Nap time

Everyone needs a nap every now and then. That’s partly why I’m not upset about the many air traffic controllers who seem to have succumbed to their circadian rhythms and taken a snooze lately. Or maybe we’re just hearing about it lately. Either way, people are sleeping. Some of them so soundly that even attempts to reach them over a loudspeaker system in the tower cab didn’t work.

There are many approaches the FAA could take to fix the situation. The quickest, and no doubt most expensive, is to add staff, which is immediately what the agency did. Again, I would need someone to slap me around at 2 a.m. if I were working, so I don’t mind this.

What really matters to me as a pilot is what to do in such a situation. At Reagan National in Washington, D.C., two flights elected to land. In Reno, the medical transport pilot elected to circle and wait, and then ultimately land without clearance. And in Tennessee, well, that controller made a bed for his naps, and his shut-eye apparently left seven aircraft without radio contact.

Although you may think as a student pilot that this is something simply not covered in the book, the fact is that the general scenario is quite common. In essence, this is no-radio situation. Rules for instrument flying are long, complex, and very well defined on this subject. But what about for visual flight rules. Would you have landed in Reno?

If you answered yes, you are correct. At least by some people’s interpretations. If you answered no, you took the safe, and probably the smart choice.

If a control tower exists, we are most likely talking about Class D, Class C, or Class B airspace at the airport. FAR Part 91 says that for Class D, Class C, and Class B airports, radio communication must be established and maintained, and ATC instructions must be followed. In fact, Part 91.129 says a pilot may land if radio communication has been lost, assuming a clearance to land has been received. Sounds confusing, right? How could one receive clearance to land without radio communication? The answer is of course light gun signals. But I think it’s safe to say controllers aren’t using the light gun while snoozing.

So, technically, it seems there is no way to legally land at an airport with a napping controller. In the recent cases, I’d bet the pilots got off without a violation, simply because the FAA is focusing on the controllers’ behavior. But it’s a good lesson for all of us. Unless you absolutely, positively, must land without a clearance, take the safe route and fly to another airport. Look on the bright side, you’ll get practice implementing a real-world diversion.

Would you have landed? What would you have done?

–Ian Twombly

  • Jared Dirkmaat

    I personally think there is no wrong answer. If you elect to land, you have exercised your 91.3 PIC authority. If you elect to divert or circle, you have also chosen a safe and competent choice. It just depends I suppose on each case and comfort level of the pilot.

    You have no way of knowing that you are dealing with a sleeping controller, so you have to now assume you have lost radio contact with the tower. In such a case, the only reason I would then conduct a go-around is if I received the appropriate “do not land” flashing red light gun signal.

    What is aggravating to a lot of professional pilots is the amount of attention being given to the issue of fatigued controllers, and yet it has been a hot button item for the pilots for years. The difference is when a pilot falls asleep in the cockpit, nobody hears about it.

  • Matt

    I do not believe the pilots of the planes that landed should have. It is an FAA rule that clearance into class airspace transition must be approved and the pilots must receive ground clearance. The proper results should have been to divert to another airport. Having done so, rules and regulations would have been followed and wouldn’t have posed a safety issue. But landing under no clearance is “extremely” unsafe regardless of what the pilot “thinks” he/she can see from the plane. Not only do I think they should not have landed, I believe the FAA should make this a “lesson learned” training experience, and blow up the fact that rules were not followed. Regardless of the fact that they did land safe. Because, had they not landed safely the pilots would have been at full fault. Flying is not something to take lightly, and the rules are set to maintain a proper code of flight and safety. Let this be a lesson to everyone and lets all be safe.

  • Chris

    I think the circumstance had a lot to do with it.

    DCA is a large, class B airport in the middle of a flight restricted zone in the middle of a SFRA. The aircraft which landed were the last 2 or 3 for the night- no further arrivals or departures would be happening. And the pilot had gotten clearance from Approach Control to enter the Bravo and land (Approach told him to expect a landing at an uncontrolled field) which given traffic levels was relatively safe.
    Legally he was okay I think as he’d gotten permission to enter the Bravo from Approach. And I think from a safety perspective he was also okay as there was little/no traffic.
    Had there been more traffic, a diversion would have been in order. But as it was, the two airliners had to play CTAF on the tower freq and (IMHO at least) there wasn’t a safety issue.

    The thing which annoys me is how the media treat this. If you listen to some of these news reports you’d think it was only due to an excess of Sullenberg-caliber piloting skills and an excess of sheer luck that there wasn’t some horrible loss of life, insert images of white-knuckled pilots barely keeping their aircraft in the sky, praying they live to see tomorrow. Which is of course total BS.

  • Dan

    Landing at a tower controlled airport without a landing clearance is very dangerous. At a 24 hour tower controlled airport, on the midnight shift, routinely there are electricians, contractors, etc., that are operating on active runways and taxiiways. About 15 years ago during the midnight shift at LGA, a Gulfstream was clesred to land on runway 31 while electricians had previously been cleared to enter the runway and make repairs. What happened? The controller did not catch his mistake and the Gulfstream landed. During rollout the large pickup truck that was on the centerline came into view and could not be avoided. The left main of the Gulfstream hit the pickup and the aircraft slid off the left side of the runway. Needless to say, the Gulfstream was danaged beyond economical repair and was totaled. Lickily, the electricians saw the aircraft bearing down on them, they dropped their tools and ran escaping unscathed. The occupants of the Gulfstream luckily were also uninjured.
    Now, how is it any different to land on an active runway without a landing clearance (sleping controller) compared to getting a clearance to land when the controller forgets he has men and equipment on the runway? There is no difference! I don’t mean to scare everybody and to unnecessarily worry about controller error, but landing at a tower controlled airport without a landing clearance is very dangerous.

    In the case of DCA, the approach controller telling the flight crews to treat it as a landing at an uncontrolled airport put them in jeapordy. I don’t blame the controller for the mistake since I’m sure that he never had encountered such a situation. Additionally, I believe he did this at the suggestion of the supervisor on duty. At towers with published CTAF procedures the vehicles operating on the surface monitor the tower frequency as well as the ground control frequency. They are listening for airborne and taxiing traffic and act accordingly. That’s what makes it safe. At 24 hour towers this is not the case. The vehicles operating on the surface are only listening to GC and probably only the most experienced workers (been scared before) will dial up the tower frequency. At the tower where I work we have three tower frequencies. What frequency would the saavy worker tune in to?

    Bottom line, don’t land at a tower controlled airport without a landing clearance.

  • Mightbeatc

    ATC facilities sometimes go, what is called “act zero,” when a facility is abnormally out of service. Just like when towers close for the night, non-towered airport procedures apply – they did the correct thing.

  • cwright

    As a veteran of DCA, controlled airports in general, and far too many late-night arrivals, let me add my two cents to the mix. Airline pilots almost always know, or have some good idea, about the tower/non-tower operations of controlled fields. DCA does indeed have a landing curfew at night, but the tower is almost always manned.

    Dan makes the most coherent argument about the DCA incident, and the advice is good for any airport with a tower that you can not reach on the radio. Most airports do an awful lot of maintenance at night when traffic is low. They repair lights, paint lines, patch the surface, pick up debris, etc. If the Approach Controller tells you to contact tower, and you can’t, then the logical step is to return to Approach, and ask them to call the tower. If it is supposed to be manned, but can’t be contacted, a diversion is the correct decision–you don’t know who or what may be on the runway when you land.

    Put another way, if you elect to land and have an incident or an accident, especially with personnel or equipment on the runway, the sleeping controller is not the one who will get all of the negative publicity. That dubious honor will fall to you.

  • Kamerai

    I think that many people are forgetting that in at least one of these situations the pilot contacted the center and asked what to do. He told him to land like it was an uncontrolled airport. Does this not constitute clearance to land? I am a student pilot so I am ignorant about many things, but I do not remember anything on who has to give the clearance.

  • Philip

    They should have buzzed the tower…Like they did in TopGun. I bet that would have gotten the controller’s attention…

  • ScottCFII

    If the aircraft were on IFR flight plans when radio communications were lost, they are expected to complete the flight as planned. One assumes the issue of communications failure is on the part of the aircraft, rather than ATC in these cases. Regardless, completing the flight as expected and landing at the destination airport as close as possible to the filed ETA would be the expected course.

    Under VFR, with everyone on the CTAF/tower frequency and following standard pattern procedures and everyone (VFR and IFR) announcing their respective positions, an acceptable measure of safety is maintained.

    IFR – Complete as expected. VFR – Follow standard arrival procedures. Everybody communicate on CTAF.

  • Roger

    Well stated Scott. Is there something more deep rooted in the original problem, controller asleep. Shouldn’t he wait until the last two scheduled flights arrive before nap time. Was this his first night in the tower?

  • Mark

    The answer is: It Depends. There is a rational decision tree that should be followed in a circumstance such as this. The decision arrived at will depend on the outcome of the decision tree. This example is not complete. It is intended to be illustrative only. 1. Is there a suitable alternate available? 2. Do I have a critical need to land here? (the medical flight may qualify) 3. What is the traffic load at this destination? (am I walking into a midair?) 4. What is the weather? 5. Is it likely that traffic control is failing rather than my radio? 6. etc. From the limited data given in the summary my thoughts are that probably the two flights at Reagan should have gone to Dulles. In contrast, the flight into Reno probably made the right choice. In none of the cases is there enough information to really make a determination.

  • G ED King

    As a Student pilot I have read and re read many times that the pilot in comand can declare an emergency state is intentions and use the tower freq and state his position and make a standard VFR approch, make standard calls ON THE TOWER frequency so other Aircraft Know is position.