Aviation News

March 25, 2011

ATC Audio: NTSB Investigating Sleeping Air Traffic Controller at Reagan National Airport

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has opened an investigation after the sole air traffic controller at Washington Ronald Reagan National Airport (DCA) near Washington, D.C. fell asleep while on duty, the agency said on late Thursday.

Audio courtesy of LiveATC.net

The NTSB said the incident happened on early Wednesday morning between 12.04 a.m. local time and 12.28 a.m. local time when two passenger planes and controllers at the Potomac Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) were unable to contact 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 p.m. local time on Tuesday evening. Several minutes later, at 12.04 a.m. local time on Wednesday, American Airlines (AA) flight 1012, operating a 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 of AA flight 1012 executed a missed approach. The crew then reported to TRACON their inability to make contact with the DCA tower, after which TRACON 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 AA 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 a.m. local time, 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 a.m. local time.

The United flight, unable to make contact with the tower, made position reports on the tower frequency while inbound, and landed at 12.26 a.m. local time.

Two minutes later, at 12.28 a.m. local time, AA flight 1012, on the ground at DCA, established contact with the tower controller, and normal services were resumed with further incident.

The controller in the tower at the time of the incident, along with other Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) officials at DCA, were interviewed by the NTSB on Thursday, the agency said. 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 between 10 p.m. local time and 6 a.m. local time, according to the NTSB, which said human fatigue issues are one of the areas being investigated. The FAA subsequently suspended the controller.

The NTSB said it will be interviewing officials at the TRACON facility on Friday and is being assisted by the FAA and the national Air Traffic Controllers union. An NTSB human performance specialist is also assisting.

Earlier this week, the NTSB issued a safety recommendation letter to the FAA in which it asks 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. The FAA has not yet responded to the letter.

With reporting by Matt Molnar

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