March 24, 2011

Airplanes Falling from Sky

By now you have likely seen multiple breathless stories about how two airplanes miraculously landed at Washington D.C.'s Reagan National Airport while the tower controller was sleeping. The tone of the stories is that this was a catastrophe avoided.

It is what I have come to expect from people talking first and researching second. In this case, the only sane reporting probably comes from CNN's Miles O'Brien who is a licensed pilot.

I got my pilot's license 40 years ago, logged 2,000 hours flight time in everything from a two-seat Cessna to a Mitsubishi prop-jet, and have landed at DCA several times. That doesn't make me an expert, but at least I know more than the well-groomed folks on CNN or MSNBC. (Full disclosure: I let my pilot's licenses lapse several years ago.)

A few facts that make the story a lot less important than it appears on first blush:

Airplanes, including commercial flights, land at airports without towers every day. I learned to fly at three different airports in the Lansing area: Capital City, Mason and Charlotte. The latter two have no control towers. For several years the Lansing tower was closed from midnight until 6 a.m., but airplanes still landed 24/7.

Last time I checked the only airport in the northern part of the lower peninsula with a control tower was Traverse City. Pellston, Boyne, Petoskey, Mt. Pleasant and Mackinac Island are among the more popular Michigan destinations with no tower.

Pilots don't need tower controllers to land. The job of the tower is to sequence planes in the traffic pattern along with those preparing for takeoff. There are standard procedures pilots learn from Day One of flight training for entering the traffic pattern and then landing at an uncontrolled airport. There are published standard traffic patterns, and they communicate with other planes on designated radio frequencies.

There are redundant air traffic control systems for air-carrier airports, especially DCA. You can't fly within 25 miles of the largest airports without the advance permission of air traffic controllers staffing the enroute control centers (ARTCC) or the airport radar approach control facilities (RAPCON).

Every pilot planning on landing at National, Dulles or Baltimore-Washington International is in constant radio contact with enroute or approach controllers who watch them on their radar screens. Those controllers routinely advise the pilots of other traffic in the area. Approach control generally doesn't hand off the plane to the tower until it is within a few miles of the airport. If there is a problem (as happened in DC) the pilot can stick with approach control right up to the point the wheels touchdown.

For Washington D.C. there is additional unspecified monitoring added in the aftermath of 9/11. Fly anywhere near Capitol Hill or the White House without the proper clearance and you may have an up-close-and-personal encounter with a military fighter jet, or even a sudden collision with anti-aircraft weapons.

The tower controller should not have dozed off, and the incident should not have happened. But the biggest problem with the situation is that this sleepy (and now suspended) civil servant violated the twin rules of public relations:

• Don't screw up on a slow news day, and
• Don't screw up in a town that is loaded with reporters looking for something to do

24/7 news channels are often a welcome improvement in our information infrastructure. But when you hear the breathless stories like this, remember that the first obligation of news media is to fill the airtime or the web/print space with "compelling" content so they have something in which to wrap the advertising.

"Compelling" doesn't necessarily mean "important." Remember this the next time you see a story on some splinter group of three whack-jobs or "grass roots event" ginned up by someone hoping for some free news coverage.

Just because it is on the internet doesn't make it true. Just because it's on the TV doesn't make it important.


  1. Curmudgy-
    According to Fox News there are only 2 regularly scheduled flights during the night shift. Add in a couple of unscheduled flights and it's still not busy. Maybe the FAA wants the tower manned because the white house, capitol and pentagon are within 4 miles of the airport. But instead of firing the employee, which should have been done, the higher ups added another person to the boring shift. Now when the air controller gets back from suspension he will have a friend to drink beer with and play cards. Typical government response ;)

  2. Scheduled commercial airline traffic represents only a fraction of the takeoffs and landings as an airport. There are numerous general aviation flights at Reagan National.
    In Lansing, some of the busiest times are after midnight when no commercial flights are scheduled due to the UPS hub.
    The FAA has activity benchmarks for towers and is quite aggressive about closing towers (or limiting tower hours) based on those benchmarks. They have been doing this for decades because of budget.
    I'm guessing Fox News didn't bother to mention this because it doesn't fit their political message of inefficient, wasteful government.