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Fri, Mar 25, 2011

Controller Allegedly Asleep In The Tower At DCA

Two Flights Landed Without Clearance, Tower Was NORDO

The NTSB opened an investigation Thursday into an air traffic control service interruption incident that occurred early Wednesday morning at Washington Ronald Reagan National Airport (DCA) in Arlington, Virginia.

On March 23, 2011, between approximately 12:04 am and 12:28 am EDT, an air traffic control service interruption occurred when two air carrier aircraft and controllers at the Federal Aviation Administration's Potomac Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) were unable to establish contact with the supervisory controller working alone in the DCA control tower.

The last radio transmission made by the tower controller before the service interruption occurred at 11:55 pm EDT on March 22.  At 12:04 am EDT on March 23, American Airlines flight 1012, operating as a scheduled 14 Code of Federal Regulations part 121 flight between Dallas-Fort Worth and DCA, was instructed to contact Washington tower by approach controllers at TRACON. 

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. NTSB Air Traffic Control specialist Scott Dunham is the investigator-in-charge. He is being assisted by an NTSB human performance specialist. Parties to the investigation are the FAA and the National Air Traffic Controllers union.

Citing a fatal aircraft accident and two incidents that occurred in a 23-month period between 2007 and 2009, on Monday, March 21, the NTSB issued a safety recommendation letter to the FAA asking the agency to improve the safety of air traffic control operations by prohibiting air traffic controllers from providing supervisory oversight while performing operational air traffic duties.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement concerning the incident:  "Today I directed the FAA to place two air traffic controllers at Ronald Reagan Washington National airport's control tower on the midnight shift. It is not acceptable to have just one controller in the tower managing air traffic in this critical air space. I have also asked FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt to study staffing levels at other airports around the country."

Babbit released a statement Thursay saying the agency is taking quick action in connection with the incident. "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.," Babbit said.

"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."

FMI: www.ntsb.gov, www.faa.gov

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