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Commentary – Air Controller Gives New Meaning to Falling Asleep on the Job

Who, by now hasn’t heard of the controller manning the Tower at Washington’s National Airport having fallen asleep on the job?

Over the years we’ve heard countless stories of Pilot’s falling asleep at the yoke (wheel).  Anyone else amused besides me that this took place at our Nation’s Capitol Airport?

After all, we have long been accustomed to our bureaucrats being asleep on the job and failing to get things done, but at least no one’s life depended on it at that particular moment.

I don’t know what’s worse, your pilot being asleep or the guy in charge of getting you back to earth?  In all my years of flying, personally, I’d rather have them both awake.

Pilots fall asleep out of shear boredom because today’s modern jetliners are so automated they can fly themselves.  During the first generations of jetliners National had a curfew and no jets were allowed to land after 11 P.M. Now due to more modern and quieter engines (if you can consider any jet engine quiet) and lower noise levels those jets meeting that level are now allowed to land later.  But one controller at anytime at this airport is certainly unacceptable and I doubt it will ever happen again. Speaking of controllers reminds me of a great story.

I grew up next to National Airport, where my Father worked for Capital Airlines there for almost 30 years. (It became United in 1961) Many an hour was spent out at the park at the end of the runway with an air scanner radio listening to the pilots and control tower.  One of the more humorous transition heard over the years was when the world-renown Ray Charles’s aircraft was cleared to land. The controller inquired, “Is Ray Charles aboard today?”  The reply came, “He’s not only aboard, he’s flying it.” With that I could hear the roar of laughter in the control tower.  His plane was the beautiful British built Vickers Viscount Turbo Prop, which was this country’s first jet powered commercial airliner, introduced in 1955 by, then, Capital Airlines. My father was a engine mechanic for the Viscount.

Pilots have long considered National Airport to be one of the most difficult airports in this country at which to land.  Due to noise abatement guidelines, they are required to follow the Potomac River downstream to the runway approach, which is a twisting and turning pattern.  After all, your Congressmen, many of whom live along this approach, need their sleep.

And, obviously the poor guy in the control tower hadn’t been getting enough of his of late.

– E. Duane Howard

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