USA TODAY US Edition
Air-traffic tower that failed to answer calls sparks probe
NTSB investigating why D.C. controller didn’t answer calls
Unclear why tower at Reagan National went silent for about 20 minutes. One flight radioed other controllers for help after aborting landing.
WASHINGTON — Federal aviation officials are investigating why an airtraffic 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.
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.
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 airtraffic 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.