Asleep in the Tower

25 Mar 11 3 Comments

Everyone seems to be talking about ATC asleep at the wheel today. On Wednesday, 23 March, the air traffic controller at the tower of DCA (Ronald Reagan National Airport which services Washington DC) stopped responding and two flights landed without establishing contact.

I’m starting to hear some interesting rumours and guesses already, so I put together this “Just the Facts” post to keep track of the detail.

The National Transportation Safety Board have released a Press Advisory which I’m using as my primary source alongside the audio recording DCA Unmanned tower archived at which you can listen to here with the volume increased and the noise reduced:

23:55 The controller at the tower at Reagan Airport makes a standard transmission.

At this point, everything appears to be normal. The controller who we hear on the recording is Potomac Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON).

00:04 TRACON tells American Airlines Flight 1012 to contact tower for final approach into DCA.

The flight crew make multiple attempts to contact the tower and then report back to TRACON.

The TRACON controller tells Flight 1012 that he has tried the landline and commercial line and there is no answer. He then reminisces:

“Remember a while back, a year or so ago, a fellow got locked out of the tower…”

00:12 American Airlines Flight 1012 switches back to the tower frequency for a landing at an uncontrolled airport.

This has caused a lot of concern in the press but there’s no inherent danger in this. It’s a set procedure with a very specific approach pattern. The flight crew announce all their movements on the radio and any other aircraft in the vicinity can listen and respond as appropriate.

00:22 United Airlines Flight 628T is told that “the tower is apparently unmanned” and that the previous flight has gone in as an uncontrolled airport.

You can hear a cleaned-up version of the final transmission on the subject when the TRACON controller tells American Airlines Flight 1900 that the tower is apparently not manned and explains his theory that the controller got locked out.

00:26 United Airlines Flight 628T fails to make contact with the tower and lands at 12:26

00:28 American Airlines Flight 1012, on the ground at the airport, makes contact with the tower controller.

The incident took place over 14 minutes.

The controller was interviewed by the NTSB yesterday. The controller, a management supervisor who was alone on shift, appears to have fallen asleep while on duty. It was his fourth night on the 10pm-6am night shift.

The FAA have released this Statement by FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt:

The FAA is thoroughly investigating Wednesday’s early morning incidents at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport’s control tower. While that is taking place, we have suspended the air traffic controller from all operational duties. I am determined to get to the bottom of this situation for the safety of the traveling public.”

As a former airline pilot, I am personally outraged that this controller did not meet his responsibility to help land these two airplanes. Fortunately, at no point was either plane out of radar contact and our back-up system kicked in to ensure the safe landing of both airplanes.

The NTSB issued a safety recommendation letter to the FAA two days before the incident:

In this letter, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommends that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) take action to improve the safety of air traffic control (ATC) operations by prohibiting air traffic controllers from providing supervisory oversight while performing operational air traffic duties. As discussed below, the NTSB investigations of several events have found ATC staffing scenarios in which the supervisory function was being performed by a controller who was also performing operational duties.

This will certainly add fuel to that fire.


  • While a sleeping controller is a problem for the FAA, we still have duty time problems for pilot. Particularly for those who fly long haul night over water flights.

    Pilot’s falling asleep are a real and growing problem. Imagine, if you will, pilots sound asleep as they approach an airport where the controller is sound asleep!

    I wonder, have we seen the REAL disaster in aviation yet?


    • Well if it’s an Airbus then no problem. It’ll just switch to Independent Flight Law and perform an uncontrolled airport approach. After landing it’ll switch to Supervisor Law and bring in the other planes, until a human ATC is once again available.

      Second Airbus to land will switch to Traffic Cop Law and guide the arriving planes to their terminals.

  • Well, with the BS Chicago is pulling with the expansion, they’ll have no problem getting in there in a few years, at the expense of American and United.

Post a comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.