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?