The Washington Post reports that early Wednesday morning, just after midnight, two commercial planes carrying a total of 165 passengers and crew landed at Reagan National Airport in Washington D.C. without getting clearance from the tower.
The reason: There wasn’t anyone in the tower to give clearance.
For almost thirty minutes, pilots tried to make contact with the control tower at Reagan only to be met with silence. Two planes landed during that time and a third plane landed just as communication was restored. Although it was during a time when there is very little air traffic, it is almost unheard of for such a large airport to not have a person in the control tower during a time when planes are still arriving.
The tower, which normally is staffed by one air-traffic controller from midnight to 6 a.m., did not respond to pilot requests for landing assistance or to phone calls from controllers elsewhere in the region, who also used a “shout line,” which pipes into a loudspeaker in the tower, internal records show.
An American Airlines Boeing 737 flying in from Miami with 97 people on board circled the airport after receiving no response from the tower at midnight. Minutes later, a United Airlines Airbus 320 flying in from Chicago with 68 people on board also got no answer from the tower.
The situation has caused a huge stir in a city with one of the most closely monitored airspaces in the country. After hearing about the incident, the federal government acted immediately, adding a second air traffic controller to the tower during the overnight shift.
The planes were able to land using the assistance of the Potomac Terminal Radar Approach Control Facilities (TRACON) who handle air traffic just before a plane enters its final approach and is handed off to the airport’s control tower.
According to the post, the TRACON air traffic controller notified the pilots of the third plane, and American Airlines flight, that the tower was not responding.
“So you’re aware,” the controller said, “the tower is apparently not manned. We’ve made a few phone calls. Two airplanes went in the past 10-15 minutes, so you can expect to go into an uncontrolled airport.”
It remains unclear why the tower was unmanned. The Federal Aviation Administration is currently investigating the cause behind the incident.