Tower at Reagan National goes silent as planes attempt to land
Ashley Halsey III
The 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.
An American Airlines Boeing 737 flying in from Miami with 97 on board aborted its landing and circled the airport after getting no response from the tower at midnight. Minutes later a United Airlines Airbus 320 flying in from Chicago with 68 passengers and crew also received no answer from the tower.
Both planes landed safely after their pilots took matters into their own hands, broadcasting their progress as they approached and landed. They were also communicating with controllers at a separate facility in the region that does not handle landings.
The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating the incident, agency spokeswoman Laura J. Brown said in a statement.
“The pilots were in contact with air traffic controllers at the Potomac TRACON, which hands off flights to the tower shortly before they land, and both aircraft landed safely,” she said. “The FAA is looking into staffing issues and whether existing procedures were followed appropriately. “
The incident, which is under review by the National Transportation Safety Board, is the second time in as many years that the tower at National has gone silent for a period of time, said a source familiar with tower operations who asked not to be named because he is not authorized to speak for the FAA. 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.
A controller at another facility even talked about that incident as the pilots were trying to land Wednesday morning.
A missed handoff
Controlling the nation’s air traffic is a multilayered system, with a network of enroute 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. Actual 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 Reagan National tower, a shift reserved for a controller supervisor rather than a regular controller. The two planes that landed without tower help were the last three inbound commercial flights until 5 a.m., the source said.
A few minutes after midnight on Wednesday, radio recordings show, the TRACON controller handling the flight from Miami made a routine verbal handoff, telling the pilot to contact the tower.
Unable to reach anyone at Reagan National, the pilot aborts the approach, circles the airport and radios the Potomac TRACON controller for help in aligning the plane for landing. A few minutes later, when the United plane approaches for landing the TRACON controller cautions him that the tower is unmanned.
The TRACON controller has a similar conversation with a second American plane.
“So, you’re aware,” the TRACON controller says, “the tower is apparently not manned. We’ve made a few phone calls. Two airplanes went in in the past 10-15 minutes, so you can expect to go in to an uncontrolled airport.”
“Is there a reason it’s not manned?” the American pilot asks.
“Well, I’m going to take a guess,” the TRACON controller replies, “and say that the controller got locked out. I’ve heard of it happening before.”
“That’s the first time I’ve heard of it,” the pilot replies.
“Fortunately, it’s not very often,” the controller said. “It happened about a year ago. I’m not sure that’s what happened now, but there’s nobody in the tower.”
Finding their way
The first two planes landed and used information from their airlines to find the correct gates. By the time the third plane touched down, after about a half-hour of silence, 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 that which occurred at National, pilots get on the control tower radio frequency and relay their position, speed and distance to other pilots as they approach and land.
“So, other airplanes would know ‘okay, he’s clear of the runway’ so I’m good to go,” said the source familiar with tower operations.
On the ground, however, the slow nighttime hours are when maintenance crews crisscross the tarmac — sometimes towing airplanes — as they make ready for the next morning.
“There are people in the control tower for a reason,” the source said. “There’s a whole lot of activity going on during the night.”
Those maintenance workers contact the tower on a special frequency to get clearance before crossing a runway. Inbound pilots contact the tower on a different frequency.
At airports where the tower shuts down for the night, both ground crews and incoming pilots are required to use the same radio frequency to coordinate their actions until the tower reopens.
Air traffic controllers who direct more than 1.5 million flights annually in the Washington region made a record number of mistakes last year.
Dozens of the errors triggered cockpit collision warning systems. Nationwide, errors by air traffic controllers increased by 51 percent last year. The record number of errors — locally and nationally — reflects a majority of instances in which planes came too close but without risk of collision and some in which fatal consequences were narrowly averted.
In January an American Airlines plane carrying 259 people almost collided with a pair of 200-ton military cargo jets after taking off from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. Official records showed that a distracted controller did not respond to a warning from a colleague that the planes were on a converging course.
March 23, 2011