Second Guessing – Extraordinaire

March 30, 2011 by Bruce Landsberg

Never let the facts get in the way of a good story. Last week’s big excitement was an ATC supervisor/controller who fell asleep during the mid shift at Reagan National Tower (KDCA).Two airliners landed without incident as they were talking to Approach Control who noted no airborne conflicts – not to mention TCAS. Hmmm –  there’s gotta be a story here somewhere and aviation always excites the media’s imagination.

Andy Pasztor wrote in Monday’s Wall Street Journal about the divide splitting safety experts on whether the pilots should have landed at National while the tower snoozed. For more background here are some excerpts from the article along with my thoughts – you can weigh in too.

“Now, a number of safety experts inside and outside government contend the pilots also shoulder blame in the incident. These experts fault the cockpit crews for forgoing what they contend would have been a safer option to land elsewhere, or at least stay in a holding pattern to determine why the Reagan National tower went silent for more than half an hour.”

“It was clearly inappropriate to land without a clearance” from the tower and “it is preposterous to say there was no violation and it was a perfectly safe procedure,” said Loretta Alkalay, the former top lawyer for the Federal Aviation Administration’s Eastern region.

“If a tower controller can’t be reached for any reason”, she said, “it is absolutely not up to the pilots to decide to land as though it was an uncontrolled airport.” Ms. Alkalay, you may recall, was the former FAA Eastern Region Attorney who decided icing conditions could occur anytime the temperature was below freezing – no clouds, no moisture – just below freezing. AOPA spent considerable effort unsnarling that little non-sequitur. Ms. Alkalay is not a pilot.

Richard Healing, a former member of the National Transportation Safety Board, noted “The biggest potential hazards stemmed from planes or vehicles crossing runways in the darkness, without anyone alerting the pilots of the landing jets. The safest approach would have been to divert,” according to Mr. Healing. “It might have inconvenienced some passengers, but it wouldn’t have compromised safety.”

“I think they should have diverted …and for the FAA to condone what happened is a big mistake,” according to Greg Feith, a former safety board investigator who now runs his own aviation consulting firm. “Neither the pilots nor the approach controllers would have known if there happened to be a truck or a disabled aircraft stuck on the runway,” according to Mr. Feith.

Mark Rosenker, the former chairman of the safety board, on Sunday said that based on preliminary information, the pilots apparently acted appropriately. “They would have had enough time to talk to company dispatchers to get some situational awareness,” he said.

I am privileged to have worked with these fine people in the past, except for the FAA attorney, and will respectfully disagree with three of them. There are two regulations that provide guidance: 91.3 allows the pilot-in-command to make decisions and allows for deviation from any rule or procedure in the case of an emergency – although it could be argued this wasn’t an emergency – so the pilot’s normal decision-making abilities are suspended? Think on that one for a moment.

Hitting perhaps a bit closer to the mark, – the IFR lost comm rule – (which may or may not have applied in this situation) says in VFR conditions or upon encountering VFR conditions  the “pilot shall continue and land as soon as practicable” (The metars bracketing the incident were 900 OVC and 10 miles and 4,000 OVC and 10 miles). The first pilot, as the story goes, executed a miss and with the TRACON’s help, came back around to land. Whether the lost comm here actually occurred during IMC, or not, is largely irrelevant. The reg provides guidance. FAR 121 operators also have DCA specific lost comm procedures for reasons of national security as well. Regarding ground hazards – anything that can move on the surface of DCA must have a certificated operator at the controls and they would likely be aware that the tower was off-line.  Really, how big was the risk?

I might feel more concern if there had been some incident, but there wasn’t. There is a procedure for managing such situations and it worked perfectly – not once but twice!  Pure luck was all that separated all those people from disaster? Sorry – I can’t quite buy that.

Perhaps the greatest irony is that we’re still debating the rights and wrongs of this incident days after it happened and the crews made their decision in less than ninety seconds!

GA operates at non-towered airports as do many airlines. In periods of light traffic I suspect that even an ATP could land a big aircraft in VMC without assistance from Marconi. What do you think?

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • R. Judy

    Bruce —

    Good post with lots of good points. I think that even though DCA is in the heart of downtown DC with lots of sensitive buildings and land around it, these pilots did a great job by just keeping their cool, following procedure, and FLYING THE AIRPLANE! This situation could have been the same as if the 2 airliners lost their radios for some reason…they just land the airplane. Keep up the good work!

  • Lyman H.

    there are two separate issues. we should be quite concerned that personnel staffing at a critical airport needs attention, and the FAA is correct in treating it as a major issue for the comfort of the travelling public. At the same time, however, the airliners initiating landing at the airport during a lull time using uncontrolled airfield procedures is not an alarming situation, in fact rather practical.

  • Gregory Feith


    In response to your article – I agree to an extent that the flightcrews involved were capable of conducting safe operations into DCA by performing radio and visual-lookout procedures appropriate for an “uncontrolled airport” situation. And while I can’t speak for the folks quoted in Andy’s article, I will briefly explain the basis of my comments that did not appear.

    When it comes to aviation safety, it is real easy to second-guess that actions of the people involved in the event. As an aviation safety professional, it is necessary to examine all of the facts, conditions and circumstances of an event to understand the causes and contributing factors. Unfortunately, more often than not people to focus on the “obvious” issues and fail to identify the other primary and contributory issues associated with an event. These are the factors that can, and often do result in incidents and accidents. I believe the flightcrews should have made the prudent decision to divert to IAD or BWI, or even hold for a period of time until the situation in the tower cab could be corrected. From the information currently available, neither flight was in a fuel-critical situation that required them to land at DCA. Further, a point to think about is whether the decision to land at DCA would have been different had the field been IFR. Additionally there was no way for the flightcrews to insure that the runway was not obstructed with vehicles, people or anything else. Just because the TRACON folks did not have any information that would indicate the airport was unsafe, they are not at DCA to personally observe the condition of the runway or the operational areas. If something had happened to either one of the aircraft during the approach and/or landing such as landing short or rolling off the end of the runway, emergency response notification would likely have been delayed. While some accident events would have been obvious, others may not (i.e. AAL MD-80 at LIT – the controller observed the aircraft land on the approach end of the runway and did not know that it had crashed after overrunning the end; COMAIR 5191….). There have been other similar events in aviation accident history where crash notification/response was delayed at airports (both uncontrolled and controlled) and survivors became fatalities.

    While there are several other points I explained to Andy (that did not make it into the article) it is important to step back and look at ALL of the safety issues associated with an event like this. Air carrier operations are conducted at uncontrolled airport, however for the airlines (and their pilots) these are known/scheduled events with specific procedures. This was an unplanned event for which there may not have been specific air carrier procedures – Currently we don’t know (the Safety Board is examining this issue) if these particular flightcrews were in non-compliance with their own carrier’s procedures.

    One other factor that often plays into situations like this (and tends to have an influence on ADM and the operation of into an unsafe situation is the money-factor. The airline has to accomodate the passengers as a result of the divert, either providing ground transportation to their original destination or housing them in a motel/hotel. Also their is the logistic of respositioning the the out-of-position airplane to DCA.

    The bottom line from a safety prospective is that it would have been prudent for the pilots to have either request to hold for a period of time until things were sorted out or divert the short distance to either IAD or BWI where the facilites were fully functioning and ATC was prepared to respond in the event of an emergency situation.


  • Brian Turrisi

    I have lived through too many of these stories over the years now. The media does have a sensational slant when it comes to aviation.
    We now have had two incidents i the last week making for wonderful media fodder. The DCA tower issue and an incident in Florida where a Cirrus was NORDO for over an hour and a Southwest 737 was asked to fly by and see if the crew of the Cirrus was “awake”. Both instances evoked “anger” in the FAA administrator.
    Is that not just feeding on the media’s perception of all of this?
    each case has virtually no serious safety issues breached and yet there is no loss for critics voicing their opinions on both of these issue.
    What do we learn for any of this?

  • Larry M. Coleman

    Re Mr. Feith:

    “When it comes to aviation safety, it is real easy to second-guess that actions of the people involved in the event. As an aviation safety professional,” I’m going to do just that.

    It’s bad enough when the general public, who knows about as much about how aviation works as they know about how their microwave works, get all up in arms about something as blown out of proportion as this. It’s much worse when an “aviation safety professional”, who *should* know better, does them one better.

    The bottom line from a safety perspective is that in the 21st century, we have the technology to fly airliners from KABC to KXYZ with a flight crew of zero. The reason we’ve got pilots in those seats isn’t to increase fuel burn, it’s because we still need a pair of brains at the stick to do exactly what these pilots did: make judgment calls when circumstances and unplanned events arise. You can, as you did, create what-if scenarios and bicker about what policy says what, and you still won’t change the fact that these pilots did exactly what they’re up there to do in the first place and they did it well.

    Let’s play the “second guess sweepstakes” and say they diverted. What if the controller fell asleep there, too? What if the Easter bunny and the tooth fairy decided to pull out the card table and start playing five card stud on the runway? What if a meteorite landed right in the middle of the runway? See, you’re right: this is a really easy game. All it demonstrates is that the words “prudent” and “safe” are not synonymous, and they are neither mutually exclusive nor inclusive. These pilots were not “prudent”, but they were safe. They didn’t wait for mommy to hold their hand and guide them: they made a decision and executed it without incident, without waiting for an edict from some anonymous desk jockey whose posterior isn’t planted in the left seat. If I owned an airline, I’d want all of my pilots to be capable of the same thing.

  • jim k


    There is no question that those of us who fly feel resentment at the comments made after the fact by non-pilots. My immediate reaction was: here we go again, the non-flying public is being treated to the misinformation that airplanes can’t fly without controllers.

    It is very refreshing to have Mr Feith participate in this discussion. I can’t tell whether he has flown a plane or not, but he has clearly given a lot of thought to safety. If all the danger points were to be mentioned, perhaps the idea of diverting to another airport and flying around low level in a fast-moving airliner to another unplanned landing might rate as slightly riskier than the actions taken. Likewise with going somewhere to hold.

    Many of us have experienced Class D controller mistakes, and I cannot be alone in double checking controllers for anything having to do with movement near the airport. Regarding the potential of obstructions on the runway, they would be more obvious to the the flight crew with their powerful landing lights aimed down the runway than to the tower controller looking across the field. Again, who among us has landed at night without taking a good long look down the runway for deer or other dangers? The absence of controllers is not something to be feared by those of us who fly.

    If I had been flying the plane, going elsewhere or delaying the landing would have seemed less safe than landing at the intended runway, for which all appropriate briefings and setup had already been made. I would have had a heightened sense of caution, but definitely with a greater sense of security and safety than either diverting or holding.

    The comments of Ms. Alkalay are definitely counterproductive to air safety in my view. A legalistic, rules-bound approach after the fact, making no allowance for the uncertainty of the situation, is FAR more dangerous than the actions criticized. Remember hearing from old-timers than so and so might be bright but lacked common sense? It applies here. Mr. Pasztor’s words attributed to her reveal a complete lack of common sense.

    Thanks for the opportunity to add my 2 cents.

  • N Lynn Thoma

    I agree most heartily with the comments of Mr. Larry M Coleman and Jim K..

    If pilots are preocupied with how their actions can be legaly be used against them, instead of how best to fly the plane, safety will surely suffer.

  • http://none Jeff Sponberg

    Common sense prevailed on the flight deck. They landed without incident. End of story. Great article with great talking points on both sides. Everything happened the way that it was supposed to.

  • Tim Case

    I’ll add one other observation that I haven’t seen mentioned. I heard the ATC tapes played on CNN. The approach controlled told the pilots of one or both of the planes (I don’t remember if was both) that “you need to treat it as an uncontrolled airport”. My point here is that the pilots didn’t unilaterally declare DCA to be an uncontrolled airport. It was suggested byATC.

    That doesn’t made the regulatory situation crystal clear. The pilots were in one of those legal gray areas that pilots find themselves in from time to time. They made a prudent decision with the information available, and presumably stayed alert for any new data that would change that decision.

    They did what any pilot in command is supposed to do. I think the vast majority of pilots agree that it was a safe course of action. The outcome of the decision was of course successful. It’s unfortunate that the FAA wants to try to share the blame since they employ the one person who clearly screwed up.

  • Dick Vockroth

    I believe I was told during a visit to a tower that squawking 7700 prompts a loud alarm in the tower cabs, to alert all within range of an emergency. Is this true? I think I would have tried it anyway, just to get somebody’s attention.

  • James Greer

    My first reaction to the WSJ article was the same as yours, Bruce. After all, airliners land at uncontrolled airports all the time using the CTAF frequency. But this was different. In this case, there was supposed to be a controller on duty, but he wasn’t answering, and no one knew why. Moreover, this is DCA we’re talking about. It’s been 10 years since 9-11, but there have been plenty of reminders since then that bad guys still want to get us. Not knowing the situation on the ground, I might have gone to Dulles.

  • Paul O’Keefe

    I think the flight crews did a great job. I think the media did a terrible job. A point I haven’t seen discussed but which irked me was the issue of the DC ADIZ. After all the hoopla about the need for a special zone, the fact that the cab at DCA is staffed by only one person at any time shows how incomplete and wrong-headed security procedures within the ADIZ are. As an example of “what if”, a medical incapacitation in the cab could have created a very confusing situation that might have easily escalated. Any review should consider that aspect of this incident.

  • David Adams

    I agree it was not approiate for there to be only a single person in the tower. Medical emergencies occur. 8 hours in a shift will have personal issues the contoller needs to address. 8 hours in a long, dark, boring night needs someone to help defray the bordom – and keep each other awake. If the tower needs to be maned it needs at least 2 people to provide coverage.

    But why was the tower open at all? One flight every 15 – or more – minutes is essentially no traffic. Airlines fly into no tower airports with far more traffic all over the world, safely and efficently. Air Traffic Control is to provide separation when things get too buisy for the pilots to keep track of each other on their own. Not to be “Big Brother”, comanding and controlling your every breath. With flights 15 or more minutes apart there is no traffic to separate. Lets spend our limited tax dollars where it will have meaning and enhanse the public safety. Operating the tower merely to maintain the TSA/FAA power peramid does not add to safety. It degrades safety by luring everyone into a false sence of security. Approach Control is providing more than enough communication, and control, to keep the skies over the capital safe during these long boring nights. The tower does not need more staff. It needs to be closed and let the pilots do the job they have been trained to do.

    Its approaching 10 years since 9-11. It’s long past time we got over the paranoia and let the pilots do the jobs for which they have trained.

  • http://n/a Douglas E. Drummond

    Does anyone remember the 1965 New York City blackout? I remember reading something to the effect that many of the North East towers did not have emergency power (some navaids probably didn’t either) but it was a clear VFR night and the pilots sorted themselves out. Of course this was a serious emergency.

    I was living in Indianapolis at the time and worked for the local power company (Indianapolis Power & Light) a few years later. Indianapolis International has an emergency power feed from the adjacent power company (Public Service of Indiana). Today they probably have UPS’s up the ying-yang. In 1965 that part of the country did not lose power, but you could see the glitch on the power company chart recorders.

  • John Joyce

    Further flight beyond the flight plan involves risk. Landing is the appropriate action. If, as some have suggested, remaining in tlight until all factors can be resolved would have certainly used the airplane’s fuel remaining. It’s been hours/days since the incident and all the options haven’t been resolved yet. If the Mayor had dug up the runway, the pilots would have seen that and diverted.

  • Dennis Crenshaw

    Great article, Bruce. Very appropriate title. Today I landed the bizjet I fly at Leesburg after calling the airport in sight to the Potomac Approach controllers. We self announced our position on CTAF and landed. No tower controller to tell us that we were ‘cleared to land.’ Nothing happened. Imagine that.

    The airline pilots in question assessed the situation they were presented with, exercised their judgement based on thousands of hours and most likely decades of flight experience, and performed safe landing maneuvers. The safety experts and lawyers will opinewith their ‘what if’ scenarios and point fingers at the pilots after the fact; but pilots play ‘what if’ all the time before and during the course of a flight to effect its safe outcome. These pilots did exactly that and made the right decision given the circumstances they were confronted with. Consider abandoning an approch, executing a go-around, re-configuring the aircraft, setting up the cockpit and briefing another approach; busy, busy, busy. More opportunities to make a mistake and more time spent in the air where something bad can happen.

    The FAA now wants to staff the tower with two controllers during the night shift–what about a really mean dog to keep the controller awake?

  • Bob Aaron

    Hi Bruce,

    Interesting comments -seemingly from many who have do not appear to ever being in the cockpit of a commercial jet nor been paid to make those same decisions that they (and yourself as well, Bruce) rather blithely refer to.
    Having been in Part-121 airline and military cockpits for over 35 years, I do feel slightly qualified to be a part of this discussion.

    Mr. Feith is singularly right on target with his response to your article.

    Many of the self-appointed experts after Mr Feith have missed the enitre point. It is not whether the crews flying should be knowedgeable about using a CTAF or determining the risk involved – that is not a problem for your average ATP carrying pilot. Landing using a CTAF at Minot might just be a bit different from landing uncontrolled at DCA….

    However, it is the unknown factors and possibilities that raise not ontly the risk level to crews and passengers but should also affect the crews’ thinking too.

    While no one doubts their airmanship abilities enabling them to be able to land, the average truck on the runway scenario DOES happen (happened to me in one early morning after a red-eye – tower cleared us to land with an airport ops vehicle on a runway he knew nothing about. Incidents such as that do occur and do lead to accidents (think LAX and the Metroliner landed on by a US Air B-737) – that could also have happened in this situation as well. Accidents do happen with controllers on duty and in control – the very real ppossibility does exist for the same level of major accident at a suddenly uncontrolled major airfield.

    Someone referenced the security aspect of this event – I absolutely agree with that as you have a one person tower, it’s late a night and what better way to send a strong message that “they” can still reach out and effectively choke us than by a team of bad guys taking over the tower and then causing a major accident? Implausible? Think again! Last time I flew into DCA it is on a river. This event occurred late at night and it would be very easy to bring just about anything onto DCA property sight unseen with the tower not being controlled by the “right” personnel….

    Bruce, you earlier mentioned contacting their own Dispatch folks for field information. Generally speaking, most part 121 Dispatchers are working numerous flights and have less information than a flight crew who is close to the airport with the questions being raised at that particular moment. A lot of times, the crew provides more timely information TO their Dispatchers. Besides, a Company does NOT want their flight to divert to IAD or BWI to offload and then have to ferry the plane out the next morning. Schedule disruptions are always a pain to deal with and be a part of – both for flight crews and passengers.

    If fuel was not a factor (and it does not to appear to have been so in this case), two possible courses of action could have been followed. First, have the TRACON contact the Airport police and have them send a team up to the control tower to find out what might have been going on. Secondly, the crews stay outside the airspace until certain that things are in order for them to proceed into that always “tense” airspace. Too many things could go wrong in that airspace to come in and land uncontrolled.

    Everyone was just a bit too “relaxed” with this situation. The TRACON actually might have “led” the pilots into DCA with his comment about the controller having been locked out before and his suspicion that this was what was going on. That would alleviate some of the pilots’ angst at not being able to contact DCA Tower but still not have mitigated the hidden risks about airfield suitability for landing uncontrolled. Many major airports have had only one controller on duty late a night over the years – MKE is another case-in-point with the controller doing all the jobs. Interestingly, even with bad weather having impacted MKE and lots of flight arriving late at night, that same one controller still was the only one working…amazing) – this stuff does happen.

    While the FAA Administrator is livid over this event, I do believe he is the same FAA Administrator who testified before the Congress saying the the FAA did not have a controller staffing issue. Perhaps, Bruce, you should delve into that testimony so that the root of this issue can be corrected to preclude more uncontrolled landings.

    While I was not the PIC that night, I have always lived by the adage of a superior pilot uses his superior judgment to keep him from using his superior skills. Based on the information that has been released so far, I strongly suspect I would have gone in a different direction…as Mr Feith asserts as being a prudent course of action.

  • Bruce Landsberg

    Bob & Greg … Thank you for your thoughts – well expressed. There are many factors and we’ve all got opinions, as shown above. Perhaps the greatest benefit of blogs ( if there is any) is the opportunity to look at other points of view.

    I regularly lose arguments with myself after looking at something a bit longer and trying to get outside my own small frame of reference. I know from my military and corporate flight experience that much of the decision making is taken out of the cockpit or launch control center ( in my case). Every so often something comes along that is outside the book or the available time to make the decision is limited. Not saying that happened here.

    There will be an exhaustive investigation and I’m sure many views will be aired. We’re all in the nice position to think about it and apply whatever learning takes place to our future flights. Again, hanks for contributing

  • Bart

    Curious we’re not hearing from any of the passengers about how “inexcusible it was to put our lives at risk just so we’d get home on time”. Anyone what to make book on how long it’ll be before some of them smell blood in the water here and go running to a lawyer, then use the FAA Admininstrator and the FAA lawyer’s comments to justify the case?

  • Bob H.

    Funny you should bring up the issue of emergency. Check the AIM….

    “An aircraft is in at least an urgency condition the moment the pilot becomes doubtful about position, fuel endurance, weather, or ***any other condition that could adversely affect flight safety.*** ” — AIM 6-1-2: Emergency Condition – Request Assistance Immediately

    “EMERGENCY- A distress or an urgency condition.”

    I’m pretty sure the pilots had some doubts about a condition (unknown though it was) that could adversely affect flight safety. The dissenters all argue that this was the case. :)

    IMHO, Jim K has it right. While diversions are not a big deal, a diversion under these circumstances would have introduced more risk – and placed more of it on the crew. At no time was there a safety issue in continuing to the IFR clearance limit. Airliners land at untowered airports – some with very inhospitable environments (HDN, AOO and SHD all come to mind).

    It’s unfortunate that the lessons of COM5191 and Teterboro are still unlearned – as the FAA notes in the FOI… learning occurs when behavior changes….

    If you want a good story, mark your calendar for about 54 weeks after the incident. Then call the FAA and ask how many controllers are working the tower at 0015 local? We both already know the answer….

    Finally, this is yet another clear example that our national priorities remain irrationally aligned. We have thousands standing around looking for undergarment bombers, and one lone guy risking his life (i.e., medical emergency as noted) alone in the cab tower to save the FAA a couple grand a year. It’s silly math in the extreme. We can only be thankful that the controller wasn’t making arrangements with his girlfriend for a cookout featuring grilled cat as the main dish – tower freq audio inadvertently muted.

  • Bob Aaron

    Hello Bob H and Jim K…

    A diversion at that time of night probably is not going to be causing too much turmoil for a divert crew in terms of getting a direct routing and taking the shortest path. However, there is one more point which everyone seems to have overlooked or might simply not be known.

    Some apples are clearly being mixed in with the oranges….

    The DCA airspace is classified as “Class B” airspace with a lot of restricted airspace and a prohibited area too. Obviously that is lot different from landing at Hayden or any other potentially uncontrolled airfield. Under the rules for an airport which is located underneath that Class B airspace, you cannot just go ahead an “put er down uncontrolled”…it requires the crew to have a valid landing clearance to do so. To the best of my knowledge, that did not happen with either crew – they should have gone around and TRACON should have not led the pilots into thinking everything was copacetic…itmight not have been thus.

    I do believe that might just qualify as a bona fide safety issue for all concerned…. Had either crew declared an emergency – which neither did – they can do pretty much as they did….but you cannot have it both ways!

  • Gregory Feith

    It is evident that some of the discussions posted are emotional responses that have no basis in fact. This is disconcerting since it is apparent that some, if not all of the respondants are pilots and apparently have not reviewed the FARs since they took their last checkride.

    The approach plate for DCA ( identfies the airspace at DCA as Class B. Unlike some other airports that have their respective airspace classifications changed when the control tower closes (i.e. reverting from class D to class G, etc.), DCA is Class B continuously thus the following applies:

    91.131 Operations in Class B airspace.

    (a) Operating rules. No person may operate an aircraft within a Class B airspace area except in compliance with §91.129 and the following rules:

    (1) The operator must receive an ATC clearance from the ATC facility having jurisdiction for that area before operating an aircraft in that area. [The jurisdiction would have been DCA Tower and not Potomac TRACON]

    (2) Unless otherwise authorized by ATC, each person operating a large turbine engine-powered airplane to or from a primary airport for which a Class B airspace area is designated must operate at or above the designated floors of the Class B airspace area while within the lateral limits of that area….

    Neither the AAL or UAL flightcrews declared an emergency, thus “AIM 6-1-2: Emergency Condition – Request Assistance Immediately” is not applicable, and the TRACON controller can not declare the emergency on behalf of the flight crew. In addition the TRACON controller can’t change the classification of the airspace on the fly and suggest a pilot treat a continuously controlled airport as an uncontrolled field.

    To those pilots that believe that diverting to an alternate airport would have increased the risk – what is the basis for that statement?? The two aircraft involved were not Cessna 172s flying VFR, low level at night – both aircraft were being operated on an IFR flight plan and under the control of the TRACON. Thus had they chose to divert, the pilots would have been given a clearance (that would have extended their flight plan) and they would have received all of the ATC protections (communications and radar monitoring) that operating an airplane on an IFR flight plan affords a pilot. Additionally, there would not have been added risk as suggested by one respondant (“executing a go-around, re-configuring the aircraft, setting up the cockpit and briefing another approach; busy, busy, busy. More opportunities to make a mistake and more time spent in the air where something bad can happen”) because all pilots, including these two professional flightcrews, are trained to perform these tasks without compromising the safe operation of the airplane. Also, the crews would not have had to perform these tasks had they diverted prior to commencing the approach. Therefore the “risk” would have been negligible compared to the risk of landing at an airport where the surface environment (people, vehicles, airplanes, etc) was unknown.

    Maybe AOPA and ASF need to collaborate on an article that reviews the airspace classifications and what a pilot can and can’t do in specific airspace under unusual circumstances such as the DCA event. In addition, John Yodice should provide the legal ramifications that a pilot could experience if they conducted themselves as the AAL and UAL crews did. We can all use an airspace refresher and this might be a good education opportunity.

  • grumpy

    Sqawking 7700 probably would have raised alarms and possibly awakened the the tower controller. It would also have resulred in the aircrew having to file reams of paperwork to, and deal with, endless B.S. from the FAA.

  • Bob Aaron

    Hi Grumpy,

    The 770 concept was covered much earlier in the disucssion…

    If you are dovetailing onto that earlier question/assertion that alarmbells would have gone off in the tower, I think you might be confusing alram bells with what controllers get when a transponder goes to 7700 on his/her screen or for an intruder alert when planes get too close. Not at all certain it would have woken the slumbering ATC Supervisor for one thing and if the intent was only to wake the person up, there are probably better avenues to take to do so.

    As to your comment about having “file reams of paperwork to, and deal with, endless B.S. from the FAA.” unless filing an air safety report the reams of paper for declaring an emergency is completed by the Company – not the pilots. Your declaration about it “would have resulted” is wrong – that does not not in part 121 ops. Crews do fill out some mandatory reports, but declaring an emergency report for the FAA is generally not one of them. They would most probably complete a report under an ASAP program or a NASA ASRS and never even talk to the FAA….

    As I mentioned earlier, the prudent course of action if, in fact, attempting to find out what was going on in the DCA tower that night would have been for the TRACON to call the Metro police and have them send up some of their folks to ensure the tower was in proper hands…or a sleepy controller supervisor.

  • Bob H.

    First, it is NOT required for a pilot to declare an emergency for an emergency to exist. (See also Airways flight 1549 – no emergency was every declared by the flight crew. It was declared by the controller when he advised LGA local control of an “emergency aircraft” inbound.)

    91.131 defines Class B airspace in the context of VFR. For example, an IFR flight will never be issued a discrete class B clearance, which is what this regulation addresses. What is the floor of the class B airspace with 7DME of the DCA VOR? I see no issues there.

    Furthermore, I do not agree that a diversion for a sleepy controller is a non-issue for a flight crew ending their duty day. I would agree that a flight crew has to be ready for anything, but requiring crew performance to compensate for gross incompetence to fulfill a fiduciary duty, with no appreciable or tangible impact on flight safety? IMHO, that goes too far.

    Also IMHO, FAR 91.3 PIC authority requires the acceptance of the decision of the pilot in light of the extenuating circumstances.

    In conclusion, the pilots exercised their authorities under FAR 91.3 to fulfill their duties and ensure the “safety of the flight.” Nothing succeeds like success, and while we can split this hair ever after, the results at the end of the day speak for themselves.

  • Bob Aaron

    Morning Bob H.

    In conclusion, that’s all great Bob…except they were NOT dispatched under part 91 rules…part 121 is comepletely different in so many respects… Using Sully’s flight is a bit of a stretch….when down to 35% power in one engine only you are an emergency situation…intuitively.

    Not sure you understand that these two flights were under a whole different set of rules as you keep referring to part 91 rules…there IS a difference and do not apply to these crews, Bob.

    Having had to divert numerous times over 35 years at the end of my duty day, most forward thinking pilots ARE thinking about the next “failure” of sorts -that could be maintenance, weather, airport ops, etc. If it never happens then you land, go to the hotel and get some rest. Sometimes it does not play out that way and you must use the skills you have hopefully been trained to use at certain times.

    Is it without risk? Sure! Only if you never leave the gate is there zero risk as nobody moves and nobody gets hurt. We all assume some level of risk in everything we do

    BTW, “requiring crew performance to compensate for gross incompetence to fulfill a fiduciary duty…” Huh? Just what do you define as a “fiduciary duty?” If it’s part of their flight that is NOT fiduciary at all but very, very basic.

    Additionally, it is also clear, Bob, that you have never taken part in a part 121 annual requal or you would already know that diverting can and usually IS part of the yearly scenario in the sims. The crews are trained to do just that in their LOFT scenarios. Again, this is part 121 NOT part 91 – totally different… When they had to go around or hold up their approach, they are automatically looking at diverting for their fuel state, unknown airport state , maintenance (in other cases) or for a variety of last minute issues which impede their ability to land – diverting is NOT going to surprise them and the adrenaline rush is going to kick in.

    You also might want to actually do some reading up on Class B, E and G airspace as Mr Feith intimates. It’s very clear they could not land without a clearance if you go back and do some research, Bob.

  • Gregory Feith

    Bob H. you should go to the attached link and review Class B airspace – Every aircraft, VFR, IFR needs to have established 2-way radio communication and a clearance to enter the airspace. The core of Class B begins at the surface and extends upward. In addition, DCA is a controlled airport – regardless of whether the controller is sleeping or locked out – DCA remains a controlled airport and you need a clearance to land – the status of the airport, and its requirements does not change on the fly – the FAA makes that determination and publishes the operating requirements.

  • Bob H.

    An aircraft on an IFR flight plan has a clearance and a clearance limit, does not require a class B clearance, and will never be issued one.

    91.185 provides the procedures for IFR aircraft experiencing lost comms.

    It’s that simple. Over.

  • Bob Aaron


    Since you do seem to have just a “hint” of arrogance which is not knowledge based, let’s go over this one more time, shall we?

    As to it being so “simple,” all I will say is…part 91 vs part 121… You’re right – it IS that simple!

    For some reason, you cannot comprehend that these two flights did not magically revert to a part 91 operation and rules after they took off. You still need a clearance while on an IFR flight plan, the tower is still responsible for you as long as you are IFR and the separation has to be maintained. The controller monitoring you on radar does that. That is their primary area of responsibility. Neither crew cancelled IFR…they needed a landing clearance under the FAR’s.

    The emergency items do NOT apply because they did not declare an emergency…

    I suggest you go back and re-read what you actually typed and understand what you typed. 91.185 talks about two way operations and loss of communication WITHIN THE AIRCRAFT NOT the tower. This is also for an aircraft operating under part 91 NOT 121. In the DCA case, both sets of pilots were able to talk with anyone…they were NOT NORDO! The tower has light signals for ensuring you can land if landing VFR. If IFR, can go to a specific fix or a landing limit if the flight crew loses the radios NOT the tower. If DCA is your clearance limit you still do NOT have permission to land! Try to think of it this way….if I receive an IFR clearance to fly from JFK to FRA, does that clear me to land? No way….it allows me to leave JFK with a domestic US routing clearance, fly it, then get an oceanic clearance, followed by a European domestic clearance after completing the ocean part, then an arrival routing clearance into Frankfurt. After that I will get a specific runway clearance and approach clearance. Using your logic, you would say I am cleared to land in Frankfurt. In reality, if losing radios in that scenario, I will never, ever get close.