9 Investigates: Terrifying near misses in Central Florida skies

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ORLANDO, Fla.,None —

A database of pilot and air traffic controller complaints maintained by NASA gives a behind-the-scenes glimpse at what really happens in Orlando airspace.

WFTV investigative reporter George Spencer studied the complaints and found that they may astonish even the most seasoned traveler.

As the jets cue up to land at Orlando International Airport, we assume that the proper air traffic control staff is always guiding them in, but a 2007 complaint alleges that the tower's lone control commander left it unsupervised.

"I contacted my manager. She told me I could take breaks and leave the tower cab, but I would have to remained signed into the CIC log," whistle-blower and former FAA supervisor Gabe Bruno said.

That way, no one would know he left.

"It can be shocking. I can understand why a regular person might be shocked -- and wonder, 'Well, what's this all about?'" Bruno said.

WFTV searched thousands of complaints in NASA's Aviation Safety Reporting System submitted by pilots and controllers who have worked OIA's roughly 800 daily flights.

They "tattle" with the goal of improving everyone's safety.

Pilots also reported concerns about the controllers manning the tower being overworked, and at times, difficult to understand.

In June, a pilot wrote in about an inattentive controller during dangerous storms.

"As we neared the weather, the controller got to us too late and we were unable to safely execute the turn away," the pilot wrote.

In April, a departing plane was nearly hit by a landing plane.

"The controller seemed to be rushed and was speaking in a non-indigenous dialect that I am not used to listening to," a pilot wrote.

Last February, an incoming jet had problems for flying past Executive Airport.

It was a "saturated airspace with a saturated controller," the pilot said.

There are dozens of other examples, and Bruno said the underlying problems may not be fixed.

"The FAA is very slow in recognizing a problem, and even slower in putting corrective action in place," Bruno said.

The number of controllers in OIA's tower varies shift-by-shift and day-by-day.

Sometimes, pilots admit the mistakes are theirs. One blamed an altitude drop on chronic over-scheduling.

"This unsafe practice has to come to an end before someone is hurt or killed. It happens all the time," the pilot said.

Staffing problems for air traffic controllers have improved significantly, but the national union refused to take part in our story, saying the incidents are reported, but "unverified."

Other airports have similar concerns. For any major airport, there are dozens, possibly hundreds, of complaints in the database.

The FAA said the data is only one of several sources of information it uses to make safety improvements.