Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Getting A Few Winks

There was an outcry after a controller fell asleep, but concerns about tired controllers aren’t new

NOT NEW. Fatigue was added to the NTSB's Most Wanted List in 1990, and is still on there today.
Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood and FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt led the outcry of indignation when news broke that the lone controller on the overnight shift at Reagan National Airport (DCA) in Washington had fallen asleep, and that the pilots of two airline flights had to land on their own. LaHood announced an immediate change of policy at DCA, so there are two controllers handling the overnight, and called for the FAA to study staffing at other airports. Babbitt said steps would be taken so that this sort of thing doesn't happen again. Conveniently overlooked at the time was that the NTSB has been trying for a long time to get the FAA to take action dealing with fatigue and sleep deprivation in aviation affecting controllers, pilots and mechanics. The NTSB's investigation of the March 23, 2011, incident provides one more opportunity for the agency to call for action.

Investigators learned that at 12:04 a.m., American Airlines flight 1012 was being handled by an approach controller at the TRACON, nearing the end of its flight from Dallas-Fort Worth. The flight was instructed to contact the DCA tower. The pilots tried to raise the tower several times as they got closer and closer to the airport. Unable to obtain a landing clearance, they elected to execute a missed approach. They then radioed approach that they had been unable to contact the tower controller, were on a missed approach, and wanted to land. The approach controller then vectored the aircraft for another approach.

The approach controller and the TRACON supervisor tried several times to get hold of the tower controller by both the internal telephone, and by calling the commercial phone number for the tower. They got no answer. The approach controller advised the crew of American flight 1012 that the tower apparently was 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., the crew returned to the tower frequency, but was still unable to make contact with a controller. The crew made position reports on the tower frequency while inbound, and landed on runway 1.

A few minutes later, United Airlines flight 628T was arriving from Chicago-O'Hare International Airport. The Washington approach controller told the crew about the problem at the tower, and transferred the flight to the tower frequency. The time was 12:22 a.m. The United flight, also unable to make contact with the tower controller, made position reports while inbound, just as would be the case at an uncontrolled airport. Flight 628T landed at 12:26 a.m.

Two minutes later, American flight 1012, on the ground, was able to raise the tower controller on the radio, and normal control tower services were resumed.
Safety Board investigators interviewed the tower controller, other FAA officials responsible for operations at DCA and FAA personnel at the TRACON. The controller had worked at DCA for 17 years, and had 20 years in all with the FAA. He said that he had fallen asleep for a period of time while on duty. He had been working his fourth consecutive overnight shift (10 p.m. to 6 a.m.).


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