On 24 March 2011 the National Transportation Safety Board opened an investigation into an air traffic control service interruption incident on that occurred early morning at Washington Ronald Reagan National Airport (DCA) in Arlington, Virginia.
On 23 March 2011, between approximately 12:04 am and 12:28 am EDT, an air traffic control service interruption occurred when two air carrier aircraft and controllers at the Federal Aviation Administration’s Potomac Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) were unable to establish contact with the supervisory controller working alone in the DCA control tower.
The last radio transmission made by the tower controller before the service interruption occurred at 11:55 pm EDT on 22 March 2011. At 12:04 am EDT on 23 March, American Airlines flight 1012, operating as a scheduled 14 Code of Federal Regulations part 121 flight between Dallas-Fort Worth and DCA, was instructed to contact Washington tower by approach controllers at TRACON.
Following numerous attempts to contact the DCA tower, the flight crew executed a missed approach. The crew reported to TRACON their inability to make contact with the DCA tower; TRACON then vectored the aircraft back to the airport for another approach.
According to the NTSB, the approach controller and the TRACON supervisor on duty made several attempts to contact the tower controller via telephone, but were unable to establish contact. The TRACON approach controller advised the crew of American flight 1012 that the tower was apparently unattended, and that the flight would be handled as an arrival to an uncontrolled airport.
The flight was again cleared for approach, and instructed to switch to the tower frequency. At 12:12 am, the crew returned to the tower frequency, still unable to make contact with the tower, made position reports while inbound, and landed on runway 1, said an NTSB statement.
Later, United Airlines flight 628T (UAL628T), operating as a scheduled 14 CFR 121 passenger flight from Chicago-O’Hare International Airport to DCA, was advised of the service interruption by the TRACON approach controller and subsequently transferred to the tower frequency at 12:22 am.
The United flight, unable to make contact with the tower, made position reports on the tower frequency while inbound, and landed at 12:26 am.
At 12:28 am, American flight 1012, on the ground at DCA, established contact with the tower controller, and normal services were resumed.
The controller in the tower at the time of the incident, along with other FAA officials at DCA, were interviewed by the NTSB on 24 March. The controller, who had 20 years’ experience, 17 of those at DCA, indicated that he had fallen asleep for a period of time while on duty, said the NTSB. He had been working his fourth consecutive overnight shift (10 pm – 6 am). Human fatigue issues are one of the areas being investigated.
The NTSB will be interviewing officials at the TRACON facility tomorrow.
Citing a fatal aircraft accident and two incidents that occurred in a 23-month period between 2007 and 2009, on 21 March 2011, the NTSB issued a safety recommendation letter to the FAA asking the agency to improve the safety of air traffic control operations by prohibiting air traffic controllers from providing supervisory oversight while performing operational air traffic duties.