Air Traffic Controllers In Spotlight

This past week, the same day an air traffic controller fell asleep at his post at Reagan International Airport, the nation's top air traffic controllers were gathered for an annual awards ceremony in Las Vegas. Weekend on All Things Considered spoke to two winners, Chuck Labombard and Derek Bittman, who were honored for life-saving calls made from their posts.

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Unidentified Man #1: American 1900, just so you're aware, the tower is apparently not manned.

GUY RAZ, host:

That was the explanation given to a plane trying to land at Washington's Reagan National Airport this past week when pilots on two commercial airliners heard no response from the air traffic control tower.

Unidentified Man #2: Is there a reason it's not manned?

RAZ: The eventual answer to that question was that the controller had fallen asleep. But another possibility may have been because all of the good controllers were in Las Vegas.

It was in Vegas that same day that the National Air Traffic Controllers Association was meeting to recognize the top controllers from across the country, the men and women who made life-saving calls from the tower.

And we spoke to a few of the winners.

(Soundbite of airplane)

Unidentified Man #3: A lot of people don't understand what happens when you take off in an airplane. They just think you go and come back.

Unidentified Man #4: I think they put a lot of faith in the entire system.

Unidentified Man #3: Yeah, getting their luggage on time and, you know, seeing their family, which, you know, that's important to them.

Unidentified Man #4: Just have flown on a plane. They know they get from point A to point B safely. What a great thing for us it is, that acceptance is so innate in people that they don't even question it anymore.

Unidentified Woman #1: ...that may be carried through the security checkpoint.

Mr. CHUCK LABOMBARD: All right. My name is Chuck Labombard.

Columbia three-four-kilo, (unintelligible) maintain 5,400...

What you're hearing is the voice recording of the actual incident, September 26, 2010.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Unintelligible) some very uncomfortable (unintelligible)...

Mr. LABOMBARD: This particular individual, as she was flying into our airport.

Maintain a 5,400...

She became apparently disoriented and made a 180-degree turn back into the face of an E-190 jetliner.

Unidentified Woman #2: They screwed up.

Mr. LABOMBARD: And the tower controller was able to pry them apart, as we call that. And then the real fun began.

Pull up (unintelligible). Climb immediately, ma'am. Climb immediately, and maintain 5,400.

Unidentified Woman #2: Okay, I'm up. But please get me...

Mr. LABOMBARD: She was extremely shaky, and that was probably the hardest thing that I had to deal with.

Unidentified Woman #2: Sorry, I can't do a VOR. I'm too nervous.

Mr. LABOMBARD: I actually - I wouldn't say start yelling at her...

Three-four-kilo, the airport should be directly ahead of you, 12 o'clock and two miles.

Giving her...

Unidentified Woman #2: Am I over the center of it?

Mr. LABOMBARD: ...the final headings that she needs to get to the airport.

You're not quite there yet, ma'am. It's two miles ahead of you, two miles ahead of you.

And she says, I see the tower.

Unidentified Woman #2: Okay, I see the airport. I see the tower. I'm heading right at you.

Mr. LABOMBARD: I've got to tell you...

Okay, three-four-kilo, find a runway and land on it.

Those were the most beautiful words I'd ever heard.

Unidentified Woman #2: Thank God, three-four-kilo is down.

Three-four-kilo contact (unintelligible)...

Mr. DEREK BITTMAN: My name is Derek Bittman.

Maintain 3,500 (unintelligible).

It was a (unintelligible) aircraft. The guy came down, bought an airplane in Illinois for a friend and was flying it back down to the Atlanta area to deliver it. It was a new plane, and there was something wrong with the landing instruments.

As it turned out, the weather got bad on a low ceiling. So the clouds were low in the area of Atlanta. Then to top it all off, he had made so many attempts that he is actually running out of gas.

(Unintelligible) board please.

Unidentified Man #5: (Unintelligible) 45 minutes, one-one-November.

Mr. BITTMAN: (Unintelligible) one-one-November, I'm going to declare emergency on your behalf, sir. Let me know what you need, and we'll make it happen right now.

He's flying blind with no instruments.

Unidentified Man #5: Roger. I think my VOR that I'm using to actually find airports is malfunctioning.

Mr. BITTMAN: You basically talk the aircraft down. You tell them: Turn right a little bit, turn left a little bit. There's a mountain range on the northern side of the airport. So he was a little bit nervous to descend. I guess he was getting scared and just turning right or turning left and climbing out of the approach so he can get his vision.

You're going left the course. Suggest a right turn about five degrees. November, 1, 1, November...

I don't know. I just did what I thought I needed to do, what he needed to get on the ground and not die.

And I believe they have a fair amount of wide highways and stuff. So if you see something that you like and you don't think you can make the airport, please let me know what you're planning.

We got him down to about - I can't remember what it was. I've only seen this a couple times as it makes me nervous every time I watch it or hear it. But as soon as he got through that cloud deck, he saw the airport and, you know...

Unidentified Man #5: Airport in sight. Atlanta, thank you, sir.

Mr. BITTMAN: We were all very happy for him. A buddy of mine, we went out to kind of talk a little bit outside the building, and I remember feeling lightheaded, and I had to sit down.

(Soundbite of airplane)

Mr. BITTMAN: My wife is a controller too. And she has trouble flying now because she works air traffic control. She doesn't like flying because, like, one bad decision can lead to a very bad error. She understands the risk. You know, we all understand the risk. I guess some of us just put it in the back of our mind better.

RAZ: That's Derek Bittman. This past week, he won the award for Best Flight Controller Assist of the Year from the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. We also heard from Chuck Labombard, who was recognized for Outstanding Flight Assist in the New England Region.

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