More overdramatized news: the sleeping air traffic controller

If you haven’t heard, last night, the sole controller at Reagan National airport was apparently asleep while two planes tried to land. As bad as that sounds, the local news here is way overdramatizing the danger to the airplanes and passengers, in my opinion. They are interviewing people at the airport who are saying they are now afraid to fly into airports for fear of no one being around in the control tower. So, as a former (private) pilot, let me make a few clarifications so that you can understand why this overdramatic reporting is annoying me:

  1. Most airports in the U.S. are either uncontrolled (meaning they don’t have a control tower) or their towers operate only part time. The point here being that planes lands safely without a control tower every day.
  2. All pilots are trained in procedures for airports without a control tower, or when the tower is closed. Typically, this means tuning the radio to the tower frequency and reporting your speed, altitude and position to other aircraft in the area, while they do the same.

On my first solo flight to another airport, I left an airport with control tower and flew to an airport without a control tower. I was testing on these procedures during a written exam, oral exam, and practical test. It is not any more dangerous than flying into an uncontrolled airport. When the tower cannot be contacted it essentially is an uncontrolled airport.

There is one exception that I can think of: at busy, major airports, it might be hard to tell from the air whether there are crews on the ground who might be working on the runway. This is the pilot’s call, and if the pilot is not comfortable landing, he or she should not land, and ask ATC for a diversion to another local airport.

That a controller fell asleep is a separate issue and that certainly needs to be dealt with. Many controllers are overworked and many airports are underfunded so that something like this was bound to happen, I supposed.

The local news makes it seem like the people on the two planes that landed (and a third plane that diverted) were in some kind of danger. I don’t believe this to be the case at all. Traffic was at a minimum, two pilots deemed it safe to land, and a third decided he wasn’t sure and diverted. This is standard operating procedure that all pilots train for.

Why the heck can’t the news report that?


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