Snoozing at DCA: Two Views

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Asleep on the Job

In my spare time, I'm working on becoming a connoisseur of interpreting Randy Babbitt's facial expressions. And watching an ABC report last week, I'm pretty sure the glazed-eyed look I saw on Mr. Babbitt's mug essentially said, "I can't believe my job requires me to sit here and answer such stupid @#$%*(@ questions from the press." The question in question was what Babbitt intended to do about the tower and ground controller who fell asleep on the midshift at Reagan National last week. Umm…buy him an alarm clock? Instead, Babbitt said he was outraged, an understandable response whose underlying meaning might suggest he was thinking that if you're gonna work the mids, learn how to snooze lightly enough so as not to appear in a lead story on the evening news.

Let's dispense with the safety aspect of this ridiculous incident first. Was there a breach of safety? Yes, a little, the difference between 99.0099 and 99.0098 or like driving 59 MPH in a 55. The principle risk is a cluttered runway or some rogue light bulb changer dashing around in an unlighted truck. But since maintenance crews tend not to do that given the consequences, the risk of this is vanishingly small. A runway excursion or other emergency is also a small risk, but if the TRACON is awaiting an IFR cancellation, that one's covered, too.

To the typical ignoramus in a working press newsroom, controllers "guide" airplanes to the runway and they seem to imagine pilots being helpless without ATC. ("You're a little left, too far left…you're going low…ABORT! ABORT! Oh my God!...") Diane Sawyer imagined how horrible it must have been for those pilots. Probably true, for the flight that went around for lack of a landing clearance, they got to the hotel 15 minutes late. Why the very idea. Personally, I'm cheered by the fact that two people flying a Boeing or an Airbus can actually fly a visual pattern, navigate and still put the airplane down on the centerline in the touchdown zone. Just think of how challenged they must have been. What airmanship! Where do we find such men and women?

So what should Babbitt and his boss, SecDOT Ray LaHood do here? While Babbitt is probably trying to move along meaningful work across his desk, LaHood promises to review staffing levels, maybe doubling them at some towers where a solo controller now handles the midshift. The review is fair enough, but the staff up almost certainly is not. I agree with what Bill Voss, a former controller and president of the Flight Safety Foundation said: "It's not outrageous for the agency to avoid putting a second six-figure employee into a tower where they may only work a dozen airplanes in a shift."

In a rare moment of clarity from the political class, Rep. John Mica, chairman of the House transportation committee, called LaHood's decision to add a second controller to the midnight shift "a typical bureaucratic response." I'd call it a typical political response, since in order to avoid the staff increase, at least across the board at all such facilities, LaHood will have to step up and explain some things to the public that it may not like to hear.

For instance, this: Controllers separate and sequence. They do not "guide" airplanes and they certainly don't land them. Secretary LaHood might use this incident as an opportunity to educate the public that we live in an age of limits. We can't afford to throw people and money at every problem to mitigate a ten-to-the-ninth risk factor. Some things you just have to live with and this is probably one of them. The FAA says about 30 facilities staff the mids with a single controller. As they always have, those controllers sometimes doze off. It happens. They crank up the radio and interphone volume, wake up when they need to work and the job gets done. If it doesn't get done, are lives at risk? Not significantly. (Arguments that the Lexington, Kentucky accident may have been prevented by a second controller are unconvincing because one of the two probably would have been napping anyway.) Doubling the staff won't increase safety commensurate with cost, in my view.

At DCA, the single best (weak) argument for a second mids controller is that Babbitt called the area "critical airspace." But another way of describing that is "politically sensitive" airspace. We've beaten this horse before, so no need to explain it further. Traffic wise, DCA has about 750 to 800 operations a day, ranking it about number 30 in tower ops, behind Long Beach and Daytona Beach, ahead of Fort Lauderdale and Anchorage. Those ops are obviously loaded between 6 a.m. and midnight.

For those who insist that a solo midshift has to stay awake, there are technological ways to do that. Put a five-minute dead-man switch with a piercing alarm on the comm panel or wire the Center or TRACON into the tower and turn the entire airspace over to them, including CFR dispatch. Throwing more people at the problem as a primary response is just what it always has been: Featherbedding and a big hammer to strike a tiny nail.

-- Paul Bertorelli

Man Wasn't Meant to be Nocturnal

The last time this happened at DCA, the controller had gone outside and forgotten his keycard to get back in, but these days, he would have to forget both his card and his cellphone for that excuse to work. So, the investigation revealed what everyone suspected: The controller, a supervisor with 20 years of experience, had drifted off shortly after midnight, while working his fourth consecutive overnight shift (10 p.m. to 6 a.m.).

I can understand Randy Babbitt's statement on Thursday that he was "outraged," but I'm not so sure that's the most useful response. The controllers union has been saying for years that it's a bad idea to leave lone controllers in towers to work overnight shifts. Sure, they have a vested interest in boosting staffing. But circadian rhythms are powerful things, and it's just not natural to expect humans to stay up all night alone, with not much going on, in a big empty tower, and fight off the urge to sleep 100 percent of the time. Granted, the controller on duty no doubt knew that was what the job required, and accepted the task. Thus "outrage" is understandable, but it still fails to address the real issues.

Ray LaHood had a quicker and more pro-active response. He told the FAA on Wednesday to up the staffing at DCA to two controllers on the overnight shift, and asked for a study of staffing levels at other airports around the country. Two controllers all night long is certainly overkill for facilities that have just a handful of operations overnight. But assigning a lone controller goes against common sense. Maybe the best solution would be a third choice -- close the tower overnight and establish new procedures, such as Class E-surface airspace managed remotely by the nearest ARTCC. But for now, LaHood's action at least attempts to address the problem, and it's more useful than "outrage."

-- Mary Grady

Comments (89)

As a retired controller who has worked various towers of high and low traffic density, and mid-shifts with just one controller, and two; my solution to the problem varies with how much the public is willing to pay. The cheapest solution would be as Mary Grady suggested - close the tower during periods when there are no scheduled flights.

If the tower is to be closed, there is the safety issue of bad weather; changing runway conditions when it snows, and controlling runway and approach light settings during low visibility conditions. If snowplows are to work on the runway, a controller needs to be there in case of unscheduled arrivals or departures. Probably the best all-around solution would be a head-nodding sensor that would buzz the controller awake if his head tilts too far.

The expensive solution is really the best - two people on duty. The inevitable trips to the john would no longer be a concern.

Posted by: Unknown | March 28, 2011 5:34 AM    Report this comment

I like to proposal from Mary. Or, establish a remote "controlled" CTAF. If you want them to visually "see" the RWY etc. you can add a camera. The remote staff could handle several airports and stay efficient.
--Peter Steeger

Posted by: PETER STEEGER | March 28, 2011 5:42 AM    Report this comment

I am really pleased with Mr. Babbitt. He is so much more effective than the last FAA administrator it is hard to even compare them.

That said, I think this whole incident with the sleeping controller is more of a media event than an actual problem. Perhaps the best "Solution" is the one suggested by Paul Bertorelli: Just explain it to the public and live with it.

Closing the tower when the curfew is in effect (departures are forbidden at this airport in the late hours) seems reasonable. Adding another controller to handle 3 operations in a shift seems like serious overkill. However, the political sensitivity of this particular airport means the single controller solution as merit.

Posted by: PAUL MULWITZ | March 28, 2011 6:00 AM    Report this comment

I am in total agreement with your comments. I worked for an airline for over 30 years and one that frequented smaller airports. Some had towers, some not, and those with towers closed in the late hours. We still operated into those airports, with or without the tower operating and used CTAF, which is what the two airliners likely did while landing at DCA. Even if airport maintenance personal were "changing light bulbs" that night they would have been monitoring CTAF, just to get tower approval. If two controllers were working, they probably would have been taking turns napping. As you have indicated, the news has gone ballistic again over something they know nothing about. The only terrifying thing for the pilots was landing without landing clearance at a tower controlled airport. Beware of the wrath of the FAA for that. They are now probably thankful the controller was asleep in order to dodge that violation.

Posted by: Tom Helm | March 28, 2011 6:40 AM    Report this comment

Well, at least he didn't fall asleep face flat on his laptop while trying to figure out his work schedule for the month.

Posted by: DAVID AFFINITO | March 28, 2011 6:49 AM    Report this comment

The media, FAA, and congressional reaction is a big part of what got us into the fiscal mess we are in today. Some rare event happens (in this case with benign results) then bureaucrats and congress feel a need to "appear" to be doing something (in response to the horror described by the press) so they throw a bunch of our money at the problem.
Ok, there are 30 facilities with single staff in the overnight shift. Instant reaction: add a second controller to play cards with the first most of the night = 30 more controllers at $100+k a pop plus management, a group to study the problem, etc for a cool $6 million of other peoples' (taxpayers') money. Our government appears to be protecting us again!

Posted by: Kingsley Hill | March 28, 2011 6:51 AM    Report this comment

OMG, how did National Security survive the night? I mean the airspace might have been assaulted by Cessna-flying terrists!

Posted by: Richard Sinnott | March 28, 2011 7:21 AM    Report this comment

Those who are "outraged" are those who don't understand flying. What we don't need are precious few dollars being wasted on extra controllers just to placate the clueless.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | March 28, 2011 7:35 AM    Report this comment

Let me understand, 2 flights could not raise the tower and tracon could not raise the tower? Does anyone recall 9/11? No one thought of possible terrorism? Are there guidelines in place that were ignored, AGAIN?? A student pilot gets lost and we scramble F16's. We cannot contact the tower and 2 or 3 airliners land and no one has a problem with procedures that apparently have been discarded again. Jim Doody

Posted by: Jim Doody | March 28, 2011 7:39 AM    Report this comment

I don't have any sympathy for the sleeping controller. Let's face the facts here. He has a very important, high paying job. He has a responsibility to the public to perform his job at the highest level possible. He also needs to be a responsible employee striving to be as effective as possible in the commission of his job.

That being said, part of the responsibility of being effective at his job requires that he diligent at managing his sleep/wake cycles. He fully knows his work schedule and should be setting a sleep/wake cycle that allows him to function within the confines of his required work schedule. He knows he was working a week of midnight shifts so he should have been sleeping on a schedule that will allow him to maintain his alertness during his work times. It is inexcusable to let other pressures define your sleep schedule especially if it changes it enough that you fall asleep during your required work schedule. This job is your career and your familys' means of support now and in the future after retirement. It behooves you to keep the proper perspective on your job and it's requirements.

Posted by: Mark Sickle | March 28, 2011 7:39 AM    Report this comment

I have worked graveyard shifts -- not as an ATC -- and they are horrible. There is an increasing amount of medical research which shows they knock years off life expectancy too. The best thing the FAA could do is do away with them, especially when, as at the airport concerned, very little work is scheduled anyway. (Is it really necessary to have jets flying so late?) Or start bracing its-self for multi-million payouts to the widows and orphans left behind.

Posted by: Brian McCulloch | March 28, 2011 7:59 AM    Report this comment

Unfortunately, has our industry has rarely been represented accurately by either the media or Hollywood. Please don't introduce any more myths into the mix by suggesting that napping is commonplace, or that when two are on duty it is a given that one is asleep. In my 28 years in ATC, in many different facilities, on mid shifts to numerous to count, I have never seen that which you assume to be SOP. It happens, during breaks, perhaps the occasional nodding off during really slow periods, but it is not normal behavior. Maybe if the FAA didn’t restrict controllers from reading a book, the newspaper, listening to the radio, or heaven forbid, looking something up on the internet, that controller would be mentally engaged, alert, and more importantly, awake.

A more interesting question here is how commonplace is it for supervisors to be working the mid shifts? Please tell me that this was a chance occurrence, he covered for someone so they could see their kid during spring break, or there was a special staffing need for any of a million reasons. I hope that the supervisors are not routinely getting their currency on the mid shift. Now that would be embarrassing, not human foibles.

Posted by: Bill Moriarty | March 28, 2011 8:04 AM    Report this comment

The one piece of this issue that has been substantially overlooked is the management process for scheduling controllers. As a ga pilot with only a few hundred ifr hours, I was very intent to learn the intricacies of the local tracon. I was rather shocked at their scheduling protocols that required, as I recall, constant shift changes. The circadian argument is not without merit, but after working in several other industries that require 24 hour coverage, I know that the most difficult schedule to adapt to effectively, is the one that is constantly changing.
The controller in question is certainly responsible for assessing his physical competency to complete the shift, but I fear that the constant rotation of controller schedules may be a structural defect that scientists and the Ntsb should evaluate. Most industries has stable staffing for the mid shifts, and often pay a small premium tos

Posted by: Robert Pearson | March 28, 2011 8:07 AM    Report this comment

Continued...they pay a small premium to attract enough staff to cover them.. Those stable staff member can easilt

Posted by: Robert Pearson | March 28, 2011 8:09 AM    Report this comment

Continued...they pay a small premium to attract enough staff to cover them.. Those stable staff member can easily establish a sleep schedule that allows them to function effectively on the job. It is simply not possible to do that alternating work schedule every few days or weeks.

Posted by: Robert Pearson | March 28, 2011 8:12 AM    Report this comment

Thirty years an airline pulot, 10 years a military pilot, 5 years a corporate pilot, 18 years in the air since that and anyone that says he/she has never nodded off between midnight and sun-up is lying, including all the desk jockeys in DC. It happens. Like paul says, live with it.

Posted by: JACK WILLIAMS | March 28, 2011 8:25 AM    Report this comment

Staffing requirements leave a lot to be desired. The concept of three 8 hr shifts to cover the 24 hours is outdated. As a retired Terminal ATC. a 3 or 4 hr
nid-shift is long enough. We were scheduled on the Cincinatti concept of the 2-2-1 and an eight hr shift during the night hours were just as stressfull as those during the busiest traffic periods duning the day.

Posted by: Daniel Grambush | March 28, 2011 8:39 AM    Report this comment

Jack Williams is right---It happens, in a tower or a cockpit! if you deny ever having fallen asleep, you're a liar.

Posted by: jim thiessen | March 28, 2011 8:44 AM    Report this comment

Controllers make 6 figures? Pilot's are chumps making poverty wages while the controllers are falling asleep on their big fat paychecks? Where can I sign up for one of these MINT government jobs?

Posted by: Andre Abreu | March 28, 2011 8:48 AM    Report this comment

I too say this was overblown by the typical media again, I have also worked these shifts for years with duty in the military, and now as a contractor, 7/24/365 is typical for my trade. Now one thing the doinks,(media) never did mention, And all due respect to our FAA controllers, but I don't need someone on the ground helping me fly and land my airplane, we can do that just fine, and yes, if you toss the weather conditions in, then yes some assistance from the ground has helped in the past, but the bottom line is, I'm the PIC, I'm driving the bird, not the guy/gal on the ground. The ATC team has their job to do, and when I'm the PIC, I have my job to do. It's so obvious that the media and the general non flying public really don't have a clue about the world of aviation. BTW, a head nod device would be a good idea. It happens to everyone, and for those that say it shouldn't, you must not have ever worked these types of shifts, so keep you misguided opinion to yourself, we don't care to hear about it because it's just your opinion.

Posted by: Duane Cody | March 28, 2011 8:55 AM    Report this comment

Airline Pilots also have been known to fall asleep in flight. The FAA requires two pilots as a response to this problem, Whoops, that doesn't work. How about three pilots? Whoa, that hasn't solved the problem either.
I think its time to require a fourth pilot to finally put this problem to "rest".

Posted by: SAMUEL BREEDEN | March 28, 2011 9:11 AM    Report this comment

Two things: One person in the tower, what if the controller became incapcitated from a heart attack or similar? Same result. Maybe two bodies is better. Or close the tower at night.
What about the two planes landing without a clearance?

Posted by: steve murphy | March 28, 2011 9:23 AM    Report this comment

I'm certain that the vast majority of us with any kind of practical aviation experience, would agree that this is very much a "non incident" from a safety standpoint. The politics and media aspect of the issue are of course taken to absurdity.

I did not read another possible solution: assign the mids controller additional responsibility. I recall flying into, I believe it was Wilkesbarre-Scranton in the early AM some long time ago. The controller was handling local, ground, clearance AND TRACON. He seemed pretty alert!

F. Loeffler

Posted by: Frank Loeffler | March 28, 2011 9:27 AM    Report this comment

give the graveyard shift controllers a fob. every 10 minutes they have to click it or a beeper goes off. if they miss two in a row something louder goes off.

BTW, what do they do when they have to go to the bathroom if there is only one controller on duty?

Posted by: reha gur | March 28, 2011 9:30 AM    Report this comment

My God, what is the big deal? We, pilots operate at non-tower controlled airports all the time. Just follow FAA approved CTAF procedures. In fact, there are more non-tower airports then manned tower airports in the country. This is another example of an uninformed press and public blowing things out of proportion. Things that they know nothing about.

Posted by: Robert Monteiro | March 28, 2011 9:45 AM    Report this comment

Paul B is correct. Somebody with credentials should have told the press that pilots land airplanes, controllers separate them.

I once returned to a tower controlled field (Winter, late afternoon VFR) and got a similar no response to my request for landing (in a Cub on skis of all things.) Was lower on fuel than I want to admit so I landed routinely after two passes with no radio or light gun contact and expected to be hung out to dry. I Never heard a peep from anybody!

Posted by: Pete Schoeninger | March 28, 2011 10:08 AM    Report this comment

Boy, those who were "outraged" at the fact the controller fell asleep have obviously never been shift workers!A non-event. Either ignore it (perhaps with the admonition to keep the volume turned up higher) or let TRACON manage it through the mid-shift.

Posted by: John Wilson | March 28, 2011 10:28 AM    Report this comment

Two planes landed without a CLEARANCE? Without SOMEONE TO TELL THEM WHAT TO DO?

It's a good thing that both of them had filed FLIGHT PLANS--after all, that's the tag line for any media reporting on an aircraft mishap--"A flight plan had not been filed" (sarcasm)

Posted by: jim hanson | March 28, 2011 11:05 AM    Report this comment

The FAA, AOPA and other organizations representing aviation missed a great opportunity to educate the non-aviation public and government officials about aviation procedures in general and this incident in particular. The safety aspect was minimal and should have been explained to the media. Whether they would air it or not is the question. Not enough drama therefore not newsworthy.

Posted by: Frank Klein | March 28, 2011 11:06 AM    Report this comment

I find it interesting after 26 years of ATC that the FAA still has in the Orders that ...Supervisors will not allow, or condone controllers to sleep while on duty...paraphrased. One might think this means "sleeping on position", but it doesn't. Sleeping on position has never been allowed, or condoned. If it happens, it is rare. What it means is that controllers are not allowed to find a chair on their break and take a 30 minute nap, if they need one. By the book, we are supposed to be ready to work if called back. Ask a firefighter how long it takes to come out of a sleep, be ready to drive a truck, and walk into a dangerous situation. Nobody questions this practice. I think it is a good one. If the FAA would allow controllers to take a rest on their breaks, it would help.

And I agree that the notion is ridiculous that when 2 controllers are on, one is considered napping. Not that I've seen. But I haven't worked everywhere, either. Just busy towers.

Someone suggested not flying during the midnight hours. Do I need to comment on this, or is this room filled with aviation people that know how silly that comment was. Because I will...not.


Posted by: David Borger | March 28, 2011 11:11 AM    Report this comment


As far as having controllers only work certain shifts to maintain a good circadian rhythm, that might work. But the idea of having a certified controller in a facility that only knows how to work "extreme" light traffic is not a good idea. They will slowly lose their edge to be able to work a good "rush" during a swing shift. They really need to work all shifts to stay current in the facility. There are a few ways to accomplish this, too.

By the way, I thought Paul Bertorelli's post was right-on.

Posted by: David Borger | March 28, 2011 11:12 AM    Report this comment

You get a kit from the electronics store, wire it into the radio circuit and have the volume rise exponentially if you don't key the mike following a call on your frequency. Simple for a nerd I'm sure. But after a while you could fall into the attitude, "this job would be alright if it wasn't for these clowns waking me up all the time!"

Posted by: John Hogan | March 28, 2011 11:18 AM    Report this comment

As an ex-controller who's guilty of napping on mid shifts, I can't get too excited over this. FAA Administrator Babbitt's outrage over this incident is about as convincing as Captain Renault's in "Casablanca".

More staffing in the tower on the mid shift means 7 more shifts a week that somebody has to work. Is the Congress going to share in the Administrator's outrage to the point of adding more controller staffing? Not.

What this incident should really trigger is a fresh look at the effect of circadian rhythms on shift work, especially when rotating shift schedules are involved.

BTW, it isn't unheard of for pilots to snooze on the job either. It's a little hard for me to swallow the story of the Northwest crew that overflew MSP being "too busy working on their laptops" to hear multiple calls from the center. Back in the 60's, a Flying Tiger crew headed for LAX fell asleep and were well past California on their way to HNL before they woke up. Stuff happens...

Posted by: Don Beeson | March 28, 2011 11:33 AM    Report this comment

Another retired "Mid-Shift" seasoned ATCS. Currently flying Part 135. Mary Grady is right on. Working at 3 am after a week of swing and day shifts is a challenge.

Towers open at night are partially there to allow runway maintenance while providing safety for occasional arrivals and departures. Used to be the controller took weather obs and managed teletype traffic. Now its all automated so there is almost nothing to do.
One less expensive solution to the wakefulness problem would be to assign a clerical (much under 100K / year) employee to the Tower Cab on mids. They could encourage a fatigued controller to answer land lines and radio calls. They could also be the one completing logs while the controller gazes out the window as a two person airline crew chooses an unlit and closed runway for takeoff.

Posted by: Mark Higbee | March 28, 2011 11:34 AM    Report this comment

Jim Doody-terrorism? If this had been overblown as possible terrorism that would have been even more ridiculous. Take another Valium, Jim. Paul, as usual is a beacon of sanity, and Mary has good comments too. The problem is politicians don't care about the truth, or justice. Like the reaction to the Buffalo crash, increasing the required hours to 1500, which would do nothing to solve the problem. Just makes it harder for us to do our work, adds nothing to safety, but some jackass politician pats himself on the back, and the public is usually oblivious. The media, like Diane Sawyer, do nothing to clarify. We are in deep trouble.

Posted by: Unknown | March 28, 2011 12:13 PM    Report this comment

The best answer in this case is "shut the tower down at 10:00 PM, like we do in dozens of other places, and let the pilots fly the approach like they do there"! Paul is right, this is an opportunity lost to educate the public and the press.

Posted by: Barton Robinett | March 28, 2011 12:16 PM    Report this comment

Paul's comments are right on target. The FAA and NATCA are both posturing under the guise of safety, when it's really all about the politics and the dollars. This is so typical of a well-publicized nonevent, similar to the controller letting a kid talk at JFK, that it's ridiculous. As a 31 year ATC controller and supervisor, it's nothing new, just getting awfully old.

Posted by: David Slosson | March 28, 2011 12:38 PM    Report this comment

Just because of it's location is no reason...NO REASON AT staff a control tower at an airport which has only three operations during the night. REVIEW ALL 30 such airports and SAVE TAX DOLLARS by closing those towers at night.
While you're at it...consider closing about 1/4th of all such towers nationwide. I have had the most near-misses at small controlled fields, many of which are operated by non-federal personnel...simply because the public thinks control towers are required equipment, even at small fields. Doh.

Posted by: George Horn | March 28, 2011 12:50 PM    Report this comment

Cont'd: The near misses occured as the direct result of tower controller errors which would not have occured if aircraft had not relied upon controller sequencing instructions. Uncontrolled traffic at many such facilities are more vigilant, and better spaced than so-called "controlled" traffic, in my experience.

Posted by: George Horn | March 28, 2011 12:53 PM    Report this comment


I don't think you understand the political situation regarding DCA. This is considered (by congress) to be the private airport for use only by members of congress (The president uses Andrews AFB). They are nice enough to allow ordinary citizens use of DCA in normal business hours when it doesn't interfere with members of congress getting the best parking spaces and priority on the runways.

You just have to understand that the "Ruling Class" in Washington is more important than the rest of us. They have a private security "Restricted Flight Zone" to make sure they don't get assassinated by terrorists flying Cessna 150s. Having their own private airport within a couple of miles of the capital building is a small perk.

They probably think they can't close down the tower because there might be some national emergency that requires a member of congress to use the airport in the middle of the night. They probably don't worry about the curfew on takeoffs that makes sure that those "Rulers" who live near the airport can have a quiet night's sleep.

Posted by: PAUL MULWITZ | March 28, 2011 1:00 PM    Report this comment

As a retired airline pilot and GA Instructor, I agree with Paul. Follow the approved FAA proceedures for CTAF airports, when you have an IFR flight plan filed, you are cleared to the Destination airport and cleared to land if communication is lost being alert, aware, and observing. Pilots fly A/C and controllers sequence and seperate A/C, for now, who knows the future.
It's like the aviation saying, any landing is a good one that you can walk away from. So what's the problem, live with it. To many rules and cures already.

Posted by: Cal Earley | March 28, 2011 1:30 PM    Report this comment

What alternatives/advice did approach control give the 2 flights when those crews went back to approach & advised no comms w/ DCA?

One thing to do I didn't see mentioned, is why not simply squawk lost Comm's & continue in bound & treat DCA (in the abscence of any NOTAMS stating otherwise)as a non-towered airport, broadcast position reports & intentions on CTAF.

Posted by: Richard Zohn | March 28, 2011 2:19 PM    Report this comment

I agree with Paul's comments but wouldn't a simple solution be to have the FAA clarify what a pilot should do if a open tower doesn't respond?

Posted by: David Murphy | March 28, 2011 2:25 PM    Report this comment

Much needless posturing by the media, FAA, and USDOT when the solution is simple: With only a handful of operations every night, the ATCT should close and pilots can use CTAF as they do at the hundreds of other non-towered airports across the country.

The purpose of an ATCT is to separate and sequence traffic (not help pilots land as the media thinks), and if there are so few flights at DCA each night, the controller there had nothing to do anyway.

As others have pointed out, ground maintenance can also monitor CTAF just as they must do at other non-towered airports.

Posted by: Gary Dikkers | March 28, 2011 2:52 PM    Report this comment

Two or three flights during the mid-night shift? There is no justification for keeping the tower open in the first place. So on the night in question approach sequenced the arrivals. The crews of the aircraft knew there would be no departures on the runways in front of them. The arriving crews handled the situation the way any other "lost communication" would expect. This event further adds to the evidence that facilities not in use overnight should be closed overnight. It works elsewhere. It should be the same at DCA.

Posted by: OBX Aero | March 28, 2011 2:53 PM    Report this comment

Why do you need a second, extremely highly paid controller? Just get a dog who is trained to pee on the controller's leg if he doesn't pet him every 10 minutes or so. Problem solved!

Posted by: Don Peven | March 28, 2011 5:06 PM    Report this comment

What is the price for a government dog?

Posted by: David Borger | March 28, 2011 5:09 PM    Report this comment

We have the ability to trigger airfield lighting with clicks on our microphones. Why can't we trigger a CHEAP alarm to the controllers we are tuned into in such situations?

Posted by: WILLIAM WELSH | March 28, 2011 7:18 PM    Report this comment

Nice one Paul I completely agree with you. Thanks for the two minutes of humor. I guess pleasing the media, to promote a certain political appointee is more important than common sense. Must have been a slow news day what with the US being involved in two or three wars, and the spending in Washington driving the value of the dollar to nada.

Posted by: Carter Boswell | March 28, 2011 10:08 PM    Report this comment

FAA: Get him an FAA issued cell phone. Give the phone number to the TRACON. Tell him to set it on vibrate and put it in his boxers or briefs.

Posted by: Ray Stratton | March 28, 2011 10:54 PM    Report this comment

Cell phones are not permitted either Ray... along with books, newspapers, radio, computers, or anything else that would provide mental stimulation. Looking out the window is all they're allowed to do.

Posted by: Bill Moriarty | March 29, 2011 6:43 AM    Report this comment

My experience in Boy Scouts, US Navy and X/C trucking taught me that the "buddy system" or the master/apprentice culture works better than any attempt to legislate awareness! Humans are not machines, duh.

Posted by: Haven Rich | March 29, 2011 7:06 AM    Report this comment

I also am a retired ATCS. I have worked many "mid shifts" both at Towers and TRACONs. I see the real issue is the FAA's double standard of making duty time/fatigue for pilots a high priority yet this issue is ignored for controllers except for some very basic standards. The "rattler schedule" that is worked at most Air Traffic facilities is opposite to the circadian rhythm. This is the worst schedule for mental acuity and causes fatigue.

Posted by: Steve Darton | March 29, 2011 8:44 AM    Report this comment

I enjoy network news, they are so silly! News Flash - Two airplanes land at Washington National without tower controller on duty -- without incident, film at 10:00! It seems that the FAA has taken away the controllers abilility to have - a person to talk to on slow night duty, an radio or TV to provide stimulus, or to talk to another human by telephone, just listen to the vacant white noise through their headset for hours on end. I kind of nod ... thinking ...UGH! about it. Many years ago, I would put young soldiers in LP's (listening post) and they could be court martialed for going to sleep or have Charlie come to visit -- and they still went to sleep. That was the primary reason for having those standing radio watch request SITREP (situation report) on a regular basis. Seems that the politicians in the FAA suffer from a lack of management skills and are more concerned about delegating blame than solving a problem.

Posted by: Richard Jenkins | March 29, 2011 8:59 AM    Report this comment

This is a typical response to the problem the politicians/FAA do not want to answer. For starters the radar facility calling inbound traffic to the tower has been used at various facilities for years. If Babbit thinks this will ensure a controller does not fall asleep in the tower, I got a bridge to sell him, cheap! What if the controller in the tower had a heart attack or stroke and could not respond or call for help? The only discussion the politicians and FAA would be having is the poor controller died on duty, what a shame. Congress doesn't want to fund the staffing needed to ensure the system is safe, they would rather waste the money on stimulus packages to their wealthy donors!

Posted by: John Stewart | March 29, 2011 10:43 AM    Report this comment

Being "outraged" was a little inappropriate. Unless this controller was taking some unapproved drug or out boozing or something, falling asleep is sometimes involuntary especially on an off shift. The controller is probably very upset that this happened but hello!!! It's natural for us to get tired and nod off. We've all done it. The solution involves something higher up. Maybe two controllers, maybe a wakeup call. Put someone else there and there may be just as much chance of it happening again.

And Jim...proper procedures WERE followed. Terrorism doesn't come into play here. The pilots fly and land the plane. Controllers do not. If it were terrorism, it wouldn't matter if there were 50 guys in the tower. The pilots were on a flight plan and followed the procedures for lost communications and landed. It's really less of a big deal than the media is making it out to be. It's only because it's in a sensitive geographical area that makes this news.

Posted by: Marc Catanese | March 29, 2011 11:01 AM    Report this comment

Richard Zohn Posted:
"One thing to do I didn't see mentioned, is why not simply squawk lost Comm's & continue in bound..."

Yeah... LOTS of pilots want to squawk the "Shoot-me-down" txdr code.
Richard...there WAS NO LOST COMM in this event. Not only would that code have been would have likely resulted in a TSA/Military response.

Posted by: George Horn | March 29, 2011 12:41 PM    Report this comment

George....there was ABSOLUTELY lost comm. They are entitled to continue on to their destination and follow lost comm procedures in this case. Tower was unreachable but no one knew why at that point. Squaking 7600 was very appropriate.

Posted by: Marc Catanese | March 29, 2011 12:46 PM    Report this comment

So many good comments! And yes, how did we ever land airplanes without controllers? Nearly every night, a Sky West RJ lands at our airport after our tower closes. Gee, I wonder how they do it! Again, knee-jerk reactions from the uninformed.

Posted by: Leroy Chausse | March 29, 2011 12:55 PM    Report this comment

Marc, I disagree on 7600 as being appropriate. The pilots had not lost communication, the tower had. Is there a procedure for the tower to squawk 7600? ;-) It is simply a case of the airport becoming Class E airspace, controlled airspace with no control tower in operation. The pilots should be coordinating with the TRACON and also broadcasting their position & intent on the tower frequency.

If the TRACON was unable to raise the tower on the landline for an extended period of time I think they should have notified "search and rescue" to send someone to the tower to find out what was going on. It should not be beyond reason to consider that terrorists might have invaded and taken over the control tower. :-O

Posted by: mach37 | March 29, 2011 12:59 PM    Report this comment

Mac...lost comm is lost comm. Doesn't matter why. The pilots were on a flight plan and the procedure for lost comminucations is to continue on based on certain criteria. The ATIS would have shown the tower to be open and I'm sure the pilots were aware of the tower operation times. With tower being open, they have to assume lost comm on either side. Try is at a controlled field without contacting them or following procedures :)

Posted by: Marc Catanese | March 29, 2011 1:29 PM    Report this comment

I'd be very careful about squawking 7600 in an environment with a lot of radar facilities around. Speaking as a pilot and an air traffic controller (ret.) I would still not squawk 7600 if I could talk to all the other ATC facilities but just not the control tower. Assuming that the TRACON had told the pilot(s) they could not coordinate with the tower either, the value of a lost-comm squawk when the pilots did not have lost-comm is questionable.

Posted by: mach37 | March 29, 2011 2:19 PM    Report this comment

Just looked at the AIM to make sure I wasnt crazy. The pilot was already in contact with ATC so in effect, squaking 7600 wouldn't have done much even though it was correct. At that point, you determine the flow of traffic and land. Pilots acted correctly as I expected they would. It was really a non-issue once approach turned them over to tower. But...squaking 7600 would be perfectly fine. You may or may not know the cause of the communications failure and the procedure is in writing. Been instructing for over 10 years. I was hoping I was teaching correctly :)

Posted by: Marc Catanese | March 29, 2011 2:34 PM    Report this comment

Back in the mid 70s Dark Ages one of the 3AM arriving freight dogs in the hinterlands of Oregon used to buzz the tower to make sure that his first call was answered. Now days you guys would want to violate him for entering the ATA (now Class D) without a clearance. How far we've come.

Posted by: Mark Higbee | March 29, 2011 2:53 PM    Report this comment

Where's Arthur Godfrey when you need him? Oh wait, he got a six-month suspension for buzzing the tower in 1954, so maybe his approach wasn't the best after all. I think 1) they should close the tower at night, 2) if they don't want to do that, they should never have fewer than two controllers on duty, and 3) the FAA needs to consider allowing controllers to be "midnight-qualified" only. I used to be a controller and I ALWAYS swapped my midnight shifts with Dewey, that is until the FAA decided that Dewey wasn't working enough live traffic. If all Dewey worked was midnight traffic, why should they care? Pay Dewey 10% more for working virtually no traffic and I would have been happy -- just as long as I didn't have to work the mid.

Posted by: Gary Kerr | March 29, 2011 8:42 PM    Report this comment

Marc, you're crazy. Lost communications means you have lost the ability to communicate by radio. Radio failure. If you can still talk to the TRACON, you haven't lost the ability to communicate via radio. I'm not saying don't try to land. Use caution and use good judgement. But don't squawk 7600. It implies you can't talk to ANYBODY. I think you've been teaching this wrong. And I checked the AIM, too.

Posted by: David Borger | March 29, 2011 9:42 PM    Report this comment

Have you considered that with a technical expertise in aviation and how wrong the press is about most of what they publish in relation to aviation that they are probably just as wrong about most other subjects and that we are all trying to vote, make business decisions, formulate world views etc with such flawed info. And this is even before the spin on both sides even further degrades the information.

Posted by: BILL ELLISON | March 29, 2011 9:55 PM    Report this comment

Yes, Dogg. I was thinking about that today! Makes you really wonder if you can trust any report of any subject that one reads about or listens to. We are getting off topic here, though.

Posted by: David Borger | March 29, 2011 9:59 PM    Report this comment

First off, don't be outraged, do something about it. You never, ever, ever, post one person on a shift. If an accident or incident occurs in the tower, (heart attack-fall) the individual wouldn't be found till next shift.
Second, tell the folks that are holding up the FAA money to do their job and pass a bill. Staffing is part of the "safety" issue. W/O funding, no one knows what's next. The controller has 30 years with the agency, and is not a young man. Not sure how deep a sleep he was in or if he was on medication.
Third....Pilots were never out of communication and landed just as they do when towers are closed....

Posted by: Gary Suozzi | March 30, 2011 6:59 AM    Report this comment

Current Approach and Tower controller here. Also private pilot with multi-engine and night ratings (not in the U.S BTW)....

Wow. Interesting discussion folks. My $0.02c:
Firstly keeping awake. The easy fix is of course (like Paul B said) a 5 minute dead-man switch. Worked for years with train drivers. Simple. Cheap.

Secondly, there seems to be confusion amongst you learned folk - and even the boss of the FAA (!!) - for the reason to staff a Tower for just one or two flights late at night. It's not to sequence the aircraft (that's what TRACON/Approach does) through that politically sensitive airspace. It's not really to separate aircraft in the air that are mostly 2 hours apart. CTAF would work fine for that. Nor is it to actually guide the aircraft in (as the media may think). He's not there to operate the lighting systems either. PAL is for that. And if there is no PAL, then the Fire-fighters (I'm assuming they have some on duty there 24/7 too) can flick a switch. Although there may be rules that mandate holding alternate fuel at night with only a PAL system and no backup (?).

Posted by: Darren Edwards | March 30, 2011 8:16 AM    Report this comment

Big deal - not . . . get over it.

Posted by: JOSEPH ZEIGLER | March 30, 2011 8:21 AM    Report this comment

Regarding a possible(?) breach of Homeland Security.....
You might recall that none of the three "errant" airliners at the Twin Towers in New York and the Pentagon, in DC received clearances from approach control or the towers. Gee, ya think they didn't care whether the towers were staffed?

Posted by: Loren Otto | March 30, 2011 8:40 AM    Report this comment

No, there are 2 reasons for the TWR controller to be there at 2am. Firstly to provide runway separation with those light bulb changers and other vehicles. and...well....stuff. Things that shouldn't be on the RWY. Like animals. Other professional pilots are quite capable of broadcasting on CTAF, but those light-bulb guys may not be so well trained. The controller can monitor the RWY and prevent runway incursions. Yes I know this is hard to do at night, or in bad Wx, but nevertheless..

Secondly, it's to provide a SAR and alerting service. Most accidents happen on landing or take-off. So if one of those plane-loads of congress people spears off of that RWY, the controller can immediately activate the airport emergency plan (AEP). You pilots know about those right? No. Didn't think so. That's a plan, usually written to ICAO standards, that details what everybody is to do in the event of an emergency at a given airport.

At my airport, we don't open 24/7, but we do open for single arrivals or departures late at night. Things like VIPs and long distance flights where the crew are tired. The RWY is inspected, the lights checked and the approach aids monitored. The Wx is actually observed and an ATIS is broadcast. Route clearances are negotiated with surrounding ATC sectors, before the aircraft taxis. That's all stuff that pilots don't want to worry about. They are busy trying to land the aircraft! It's easy not to fall asleep when you are only there for ~2hrs.

Posted by: Darren Edwards | March 30, 2011 8:50 AM    Report this comment

Great article, Paul.
Randy Babbitt is so out of touch as a "rEAL" pilot it is pathetic!
Any human being who has ever flown an "all-nighter" or worked a "grave-yard" shift understands the occasional nodding off and the problems associated with sleep deprivation.
As most pilots understand controllers do not control the aircraft. Pilots do! Controllers only provide safe separation. In the middle of the night at DCA there is no traffic to separate. Landing clearance is nice but not necessary. I am sure pilot wannabees and ambulance chasing lawyers would strongly disagree with real pilots who don't think this is a big deal. The poor sleepy human controller does not need to be hung by his testicles from the nearest tower cab as Randy Babbitt and Ray Lahood would like us to believe!
In my 777 there was a very simple "pilot response" feature. If we nodded off and didn't touch a control or a button for a specific amount of time the caution light would come on. If you still did not touch anything for another few minutes the alarm would go off and wake the hell out of you! Randy Babbitt instead of grand standing for the ignorant public and politicians should put one of those inexpensive fixes in every tower cab!
Captain Ross "Rusty" Aimer
(UAL Ret.)
ATP: B-777/767/757/747/737/727/720/707/DC-10/-9/-8/EMB-500

Posted by: Ross Aimer | March 30, 2011 10:31 AM    Report this comment

BTW folks, The Senator from Oklahoma who landed his twin on a closed runway and almost killed a bunch of working men on that runway got off without even a slap on the wrist! I think FAA may have written him an apology letter for the inconvenience! Perhaps the errant pilots and controllers deserve the same!
Capt. Ross Aimer

Posted by: Ross Aimer | March 30, 2011 10:45 AM    Report this comment

Well thanks David. Glad to know you think I'm crazy. Maybe you say that about your tax guy or your auto mechanic too. In any case, if you read my posts, I said that it didn't matter about the squak in this case since the pilots were able to communicate with Tracon. However, it is still considered a lost comm and the pilots are supposed to follow lost comm procedures unless otherwise directed by ATC. SO...they were correct in landing at DCA without talking to the tower instead of circling for a half hour or going somewhere else. However, they would NOT be incorrect to squak 7600 by the rules. In any case...take it up with the FAA. I'm out!

Posted by: Marc Catanese | March 30, 2011 11:11 AM    Report this comment

Marc. Sorry about the crazy comment. I was just playing with your words when you said you weren't crazy. I would never use name calling here. Again, sorry. And I only make comments here on stuff that I know about. Like ATC and piloting. I'll stick with my comment about 7600. You stick with yours. So long.

Posted by: David Borger | March 30, 2011 11:34 AM    Report this comment

Fellow aviators -- use this opportunity to share the common sense of our discussion with your friends. Take some positive action, submit a well-written letter to the editor, etc. Make this a teachable moment. Blue skies!

Posted by: BRADLEY SPATZ | March 30, 2011 12:51 PM    Report this comment

I'm still not convinced the people in the pointy ends were correct. Without a clearance, they are in violation of 91.129 (plus or minus a few parts). With all the uproar, these people wont get a certificate suspension. If there wasn't such an uproar, the pilots would have had their certificates either suspended or revoked for blatant violation of federal air regulations. The airline would have done nothing, zip, zero, nada to support them. "Yup, violation, take your medicine." What if it was a Cessna with some redneck from out of town that landed without a clearance? Do you think the FAA would be as accomodating? I don't either.

If they had gone to BWI or Dulles, they would have had a planeload of angry passengers howling at the airline management. Management would then be on their side to fix the system.

Those people pushing the buttons and pulling the levers allowed their bosses to get a full nights sleep while they made the difficult decision. One mights say they acted as "pilot in command."

I'm not being critical, but I doubt I would have had the stones to determine that the controller was asleep while moving through a black sky at 250kts. Especially if I could talk to approach etc.

Posted by: MIKE HAND | March 30, 2011 9:22 PM    Report this comment

Oohh ... Oohh ... I have the answer! Change the name of the KDCA FAF to "AWAKE"! ... "N1, report AWAKE inbound"

... and with that, I'm turning-in ... good night everybody.

Posted by: Phil Derosier | March 31, 2011 2:34 AM    Report this comment

I'm still not convinced the people in the pointy ends were correct. Without a clearance, they are in violation of 91.129

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | March 31, 2011 4:10 AM    Report this comment

At the risk of thread creep, I must say that I disagree that they make a low-risk, sensible decision. I do agree that at some point one needs to apply common sense, and they did, unfortunately, the CFRs and common sense are not one and the same.

The beauty of this incident is that it is like reviewing an accident report, but in this case there is no smoking hole. When I read accident reports, I always ask myself "what would I have done differently?"

I haven't listened to the tapes either, and with 20/20 hindsight, they did make the right decision.

Low risk? What did they risk? They really risked their certificates. They knew they were going to violate 91.129, just to keep operations at the airline moving smoothly. I just have to wonder what would happen if you or I landed at Podunk muni without clearance from the tower. I too doubt they used their emergency authority to land, if the did, good work and I retract all I have said.

Posted by: MIKE HAND | April 1, 2011 6:24 AM    Report this comment


Yes, we land every day all over the world an uncontrolled fields. I have no problem with that. I prefer uncontrolled fields. And yes, one solution is to shut the tower down at night. But, it was not shut down. This airport had an operating control tower. IF the pilots had made the decision to go to somewhere else, they would have been perfectly justified in doing so, and would have had the added bonus that when they finally got things sorted out, and the passengers sent on their way, that company management would have to be on their side. I have to believe that if it were you or me in a 172, the bureaucracy would be thrown at us, if only to protect the edifice of the FAA.

The FAA still could (but probably won't considering the egg on their face right now) go after the pilots for violating the regulations, reckless and careless operation, etc etc. We all know that in Aviation you are guilty until proven innocent, and they certainly can prove their innocence, I just don't know that going into the situation anyone would have known that they could prove that. It is a shame to say it, but 200 angry people in the back of the airplane is serious political leverage that neither you or I have and going somewhere else may have been better use of that leverage.

Posted by: MIKE HAND | April 1, 2011 6:25 AM    Report this comment

Mike, I take issue with the statement: "This airport had an operating control tower." I would consider the tower out of operation if normal two-way radio communications failed, and the TRACON also could not raise the tower operator. None of the "violating the regulations, reckless and careless operation, etc ..." applies when there is equipment failure that requires everybody to improvise on little or no notice.

Posted by: mach37 | April 1, 2011 6:02 PM    Report this comment

Paul sez: "I didn't listen to the tapes, but I would be surprised if either of them used their emergency authority to land at DCA, although they could have done that to sidestep 91.129." Using emergency authority does not require declaring an emergency over the radio. A PIC can use emergency authority any time he/she deems it necessary under 91.3(b). Part 121 operators have identical authority under 121.557(a) and in this case, 121.627. Of course, he/she will have to make a report. And to cover the FAA's second-guessing him as to whether an emergency existed (just as did many of the comments here), the PIC should be filing a NASA report.

But without arguing whether or not an emergency existed or whether lost comm procedures and squawks were required or any of the other side-tracking which occurred, the fact is that the risk level of landing whilst the tower controller napped was hardly any greater than if he was awake. Much ado about nothing.


Posted by: Cary Alburn | April 2, 2011 10:18 AM    Report this comment

Agreed Cary. Fact remains that they are on an IFR flight plan and could not reach the tower. They are entitled to continue on following lost comm procedures and land. They would have even been justified had this been during busy hours, however it's their call as to whether they compromised safety in either landing right then in between other traffic or go somewhere else. Can you imagine dozens of flights going around and diverting (likely to IAD) at that time?

Posted by: Marc Catanese | April 2, 2011 1:41 PM    Report this comment

For many years I had to work two days, two nights, and a graveyard shift that left me almost groggy. The idea was to maintain competency on all shifts. The result...basically, your body didn't know if you were supposed to be eating, sleeping, or sitting on the pot. If I'm correct, the ATC guys (and girls) have to work a similar type of crazy schedule. It not only takes it's toll on your body, but also on your mental awareness. Because of that, I'm about to throw stones in glass houses.

Posted by: Douglas Rodrigues | April 2, 2011 11:05 PM    Report this comment

I never fell asleep while working as a First Officer at a now-defunct freight company, but I was once awakened by the snoring of the Captain and Flight Engineer...

Posted by: Dan Nafe | April 17, 2011 8:45 PM    Report this comment

Attention: FAA,
We own the US Patent for a simple plug and play invention perfected by NASA that could prevent any such incidents. As long as we have human monitoring of any important safety or security function, there is a danger of lapses in that process. Our invention (ACAS) simply prevents and monitors any such infractions!
Captain Ross Aimer
Aero Consulting Experts,
Los Angeles

Posted by: Ross Aimer | August 31, 2013 2:33 AM    Report this comment

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