The sleepy controller

Someday, ne’er do wells will discover that the cover-up is often worse than the crime.

The controller who fell asleep in the tower of Washington’s Reagan International Airport this week at first claimed his microphone was stuck, the Washington Post reports.

The controller has been suspended pending an investigation. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood today ordered a second air traffic controller be on duty overnight at that airport.

This afternoon, the National Transportation Safety Board filled in the blanks on what happened:

Following numerous attempts to contact the DCA tower, the flight crew executed a missed approach. The crew reported to TRACON their inability to make contact with the DCA tower; TRACON then vectored the aircraft back to the airport for another approach.

The approach controller and the TRACON supervisor on duty made several attempts to contact the tower controller via telephone, but were unable to establish contact. The TRACON approach controller advised the crew of American flight 1012 that the tower was apparently unattended, and that the flight would be handled as an arrival to an uncontrolled airport.

The flight was again cleared for approach, and instructed to switch to the tower frequency. At 12:12 am, the crew returned to the tower frequency, still unable to make contact with the tower, made position reports while inbound, and landed on runway 1.

United Airlines flight 628T (UAL628T), operating as a scheduled 14 CFR 121 passenger flight from Chicago-O’Hare International Airport to DCA, was advised of the service interruption by the TRACON approach controller and subsequently transferred to the tower frequency at 12:22 am. The United flight, unable to make contact with the tower, made position reports on the tower frequency while inbound, and landed at 12:26 am.

At 12:28 am, American flight 1012, on the ground at DCA, established contact with the tower controller, and normal services were resumed. The controller in the tower at the time of the incident, along with other FAA officials at DCA, were interviewed by the NTSB today. The controller, who had 20 years’ experience, 17 of those at DCA, indicated that he had fallen asleep for a period of time while on duty. He had been working his fourth consecutive overnight shift (10 pm – 6 am). Human fatigue issues are one of the areas being investigated.

The NTSB will be interviewing officials at the TRACON facility tomorrow.

I should point out, for the record, that while it’s unusual for airliners to land at Reagan without a tower controller, it’s not something that pilots would find confusing. Commercial carriers in Minnesota, for example, land at several airports that don’t have on field controllers. Brainerd, for example, has three (Delta) arrivals and departures a day. Pilots simply broadcast their position on the radio and other planes in the area listen in and everyone sorts out who’s supposed to land when.

  • JSK

    Is it common that there’s only one controller in the tower on overnight shifts at airports of this size?

  • Bob Collins

    Apparently, I don’t know how busy the airport is at this time of day (overnight), however.

    You may recall the case a few years ago where a jet took off on the wrong runway and the controller also didn’t notice and the plane crashed. That was a single-controller operation.