Lone air traffic controller at Reagan National falls asleep as planes attempt to land
The control tower at Reagan National Airport went silent early Wednesday, forcing two airliners carrying a total of 165 passengers and crew to land on their own.
WASHINGTON — Two airliners carrying a total of 165 passengers and crew landed at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport near Washington without control-tower clearance because the air-traffic supervisor was asleep, safety and aviation officials said Wednesday.
The supervisor — the only controller scheduled for duty in the tower when the planes landed early Wednesday — had fallen asleep, said an aviation official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) spokesman Peter Knudson said the pilots of the two commercial planes, an American Airlines Boeing 737 and a United Airlines Airbus 320, were unable to reach the tower, but were in communication with a regional air-traffic-control facility.
The Reagan National tower did not respond to pilot requests for landing assistance or to phone calls from controllers elsewhere in the region, who also used a "shout line," which pipes into a loudspeaker in the tower, internal records show.
The American Airlines jet flying in from Miami with 97 on board aborted its first landing attempt and circled the airport after receiving no response from the tower at midnight. The plane landed on its second attempt.
Minutes later, the United jet flying in from Chicago with 68 passengers and crew also received no answer from the tower.
Both planes eventually landed safely after their pilots took matters into their own hands, broadcasting their progress as they approached and landed.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is investigating the incident, agency spokeswoman Laura Brown said.
The incident, which is also being reviewed by the NTSB, is the second time in as many years that the tower at National has gone silent for some time, said a source who asked not to be named. The previous time, the lone controller on duty left his swipe-card pass key behind when he stepped outside the tower's secure door and wasn't able to get back in, the source said.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, responding to the incident, said he has directed the FAA to put two air traffic controllers on the midnight shift at National, which is in Northern Virginia just across the Potomac River from Washington.
LaHood also said he has directed FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt to study tower staffing at other airports around the country.
Controlling the nation's air traffic is a multilayered system, with a network of controllers directing planes when they are at or near cruising altitude. The airspace beneath that is controlled by Terminal Radar Approach Control facilities known as TRACONs. Takeoffs and the final miles of runway approach are handled by controllers in airport towers.
After midnight, when traffic slows, a single person is on duty at the National tower, a shift reserved for a controller supervisor rather than a regular controller. The two planes that landed without tower help were among the last three inbound commercial flights until 5 a.m.
The first two planes landed and used information from their airlines to find the correct gates. By the time the third plane touched down about a half-hour after the United flight landed, communication from the tower had been restored.
The greatest risk posed by silence from the tower was on the ground rather than in the air. Planes routinely land in smaller airports without guidance from a tower.
In a circumstance like the one that occurred at Reagan National, pilots use the control-tower radio frequency to relay their position, speed and distance to other pilots as they approach and land.
On the ground, however, the slow nighttime hours are when maintenance crews crisscross the tarmac — sometimes towing airplanes — as they prepare for morning flights.
Those maintenance workers contact the tower on a special frequency to obtain clearance before crossing a runway. Inbound pilots contact the tower on a different frequency.
At airports where the tower shuts down for the night, ground crews and incoming pilots are required to use the same radio frequency to coordinate their actions until the tower reopens.
Aviation experts emphasized the unusual nature of the incident.
"I'm not sure that in all the years I've been flying airplanes that I can recall coming into a major airport and I couldn't get hold of a controller in the airport tower," said aviation-safety consultant John Cox, who spent 35 years as an airline and corporate pilot.
However, planes, including smaller airliners, land all the time at small airports that don't have control towers or controllers to clear landings.
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