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FAA Suspends AWOL Controller at Reagan National Airport

John Foxx/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- The Federal Aviation Administration suspended an air traffic control supervisor Thursday at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport who went AWOL early Wednesday morning, leaving the control tower silent and forcing pilots of two commercial planes to land on their own.

"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 suspension while the investigation proceeds. The name of the controller was not provided. "As a former airline pilot, I am personally outraged that this controller did not meet his responsibility to help land these two airplanes," he said. "Fortunately, at no point was either plane out of radar contact and our back-up system kicked in to ensure the safe landing of both airplanes."

Federal transportation officials have launched an investigation of the incident and a comprehensive review air traffic controller staffing at airports across the country.

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 was also unable to contact the Reagan tower.

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

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

The National Transportation Safety Board is also looking into the incident, which occurred between midnight and 12:30 a.m. on Wednesday.

While Reagan National is staffed with multiple air traffic controllers during the day, the overnight shift is managed by just one controller, because there are no departures overnight and few arrivals.

"The reality is that we should probably never have just one controller at a major airport anytime, anywhere," said aviation expert John Nance. "But the fact that it's Washington, DC, obviously accelerates the questions like this."

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood took the unusual step late Wednesday of immediately ordering a second air traffic controller at Reagan National Airport on the midnight shift. 

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

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