24 March 2011

The correct number is zero, not one or two.

The media is in a tizzy over a tower controller that (apparently) fell asleep on a very slow overnight shift.  Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood reacted demanding two controllers on the overnight shift.

Here's the deal.  Landing at an airport without an active control tower is No Big Deal.  Most airports do not even have a tower, and most of the towers close over night.  Instead of getting clearance to land from a controller, they check the runway themselves looking for unsafe conditions and broadcast in the blind to tell other aircraft in the area where they are and what they are doing.  Then land on the runway of their choice.  If there is more than one aircraft in the area aiming to land, pilots self coordinate who is first and who will follow.

In reality, the tower controllers job is very simple.  Look to see if the runway is clear and assuming no one is holding a drag race on the runway, clear the plane to land.  Why do we need a highly paid professional to check the runway then get on the radio and say "Citation 12345, cleared to land runway one niner".  Then a second call as they clear the runway "Citation 12345, taxi to parking, monitor ground, good night."

Pilots are a self sufficient bunch.  They can judge their own runway safety and find the way to their destination on the field.  The go-around on short final due to a fouled runway is a standard training scenario.

Reagan National airport (KDCA) is at the center of the most highly restricted airspace in the country.  The TRACON controllers watching the airspace out 30 miles know what planes are in the area and where they are.  I cannot think of another airport more secure both in the air and on the ground, and less in need of an overnight controller.

A comment at MArooned notes there is no commercial traffic after 10PM.

LaHood's two controller "solution" effectively means one controller's job is to make sure the other does not fall asleep.   What a waste of a second controller!  Train engineers I understand have a deadman switch that requires a human interaction every so ofter unless the controls are otherwise adjusted.   In my experience working off shift, the second one controller means will cover while the other one sleeps and vice versa.  They will each spend half the night sleeping, snoozing for dollars.

There's an old joke about the aircraft cockpit of the future.  "The crew will consist of a pilot and a dog.  The pilot is there to monitor the autopilot and systems.  He doesn't actually do anything since that's all handled by computers and controlled from the ground.  The dog is there to bite the pilot if he tries to touch anything."

The right answer is not one or two controllers, but no controllers.  Close the tower overnight and save the money. DCA is probably the most secure airport in the land.  Pilots can judge their landing runway and taxi to their destination.  We do it all the time. 

Even if there is some reason to keep the one controller, a better solution is to hire a dog.   Or a very loud alarm.

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