Thursday, March 24, 2011

Ground Control To Major Tom

Washington D.C. Airport tower silent as planes land

Alan Levin, USA TODAY

March 24, 2011

WASHINGTON — Federal aviation officials are investigating why an air-traffic supervisor at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport failed to answer the radio and phone for at least 20 minutes early Wednesday while controllers at a nearby facility repeatedly called the tower and juggled flights heading to the airport.

Duh! He was drunk or asleep, that's why.

Pilots of two planes were unable to reach the air traffic controller Tuesday night at Washington's Reagan National Airport.

File photo by Julia Schmalz, USA TODAY

Two jets, American Airlines Flight 1012 from Dallas and United Airlines Flight 628T from Chicago, landed safely next to the silent tower shortly after midnight, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

Neither the NTSB nor the Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees the nation's controllers, said Wednesday whether the supervisor on duty had fallen asleep, gotten locked out of the tower or suffered some other problem.

"The FAA is looking into staffing issues and whether existing procedures were followed appropriately," the FAA said in a statement.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood reacted by ordering that two controllers staff the Reagan National tower during the midnight shift. "It is not acceptable to have just one controller in the tower managing air traffic in this critical airspace," he said.

The incident comes as the FAA has received increased scrutiny over controller errors, which have risen as the agency has begun several programs to push for greater honesty.

If the tower controller is found to have been asleep, it could be the latest in a string of aviation accidents and incidents related to fatigue. The NTSB in 2007 urged the FAA to revamp its schedules for controllers because they often work grueling shifts.

Republican members of Congress, most of whom do not use commercial flights out of Reagan, have severely cut the budget of the agency responsible for staffing airport control towers. "Getting the deficit under control is the number one priority of the nation today, even if it means the loss of a few lives in avoidable airline crashes," according to an excessively corpulent Republican Senator. "Americans are going to have to tighten their seat belts (get it) if the rollback of huge tax breaks to the very wealthy enacted under the Bush administration are to be avoided."

A recording of air-traffic radio Wednesday revealed that area controllers made a frantic effort to raise someone in the tower at Reagan National after the American flight initially aborted its landing and radioed other controllers for help.

"I called a couple times on a land line and a supervisor called on the commercial line — and there's no answer," a controller at a regional air-traffic control facility in Warrenton, Va., about 40 miles from Reagan, says to the American pilots.

The controller then advises the American crew that another plane had landed under similar circumstances a year earlier using procedures for airports without towers. "So you may want to think that over," the controller says.

A few minutes later, the controller radios the United pilots to warn them. "The tower is apparently unmanned," he says. "We called on the phone, and nobody is answering."

"That's interesting," the pilot says.

The NTSB is conducting a preliminary review to determine whether to open a formal investigation. Really? What more do they need?

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