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FAA Finds 2nd Air Traffic Controller Made Bed in Tower, Slept as 4 Lifeguard Air Ambulances Tried to Land

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The FAA recently discovered another case of an overworked air traffic controller falling asleep in the tower. This comes approximately two weeks after a controller at Reagan National Airport accidentally fell asleep on the overnight shift, leaving the tower silent, and also leaving 2 planes and 165 passengers to circle the runway and eventually land on their own. The controller in this case was actually a supervisor performing the duties of a controller, on his fourth consecutive overnight shift.

However, the newly discovered case at a Knoxville airport actually occurred before the Reagan incident. In this one, air traffic controller made headlines by fully preparing for his on-duty nap – falling asleep in a makeshift bed he had constructed out of couch cushions from the employee breakroom and a blanket.

Seven planes had to be handled by a controller in the radar room below, as that controller switched back and forth between handling incoming/outgoing planes and working the radar equipment (handling the radar of several other small airports and a hospital helipad in a 50-mile radius at the same time). Meanwhile, the controller at the top of the tower slept for a total of five hours.

At least four of those seven incoming flights were Lifeguard air ambulances handling urgent medical cases overnight. By very definition, “Lifeguard” flights are planes whose medical missions are of a particularly pressing nature.

These Lifeguard flights radioed the tower while trying to land on the runway, but received no response.

This was no simple case of sleeping at the console, however – the FAA concluded that the Knoxville controller intentionally went to sleep, planning for it well ahead of time. An alarming admission to be sure, but we were tipped off by the blanket and couch cushions.

A fellow employee, alarmed by the silence, says he entered the room and shook the controller awake several times. Each time the controller awoke, the employee claims, he promised he would stay awake and get back to work, but would get back in bed when the employee left the room.

The audio recordings of the radio traffic between pilots and the tower show that the sleepy controller had occasionally mumbled instructions to pilots, but would then become silent as pilots tried to make subsequent contact. This indicates that the controller was probably getting out of bed to transmit instructions, then going back to sleep.

According to ABC News, there are about 40 control towers in the United States that are manned by only one person. After the air traffic controller/supervisor fell asleep inadvertently at Reagan National, Transporation Secretary Ray LaHood immediately ordered a second air traffic controller to be placed on duty there overnight. The National Transportation Safety Board has also urged the FAA not to schedule supervisors to work as controllers if they are also supposed to be supervising the air traffic facility at the same time.

We listened directly to the taped radio communications from the night of the silent tower incident at Reagan National. On the recording, you can hear a pilot circling the airport and a TRACON controller discussing the lack of an answer from the airport tower:*

TRACON: American 1012, called a couple times on land-line and tried calling on the commercial line and there’s no answer.

Pilot 1: American 1012 Roger, remember a while back, a year or so ago, somebody got locked out of the tower. And uh… aircraft went in [static] uncontrolled airport.

[...]

TRACON: And just so you’re aware there’s one aircraft going to DCA… the tower is apparently unmanned. He called on the phone and he says nobody’s answering, so that aircraft went in a […] uncontrolled airport.

[...]

TRACON: America 1900, just so you’re aware, the tower is apparently not manned. We’ve made a few phone calls, nobody’s answering, so, 2 airplanes went in in the past 10 to 15 minutes. So you can expect to go in an uncontrolled airport.

TRACON: Well, I’m gonna take a guess… and say that the controller, uh, got locked out.

Pilot 2:I’ve heard of this happening before.

TRACON: Yeah, fortunately it’s not very often, but yeah, it happened about a year ago, but I’m not sure that’s what happened now, but anyway there’s nobody in the tower.

Tower: [unintelligible from recording]

TRACON: Well, the tower’s back in business…

Pilot 2: Yeah, I just want to make sure that we’re not going to have a problem. First of all they said you were unmanned, so that’s why we made our call for [static] and uh, apparently you were manned, so… are we going to have a problem with this?

*The above is our abridged transcript of the recording, you can listen to the tapes yourself at liveatc.net.

Both falling-asleep incidents, as well as another incident where a Central Florida air traffic supervsior working as an air traffic controller caused two planes to violate the FAA minimum safe distance requirements – the planes being close enough to each other for both pilots to see into each others cockpits – have given the FAA, the NATCA, and the NTSB much to think about in regards to staffing.

The FAA said the controller who intentionally went to sleep in Knoxville would be fired immediately. “This was a willful violation,” said FAA administrator Randy Babbitt. Deliberately endangering the lives of pilots and passengers is, clearly, unacceptable.

Even though the planes were able to land safely, the incident could have easily affected the outcome of four Lifeguard air ambulance missions, where time is a critical factor.

The controller who fell asleep on the job accidentally at Reagan National for about 20-30 minutes was suspended pending an investigation.

A former air traffic controller told WMBF News that it’s common for small airports to remain unstaffed overnight, saying it is safe for smaller airports that don’t see lots of air traffic. “There are very specific rules and regulations and guidelines for pilots to follow in the event they lose communication with their air traffic control tower, or if the tower’s not staffed, and those rules are safe,” he said.

Airport traffic control facilities are not always staffed 24 hours a day, and experienced pilots land at “uncontrolled airports” every day. When the lack of a controller is scheduled, however, pilots are on the same frequency as ground crews conducting maintenance on aircraft and runways. When controllers are on duty, ground crews and pilots both speak to the tower on different frequencies. Therefore, when the tower is supposed to be online but no one is responding, there is a higher risk of collision, as pilots may be unaware of equipment or airplanes on the ground, and ground crews may not have enough time to get out of the way of landing aircraft.

In the shadow of three recent major ATC mistakes, and the fact that serious ATC errors are up 51% from the previous year, it may be important to examine the obvious root of the problems – sleep.

Many controllers say that due to scheduling, they are only able to sleep for very short periods of time, if at all, between their shifts. Research backs up this claim – according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, air traffic controllers only get an average of 2.3 hours of sleep before working on a “midnight shift.”

In addition, the NTSB believes that “rotating shifts” – ones in which work times change drastically from one day to the next – are detrimental to controllers who already must handle a huge workload in a job that depends entirely on fast thinking, quick reaction, and not making mistakes. The AASM says that in particular, “counterclockwise” shifts, in which the shifts begin earlier than the last shift, and so on, go directly against the body’s natural rhythm. Thus, air traffic controllers often only get eight hours between their shifts to drive home, eat, take care of personal needs and/or families, and sleep before their next shift.

What do you think the FAA should do to make sure incidents like these, which could potentially put time-sensitive air medical missions at risk, are avoided in the future?

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