Human Error Led To D.C. Chaos

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A moment's inattention by a civilian contractor to the FAA was largely to blame for the false alarm that caused an evacuation of the Capitol building June 9. FAA Deputy Director of Communications Greg Martin told AVweb this week that the contractor, whose job is to act as a liaison between air traffic control and the National Capital Region Coordination Center (NCRCC), overlooked vital information on his screen when NCRCC staff inquired about an aircraft that was portrayed as "unidentified" on the security command post's radar feed. The subject aircraft, which was carrying Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher to Washington for late-President Ronald Reagan's funeral, had been manually identified on ATC monitors by FAA controllers because of a faulty transponder on the plane. "The specialist missed the tag. He simply missed it," said Martin. Within 25 minutes of takeoff from Kentucky, pilots of the governor's plane reported the malfunctioning transponder to ATC. Controllers then manually keyed in an identification code and asked the pilots to stay in touch, which they did. When the plane hit the ADIZ, however, that manually keyed identifier didn't show up on the Internet-based radar image at the NCRCC. When officials at the command post called the specialist at the ATC facility to inquire about the "unidentified" aircraft, Martin said the specialist didn't spot the unique tag and told the NCRCC people that everything was normal on his monitor. Faced with that kind of discrepancy, the NCRCC did the only thing it could, said Martin. "Under those circumstances, the NCRCC has to default to the highest security posture," he said. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association claims the contractor's lack of experience may have contributed to the error but Martin dismissed the allegation, saying the contractor was qualified for the job.