FAA investigating reports of control tower incidents
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - The Federal Aviation Administration has removed an air traffic controller from his duties at Yeager Airport and is proposing that he be fired in light of two alleged instances of failing to respond while on duty.
A statement issued by the agency on Thursday said it was investigating the alleged incidents.
In one, the controller reportedly was unresponsive for 20 minutes while a HealthNet helicopter was trying to land at a local hospital, forcing the pilot to use alternate methods to get the patient to medical care, officials said.
It happened more than two months ago, in the early morning hours of Jan. 13.
The HealthNet helicopter was coming into the Charleston area from central West Virginia at about 1:15 a.m. with a critical patient headed for Charleston Area Medical Center's General Hospital, said David Cross, HealthNet's director of business development.
As standard protocol, the pilot radioed the control tower at Yeager as he approached Charleston's airspace to notify air traffic controllers he was heading that way and to get permission to continue.
The pilot received no response.
"After having no luck raising that tower on the radio, he dropped back to secondary procedure," Cross said.
That secondary procedure involved the pilot switching radios to a common frequency, which could be heard by other aircraft and other control towers in the area. The pilot also utilized the onboard Terminal Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) to get a 360-degree view around him to ensure there were no other aircraft in the area.
He said the pilot and flight crew made multiple attempts to contact the tower at Yeager but had no luck. The flight crew also tried troubleshooting their own equipment, thinking at first it was a problem on their end. The attempts went on for about 20 minutes, HealthNet officials confirmed.
"They were obviously confused as to why nobody was answering," Cross said.
The pilot continued in a straight line to the hospital's landing pad. They landed safely and delivered the critical patient, who by that time was stabilized, to hospital workers.
"At no time was the aircraft or crew or patient in any danger," said Clinton Burley, HealthNet's president and chief executive officer.
Cross said he spoke with the flight nurse afterward and the nurse said the crew was concerned about the controller.
"Their concern wasn't for themselves; they were concerned about the aircraft controller," Cross said. He said they worried the controller had suffered a heart attack or some other sudden malady.
An email the Daily Mail received Wednesday alleges that the air traffic controller who was on duty is known by other controllers to sleep on the job while on midnight shifts. The email also alleges this controller had fallen asleep on the day shift as well.
The FAA did not name the controller it was investigating, nor did any other source.
The Daily Mail forwarded the email to the FAA and it confirmed by email Thursday that it was investigating those claims.
The FAA said a second controller was on duty when the helicopter was making its approach on Jan. 13 but was taking a break on the lower floor of the airport and did not hear the pilot's calls.
A second instance of the employee allegedly shirking his duties occurred during the day shift on March 2. Two air traffic employees allege they saw the controller sleeping while he was supposed to be working in the tower.
"The controller did not miss any radio calls from pilots, however the FAA strictly prohibits sleeping on position," the release said. "The controller involved in these incidents is no longer controlling air traffic and the FAA is proposing to terminate the controller."
Yeager Airport Director Rick Atkinson said he does not deal directly with the air traffic controllers as they are employed by the FAA.
He said he understood that the helicopter pilot on the Jan. 13 flight reached controllers at Executive Air, the private terminal across the runway from Yeager. Workers there apparently tried to phone the tower but had no luck. Eventually, a Yeager security guard went to the tower and knocked on the door, Atkinson said.
Atkinson said he was told the controller told the security guard he was in the restroom and the exhaust fans prevented him from hearing the helicopter pilot's radio calls.
Atkinson said no one at the airport other than the FAA employees had a key to the control tower at the time of the January incident. The National Guard now has been provided a key.
Atkinson said the air traffic controllers generally do a good job.
Cross and Burley with HealthNet agreed.
"We deal with the FAA every single day," Burley said. "They are sharp and they are professional. They know the importance of what we're doing."
Cross said it was an isolated incident; if it were a trend, HealthNet officials would have taken action immediately after the fact.
"I have no doubt that we'd be ringing their bells ASAP if we thought there was a real trend going on," Cross said.
Contact writer Ashley B. Craig at email@example.com or 304-348-4850.