Early Wednesday morning, two planes landed at Reagan Airport without clearance from the tower. The reason? The one controller on shift was asleep.
CBS News correspondent Nancy Cordes reports that the air control supervisor on duty -- the only controller on shift -- had reportedly fallen asleep around midnight on Tuesday when the incident occurred.
Veteran aviation expert Mark Weiss tells CBS News that commercial aircraft being forced to land at an "uncontrolled airport" -- one at which no air traffic control is available -- is extremely rare.
"It's so unusual," said Weiss. "In the 20 years plus that I flew for the airline I did, it's never happened."
The two planes--American Flight 1012 out of Miami and United Flight 628T out of Chicago--were in contact with the TRACON facility in Warrenton, and landed safely. Nonetheless, the Transportation Department is up in arms. Secretary Ray LaHood has ordered that a second controller be on duty at Reagan during the night shift.
WaPo details what happened when the tower went silent.
A few minutes after midnight on Wednesday, radio recordings show, the TRACON controller handling the flight from Miami made a routine verbal handoff, telling the pilot to contact the tower.
Unable to reach anyone at National, the pilot aborted the approach, circled the airport and radioed the Potomac TRACON controller for help in aligning the plane for landing. A few minutes later, when the United plane approached for landing, the TRACON controller told him that the tower was unmanned.
The two pilots took matters into their own hands, and used information from other airlines to find out where to land. As harrowing as it might have been for the passengers on those two redeye flights, according to someone familiar with air traffic operations the greatest danger was actually to ground personnel.
In a circumstance like the one that occurred at National, pilots get on the control tower radio frequency and relay their position, speed and distance to other pilots as they approach and land.
“So, other airplanes would know, ‘Okay, he’s clear of the runway, so I’m good to go,’ ” said the source familiar with tower operations.
On the ground, however, the slow nighttime hours are when maintenance crews crisscross the runway — sometimes towing planes — as they prepare for the next morning.
“There are people in the control tower for a reason,” the source said. “There’s a whole lot of activity going on during the night.”
The maintenance workers have to get clearance from the tower in order to cross a runway. If anyone had been on the ground at the time those two planes came down and there had been another communication breakdown--well, suffice to say that supervisor better have a lawyer on speed dial.