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?