Media Ignorance: Snoozing Controller Didn't Endanger Plane
We had an incident at Ronald Reagan Washington International this week. A controller fell asleep leaving the field “Uncontrolled.”
The Media had a field day. My blood pressure even went up over some Talk Radio hosts displaying what they do not know.
Before I go any further let me ask this simple question: There is a power outage when you are driving downtown. What do you do as you approach an intersection with dead stoplights? Do you: 1) Panic 2) Drive right on through because the light isn’t red or 3) Treat the intersection as a four-way stop?
For most, those up on the law, it’s easy. You treat the intersection as a four-way stop. It's a little bit of an inconvenience, but no real increase in the dangers of driving.
Well, guess what? The FAA has rules just like that for airfields that are ‘Uncontrolled.’ When listening to the chatter between pilots, the word uncontrolled is a Statement of Status, not a Hue and Cry of disaster.
The little image I’ve added to this rant is called an approach plate. I have no Idea which runway was in use that night, so I’m going with runway 01 because it’s the longest runway and a Cat II which indicates it’s the most used.
Responsibility for the safety of an aircraft rests in the hands of one person, the pilot. He has the right to decline any instructions from a controller at any time. The fact that he’s been handed off to the airport and its tower does not chisel in stone that he must land at the airport. If for any reason he feels it is unsafe to land his aircraft at an airport, he can go around at his discretion.
Should he decide to do so, he simply climbs to 500 feet, makes a climbing left turn to 2000 feet on Radial 325 for 5.9 miles, and holds and contacts D.C. Area Approach for another approach into Reagan International or an alternate destination at his discretion.
I know this because it’s on the top of the approach plate that a pilot is supposed to familiarize himself with BEFORE he begins his approach!
From reading the plate, I also know there is a Prohibited Area directly North of the airport, 1.5 miles north from the ground to 18,000 feet; I think that’s the White House and Halls of Congress or some thing.
Anyway, just like the traffic light become a four-way-stop procedure for drivers, there are specific procedures for pilots using Uncontrolled Fields. They do not create close calls like Katie Couric suggested, and pilots are well aware of the rules involved when a field is Uncontrolled. (At least they should be.) It is not the danger factor that is increased, it is the convenience factor that is decreased by the Uncontrolled status.
The Approach Controller will change minimums for the Uncontrolled Status, meaning he will put in place longer separations between landing aircraft to give pilots more time to clear the runway. Pilots will depend more on looking out the window than on instrumentation. Good pilots do this stuff all the time anyway to stay current.
No one was “Flying Blind,” and there was NO imminent danger due to the controller falling asleep. Any imminent danger was the sole responsibility of pilots should they not be up on their Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) and procedures for Uncontrolled Fields.