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Friday
Mar252011

Air Traffic Controller Asleep on Duty at Reagan National, NTSB Says

US Geological Survey/ABC News(WASHINGTON) -- An air traffic controller at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport fell asleep on duty early Wednesday morning, leaving the control tower silent and forcing pilots of two commercial planes to land on their own, the National Transportation Safety Board said Thursday.

The controller, who had 20 years of experience, including 17 at Reagan National, was suspended earlier Thursday by the Federal Aviation Administration while its investigation proceeds.

The NTSB report, which does not name the controller, said he had been working his fourth consecutive overnight shift, which runs from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., and that "human fatigue issues are one of the areas being investigated."

"I am determined to get to the bottom of this situation for the safety of the traveling public," FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt said in a statement announcing the controller's suspension.

Pilots of an American Airlines and United Airlines plane each said they had been in contact with regional air traffic controllers before being handed off to the Reagan National tower for approach and landing.

But as the planes radioed their requests to land in the nation's capital early Wednesday morning, all they heard was silence.

"American 1900, just so you're aware the tower is apparently not manned," a regional controller told the pilots of one plane, according to radio recordings obtained by ABC News.  "So you can expect to go in as an uncontrolled airport."

The pilot executed an airport flyover -- routine aviation procedure -- before landing on his own without help from the ground.

Fifteen minutes later, United flight 628 from Chicago also was unable to contact the Reagan tower.

"The aircraft went in just as an uncontrolled airport," one regional controller said on the recording.  "It's happened before though."

The United pilot also treated the airport as unmanned and landed safely.

Federal transportation officials are now conducting a comprehensive review air traffic controller staffing at airports across the country.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

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