D.C. air control tower briefly goes silent

Washington Post / March 24, 2011

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WASHINGTON — The control tower at Reagan National Airport went silent early yesterday, forcing two airliners carrying a total of 165 passengers and crew to land on their own.

The tower did not respond to pilot requests for landing assistance or to phone calls from controllers elsewhere in the region, who also used a “shout line’’ that pipes into a loudspeaker in the tower, internal records show.

An American Airlines Boeing 737 flying in from Miami with 97 on board aborted its landing and circled the airport after getting no response from the tower at midnight. Minutes later a United Airlines Airbus 320 flying in from Chicago with 68 passengers and crew also received no answer from the tower.

Both planes landed safely after their pilots took matters into their own hands, broadcasting their progress as they approached and landed. They were also communicating with controllers at a separate facility in the region that does not handle landings.

The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating the incident, agency spokeswoman Laura Brown said in a statement.

“The pilots were in contact with air traffic controllers at the Potomac TRACON, which hands off flights to the tower shortly before they land, and both aircraft landed safely,’’ she said. “The FAA is looking into staffing issues and whether existing procedures were followed appropriately. “

The incident, which is under review by the National Transportation Safety Board, is the second time in as many years that the tower at National has gone silent for a period of time, said a source familiar with tower operations who asked not to be named because he is not authorized to speak for the FAA. The previous time, the lone controller on duty left his swipe-card pass key behind when he stepped outside the tower’s secure door and wasn’t able to get back in, the source said.

A controller at another facility even talked about that incident as the pilots were trying to land yesterday morning.

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