzzles officials

Galvanized by a string of pilot blunders in the last two weeks, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is taking a close look at Delta Air Lines. The agency is expected to go through Delta's procedures with a fine-toothed comb, particularly focusing on training, cockpit coordination, and navigation techniques.

Delta will ``gladly unlock the doors'' for the FAA inspectors, according to Dick Jones, a spokesman for the airline. But he adds that Delta has no plans to overhaul its training methods.

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The troubles began June 30, when a Delta crew flying from Los Angeles got a signal of a malfunctioning engine. In trying to correct the problem, the pilot accidentally switched off power to all engines, and flashed a ``get ready to crash'' signal to the plane's 195 passengers. The plane dropped to within 600 feet of the Pacific Ocean before power was restored.

On July 5 a Delta jet pulling up to a gate at Washington's National Airport knocked over an empty van on the tarmac. There were no injuries.

Two days later, a Delta flight from Dallas to Blue Grass Airport in Lexington, Ky., flew out of a thunderstorm and mistakenly landed at a small municipal airport 20 miles from Lexington.

The next, and most sensational, incident occurred July 8, when a Delta jumbo jet strayed 60 miles off course as it crossed the Atlantic Ocean and came within 100 feet of a Continental Airlines jetliner. Apparently the Delta crew punched the wrong coordinates into the computerized navigation system before taking off from London. The planes were carrying a total of some 600 people.

According to the crew of a United States Air Force Boeing 747 that was in the vicinity and overheard the radio conversation, the Delta pilot urged the Continental pilot not to report the near-collision. But passengers on the Continental flight saw the whole incident, and the Continental pilot indicated it could not be covered up.

The most recent incident happened Sunday, when a Delta flight landed on the wrong runway at Boston's Logan Airport, spurring an FAA official to comment wryly: ``You're getting better; at least you were on the right airport.''

The five incidents have surprised airline safety inspectors and industry watchdogs, because Delta ``has an excellent reputation as being not only one of the best, but the best-run airline in the country,'' says FAA spokesman John Leyden.

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A year ago, the FAA inspected Delta from top to bottom, looking at crew training, operational practices, maintenance, and anything else that would impinge on flight safety. The agency fined Delta $120,000 - by far the lowest fine that any major carrier has received as a result of these in-depth inspection programs, which are carried out on each airline every year. By comparison, Eastern Airlines was fined $9.5 million.

Edward Wood of the nonprofit Flight Safety Foundation noted: ``To our knowledge, there's been no degradation of [Delta] training.'' He, like others, attributed the incidents to a ``string of bad luck'' and doesn't believe they indicated a problem endemic in the industry.

In Atlanta, which is Delta's hub, Roger Meyers, of the FAA's southern region, says the airline has had ``no particular problems'' in passing not only the annual inspections, but also daily surveillence.

Delta has no current plans to overhaul its training program, Mr. Jones says. Generally, a crew member has ``2,000-plus hours'' of flying experience before coming aboard a Delta plane. Captains have an average of 10 to 12 years as Delta co-pilots or engineers. Every crew member has a six-week training course when he or she joins the airline. Captains take a several-day refresher course twice a year; others in the crew have a refresher course once a year.

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