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Landing NORDO at KDCA

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Landing NORDO at KDCA

Old 27th Mar 2011, 18:54
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A lot of interesting, amusing and at times frightening comments in this thread. However most of the comment is from the flying fraternity as opposed to the ground staff.

Most people with 'airport operations' experience know only too well the kind of swiss cheeses which can and do find their way on to runways and other parts of the manoeuvring area at even the best 'controlled airports'! Lots of incident reports over many years to prove it.

Before landing on any runway without clearance, particularly at night or in low visibility, ask yourself 'what if'? You will be surprised at the unexpected answers which will become evident!!
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Old 27th Mar 2011, 19:19
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IF ATC cleared a vehicle on to the runway, wouldn't they have done it via radio? And the vehicle would be obligated to keep the radio on. And a smart controller would have combined frequencies (ground and tower) at this time of night, so the vehicle would have heard the position reports of the inbound airliner.

NOPE, boys and girls, it is another battle of wills. Come in low visibility and wonder if something is on the runway...I am concerned about this at all times, controlled or uncontrolled.

Some of the reasoning seems to overlook the lack of traffic at this noise curfew impacted airport.

I dare say it is safer to land at DCA, at the time this incident happened, without controllers, then during the normal hectic daylight operations.

And I was based AT DCA. I flew there all the time. Some really crazy stuff, add in helicopters from the pentagon crossing the potomac.

Its so darn funny...this situation , handled by professional pilots, is such a topic of discussion.

yet flying a 747 on 3 engines from LAX and coming up short of destination of London is just dandy.

I think its an American thing vs a European thing.
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Old 27th Mar 2011, 19:19
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There are numerous flights, every night, that land at uncontrolled airports, fully approved by the regulating authorities.

IMO the first crew did it text book. G/A, advised that airport was now considered 'uncontrolled', and landed.

And the lawyers, and snipers, have had 4 days to consult their books to decide, with dozens, or hundreds, of manhours, exactly why they believe it was wrong.
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Old 27th Mar 2011, 19:21
  #84 (permalink)  
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Helen49, it is not landing without a clearance it is landing in what became de facto an uncontrolled airport.
The initial confusion was sorted out with an overshoot followed by what they had to do in uncontrolled airport. And as said sevenstrokeroll it was at night low traffic, noise curfew.

Originally Posted by galaxy flyer
there is no difference in how one would operate at an uncontrolled airport versus a "temporarily" uncontrolled airport. Tower freq becomes a CTAF freq.
End of the story.

Actually, there is also something we have up north which is called DRCO.
RCO and DRCO (TP 2228E-19) - Transport Canada
Might be the next security step Shell will have in sight to keep things under "control"
I'm kidding.

Now, about the ARCAL...
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Old 27th Mar 2011, 19:26
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sevenstroke, i may be incorrect but isn't it a requirement for ground vehicles to monitor the tower freq when at uncontrolled status ? From my experience it's been SOP for ground vehicles to report on freq. when in the manouvering area (to prevent possible conflict with an aircraft that may be attempting to use the facilities with inop radio) during uncontrolled status.

This thread is starting to look like a 'US bad, EU good' ideology.
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Old 27th Mar 2011, 19:34
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Recent early AM landing at RSW with no tower personnel - Unusual??

I (SLF) am confused about the commotion caused by the NORDO approach and landing at DCA the other night. The press is acting as if this is an unusual and dangerous situation. Professional pilots are going back and forth about the safety of landing at DCA when the tower did not respond.

What is confusing me is that in late January I was on a scheduled flight from Charlotte to SW Florida International (RSW). We were a little late on departure and arrived at RSW at about 23:55 local. Our captain announced that the RSW tower was closed for the night and that “Miami control” (I am not sure who he meant) would have to manage our approach and landing. He explained they were busy and we might have to circle for a while. In no way did he make the situation sound unusual or problematic.

We did hold for 45 minutes and watched two other flights land at RSW ahead of us. Eventually we made an uneventful landing at RSW – 75 minutes late.

The announcements by the captain and discussion with the cabin crew made it seem like landing in the early AM at a large airport with no tower control was a normal and expected event. Is that not the case?

If our RSW approach and landing was normal and expected – why the commotion about DCA?
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Old 27th Mar 2011, 20:06
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There is nothing inherently dangerous about flying to and landing at an uncontrolled airport. Or an airport that becomes uncontrolled at a promulgated time.

The difference is KDCA is a controlled airport, it became uncontrolled because the controller fell asleep. Nobody expected it and nobody really knows exactly when it happened. So if I had checked in on the tower frequency and got no response how the hell would I know what had been going on prior to that.

Let's take Con's idea of a big hole in the runway. That actually happened to me once at a major international airport in the UK. It required the Ops vehicle to go and inspect it then to leave the runway to escort the repair team back. We had just checked in with the tower who informed us of the situation. So, big hole, no vehicles with nice flashy lights and a controller who was awake. Remove the controller, I land without clearance and end up in a big hole.

There is a lot of assumption from, apparently, experienced pilots. Assumption is the mother of all f*** ups and discretion is the better part of valour.
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Old 27th Mar 2011, 20:06
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Tacoma - bingo!

The probably reason that you had delays into RSW that night was because MIA center radar coverage doesn't go as low as the approach control radar, which was unmanned at that time of night.

So MIA center had to verify the preceeding flight had landed before it could allow the next aircraft to start the approach. That would make the spacing perhaps 8-10 minutes, vs. 2-3 minutes in a typical radar environment.

So what procedures do your flight use that night/early AM to land at RSW? The same procedures the flights used in DCA. The difference was RSW was shutdown while DCA had a controller that had fallen asleep, and then had the airport declared uncontrolled.

Danger difference between the two? Zip. But your flight, and the several other flights that night, didn't make the news. Which is the point the many professional pilots have been trying to make on pprune, it was a non-event from an operational perspective. Nuisance? Yes.

Manning issue? IMO no(single controller during quiet periods has been going on for DECADES).

Fatigue or health issue? Maybe.

Post 9/11 security concerns? Perhaps.
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Old 27th Mar 2011, 20:10
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I dare say it is safer to land at DCA, at the time this incident happened, without controllers, then during the normal hectic daylight operations.

Sevenstrokes, you obviously hold your ATC colleagues in high esteem. Many a true word is spoken in jest.
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Old 27th Mar 2011, 20:16
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"If our RSW approach and landing was normal and expected – why the commotion about DCA?"

Well, because at this particular airport it was neither normal nor expected. As I said earlier, I expect there was a brief "What the hell...?" moment in the cockpit when the first aircraft tuned to tower frequency and got no response.

However - as handled - it was a perfectly legal and safe response to the situation - even if not normal and expected.

I'm a little worried by the folks here who think it would have been that much safer with the tower operating normally. Not to imply that ATC is not important - but anyone who assumes that because the person in the tower is awake, that:

> (s)he won't screw up and let someone else onto the runway, or

> (s)he will do that job fine, but someone else won't screw up and wander onto the runway anyway...

- is making a very scary assumption, IMHO. And one given the lie by countless previous accidents and incidents.

With tower ATC operational, I'd have been paying a lot of attention to the runway and surroundings on final.

With the tower not operational, I'd have been paying a lot +1 of attention to the runway and surroundings on final.

@ Lord Spandex - I'd just add that here in the States, you can't get anywhere near even the right seat of a transport-class aircraft without being tested multiple times on uncontrolled airport operations and procedures on the way up. And while I can't speak to the military-trained side - those climbing the ladder through the commercial side would have put in their time (lots) on commuter flights to uncontrolled airports. We have a lot of 'em. Even more so at oh-ack-emma.
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Old 27th Mar 2011, 20:28
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stuckgear...great point!

my comment about safety at night, uncontrolled, vs the amazingly hectic operation in daylight, controlled at DCA is simply this...Crossing runway traffic, multiple runway operations, helicopters at low altitude crossing the approach corridor...simply put, less planes, less problems.

tacoma sailor

believe it or not, if you make an instrument approach to an airport without an operating controll tower, you may have to park the plane, find a telephone and CALL via telephone the ATC center which cleared you for the approach to let them know you landed safely.

that might take 10 or 15 minutes

and THEN and only then could ATC clear the next plane for an instrument approach.

when the tower is open, as soon as you land, they let ATC center or tracon know you have landed safely and the next plane is on its way inbound.
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Old 27th Mar 2011, 21:27
  #92 (permalink)  
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The controller was suspended. I've read no indication that the runway lights or navigation aids were shut off. It helps that pilots fly over the Potomac River which does not have lights. The airport is bracketed by bridges bearing car traffic over the river, and lights on either shore.
at night.

Diverting to IAD or Andrews without clearance could get you shot down. BWI might be the best place to divert to if you are talking to approach control. Uncontrolled airport, uncontrolled landing. They don't have a lot of late night flights.
When pilots were unable to contact the National tower just after midnight Wednesday, they conferred with a controller at the Potomac Terminal Radar (TRACON) facility, who advised them that the tower appeared to be unmanned. He informed them that if they opted to land there, they should use procedures appropriate for an “uncontrolled” airport.
I thought that noise abatement procedures came into effect before then (as in, minimize landings.)

Union says towers with one air traffic controller on duty are unsafe - The Washington Post

Last edited by visibility3miles; 27th Mar 2011 at 21:37.
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Old 28th Mar 2011, 02:59
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if your flight is delayed, there is an exemption allowing you to land late.

I think DCA is one of my favorite airports...and I am being serious.

for some reason Atlanta is my least favorite airport.
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Old 28th Mar 2011, 13:57
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Wall Street Journal, Sunday, 3/27

The air-traffic control supervisor who created a furor last week by nodding off at Washington's Reagan National Airport also has sparked an industry debate over how pilots should respond to such situations.

When the lone controller on duty in the tower around midnight failed to reply to repeated radio transmissions from a pair of jetliners, both pilots quickly decided to land anyway. There wasn't discussion with approach controllers at a separate facility about diverting to one of the region's other fields. Audio tapes indicate the first jet was on the ground only a few minutes after the initial sign of a communication problem. Both planes, carrying a total of more than 160 people, landed safely.

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.

The first jet was a Boeing 737 operated by AMR Corp.'s American Airlines unit, followed by an Airbus A320 flown by the United Airlines unit of United Continental Holdings Inc. The pilots of another American Airlines jet descended below 2,000 feet and also were preparing to touch down without receiving landing clearance from the tower, when the dozing controller came back on the frequency.

"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."

Pilots have procedures for landing at fields that aren't manned by controllers, including checking weather conditions, broadcasting positions frequently on a common frequency and listening to what activity there may be on runways or taxiways. But when an airport tower is scheduled to be manned round the clock—as is Reagan National—Ms. Alkalay said she "never heard of a situation where the FAA says it's okay for pilots to decide, on their own, it's safe to land."

Richard Healing, a former member of the National Transportation Safety Board, said Sunday that he was "more than a little surprised" the jets landed instead of flying on to nearby Baltimore-Washington International Airport or Dulles International Airport in the Virginia suburbs.

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."

On Sunday, a spokesman for the NTSB said "the actions of the flight crews are one of the things" under investigation.

A United Airlines spokeswoman declined to comment.

An American Airlines spokeswoman said its pilots complied with procedures "clearly spelled out by the FAA," and didn't require tower clearance once Reagan National was deemed to be an uncontrolled airport. She said the weather was good, crews were aware of other airborne traffic and also followed appropriate procedures to taxi to the gate.
So far, the FAA's focus has been almost entirely on what controllers did wrong. The head of the agency last week said he was "personally outraged" by the tower controller's behavior, while other FAA officials began looking at the budget implications of eliminating single-person staffing at towers. On Friday, the agency reminded approach controllers—often located dozens of miles from airports and who have authority over a much larger swath of air space—that "proper procedures dictate that they must offer pilots the chance to divert" if a control tower remains silent.

But as new details about the Reagan National incident emerged over the weekend, they prompted stepped-up criticism faulting the pilots for poor decision-making. Even some commercial pilots, who described infrequently landing at airports without local-controller assistance when it was past the scheduled closing time of those towers, said the United and American crews should have sought more information and probably taken more time to assess the situation.

An FAA spokeswoman said pilots have wide latitude in deciding where to land, as long as an airport isn't officially closed. According to tradition and practice, pilots also have the right to disregard controller commands if they believe there is an emergency situation or safety threat. But in this case, according to safety experts critical of actions by the pilots, the crews apparently failed to adequately exercise their independent judgment once the approach controller indicated it would be appropriate for the planes to land on their own.
Since the jets didn't report any fuel emergencies or other onboard difficulties, these experts said, there was no compelling safety reason to get on the ground as fast as possible. "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. And since there were fully-staffed airports open, less than 20 miles away, landing there would have been "in the interest of aviation safety."

According to the FAA, about 100 small, uncontrolled airports around the U.S. serve commercial traffic but don't have controllers at any time. Mr. Feith and other safety experts said that for airline pilots who land at those locations, the approaches and touchdowns are planned in advance with specific conditions and restrictions in mind. Unexpectedly going in without tower clearance, they said, reduces safety margins and can be especially hazardous if there is some sort of emergency. Certain U.S. airlines expect pilots to divert whenever there is a problem establishing communication with an airfield's tower.


Calling for a nationwide review of the air-traffic control systems backup procedures, FAA chief Randy Babbitt on Friday said: "I am determined to make sure we do not repeat Wednesday's unacceptable event."
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Old 28th Mar 2011, 14:39
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Oh boy! That will liven the thread up!
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Old 28th Mar 2011, 14:44
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sounds like there are some looking to make a career advancement out of a non event situation.

As per Shell Management's post here the following is extracted:

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.
So, by following FAA advice, and instruction, the crew are being subject to investigation for compliance with SOP's, advice and instruction, in a non event and a procedure which is routinely conducted and no incident occurred, which could potentially be a career ender for the crews involved.

FAA chief Randy Babbitt on Friday said: "I am determined to make sure we do not repeat Wednesday's unacceptable event."
How's that Randy ? you going to put more controllers into the system ? No ? so, your just going to hang crews out to further your PR and career potential?

or is it just buck passing to divert away from failures in the FAA, under your watch to lay the a trumped up charge of charge blame elsewhere?

"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.
Ah, so it would be an amalgamation of all three then, Puck passing, diversionary tactics and a chance to make a name for themselves/further a personal agenda.

Hopefully ALPA (?) will be supporting these guys as will the legal departments of the carriers concerned. I really would like to see a combined legal attack by the likes of ALPA and the carriers come back and bite Babbit's a$$ for this shameless piece of self aggrandisement.

The biggest threat to the safety, security and stability of this industry is those seeking political furtherment.
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Old 28th Mar 2011, 15:08
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Golly chaps, tomorow Im flying into the USA and have to land at no less than TWO airports without ATC , dont know how I will sleep tonight after reading all this stuff, Oh, wait a minute, havnt I been doing this for about fifty years without bending any tin? The pilots used the correct procedures period! As for FAA lawyers spouting of, havnt they been a major part of the reduction in GA over the last few years? {Even with Tort reform they just cant quit with their endless money grabs from the industry}
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Old 28th Mar 2011, 15:24
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A sloppy and faulty organization undermanning safety critical facilities is now hitting out at whoever they can lay blame on to cover their own negligence. Poor guys!
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Old 28th Mar 2011, 15:34
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clunckdriver,

do let us know how you get on, i'm really running through my worry beads for you .



The other thing to consider is that while Babbit et al. go on seeking the limelight, they are in effect presenting the situation that they dont actually support the advice, instructions or SOP's mandated by errr.. their own adminsitration!.

hows that corner looking that you're painting yourself into Randy ?

Last edited by stuckgear; 28th Mar 2011 at 20:10.
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Old 28th Mar 2011, 15:45
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Ms Alkalay should quote an actual FAR violated before making that statement. Other than "careless and reckless", which is always charged with a specific FAR violation, what regulation was violated?

First, two airliners operated by two different companies with four crew members AND the FAA ATCOs decided landing was appropriate and legal. No specific regulation was cited because there isn't one requiring a clearance to land except when ATC is present. It wasn't in this case, it was asleep.

Second, the crews exercised caution, even missing the approach and reporting to ATC that the tower was not answering their radio calls. Potomac tried to call via landline to contact them. So, they advised the crews to treat it like an uncontrolled field and the crews did so according to the reports. Being KDCA is the reason this has all blown up with a variety of "expert" opinions in the news.

Lastly, I'm with a largish corporate flight department as the Safety officer. Clearly, diverting would be THE safest, least controversial action and I would certainly not criticize any pilot, in my department or on Pprune, for doing so, a perfectly reasonable action. However, I fail to see any reason to pounce on these crews for landing, either. Forget the "what ifs" and just look at the facts as they happened--a perfectly good airport, where ATC was temporarily out of touch, no traffic conflicts (strictly controlled and patrolled FRZ within Class B airspace) and no NOTAMs on runway construction. Other than the possibility of an earthquake opening a large hole in the runway just as the controller fell asleep.



PS, I was acquainted with Randy at Eastern, he was on the MEC as a Captain rep while not actually flying as a Captain, he held the bid as a bypass, I think, but was a A300 FO. Then, he was the President of ALPA despite not being on any active airline's seniority list. Now, because of his sometime airline career and union membership he is now the FAA Administrator. Draw your own conclusions.
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