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Reagan Tower Over...

What should GA pilots do if ATC does not respond?

By Fareed Guyot, Manager – Electronic Publications, EAA 388642

Reagan Tower

March 24, 2011 — A routine air traffic hand-off from Potomac Approach to the control tower at Reagan-Washington National Airport early Wednesday morning (March 23) suddenly became a mystery for the next 15 minutes as an American Airlines flight contacted the tower and no one responded. That aircraft aborted its approach and joined the traffic pattern. Two other airliners reverted to uncontrolled airport procedures at this field in the center of the Washington ADIZ before the lone tower controller on duty resumed control. As the NTSB and FAA investigate, pilots and controllers alike are wondering: In this rare instance when a controller does not respond, does controlled airspace revert to uncontrolled?

At Reagan Tower it’s normal procedure to have only one controller in the tower cab during the overnight shift but it must be a supervisor. In Wednesday’s incident the controller on duty was a supervisor and late Thursday he told NTSB investigators that he fell asleep. It is currently unknown when the controller fell asleep but Potomac approach handed off the American flight just after midnight.

Not all towered airports are operated around-the-clock like Reagan so when they close for the night the runways and surrounding airspace become uncontrolled. At the same time control of the tower's airspace under IFR is usually transferred to a nearby radar facility, but they can only provide as much separation as their radar coverage will allow. A class D (towered) airport becomes class E when the tower closes but it’s still considered controlled airspace. However it does not have the same ATC communication requirements as class D and above unless the weather is below VFR.

These complicated scenarios still do not answer the question of what happens when a tower is active and the controller does not respond. Several controllers EAA contacted for this story spoke on the condition of anonymity since they were not authorized to discuss the issue. “Unless there is a specific transfer of control of airspace, it stays the same,” one tower controller in the Midwest said, meaning that even though the controller did not respond the airspace was still “controlled.”

In the case of the two aircraft that landed without clearance from Reagan Tower, they were in close coordination with Potomac Approach, which also monitored the tower frequency while the aircraft used uncontrolled airport procedures to separate themselves during landing and taxi. "It’s a unique situation," said EAA Government Relations Director Randy Hansen. "The controllers' manual covers lost communications by aircraft but not this scenario." One controller says that they have contingency plans for "ATC Zero" situations such as tornados but in those situations control is transferred to another facility ahead of time and aircraft are advised that a certain facility will be "off the air".

Every controller EAA contacted advised that in a similar situation it’s best for a pilot to divert to an airport where they know they can legally land and also try to contact the overlying air traffic control center, such as an approach or center facility. Many of the controllers said there could be numerous reasons why a controller doesn’t respond, including with radio failures. One controller cautioned that a pilot shouldn’t assume that if a controller doesn’t respond for a period of time that they can just go in and land.

While it has been established that the Reagan controller was asleep, the Potomac radar controller handling the orphaned aircraft seemed non-plussed about the situation. He is heard on a recording of ATC communications telling a second American flight about a previous incident in which a controller was locked-out of the tower cab when he forgot his key card.

Reaction was swift from the Department of Transportation and the FAA. DOT Secretary Ray LaHood ordered that two controllers be placed on the overnight shift at Reagan National, and FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt issued a strong statement regarding the incident: “I am determined to get to the bottom of this situation for the safety of the traveling public. As a former airline pilot, I am personally outraged that this controller did not meet his responsibility to help land these two airplanes.”

The FAA also suspended the controller from all operational duties.

Listen to audio of the Potomac Approach Controller talking to American 1900, which was the first aircraft to talk to the Reagan Tower controller after his absence from the frequency. Courtesy: The Washington Post


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