Friday, July 08, 2016

Hello Burlington. Anybody Down There?

South Burlington, VT

The roof garden of the parking garage at Burlington Airport (BTV) gives an excellent view of almost the whole field, and of the control tower and of the air traffic control building. Soon after 8 AM on July 8, I was up there to witness some F16s about to take off.


Then, something unusual happened. Three fire trucks with lights and sirens came from the airports fire station. They crossed the field, and then to my surprise they drove out to the street and stopped directly in front of the FAA building housing air traffic control and the control tower. Firemen wearing air masks rushed in the front door. Then I looked up. Horrors, there was nobody in the control tower. Then I realized that the whole building must have been evacuated. What would happen with all those airplanes?


I turned on my phone app that lets me listen to the airport radio traffic. I could hear lots of pilots confused because they were getting no response to their radio calls. The tower, ground control, the automated weather data, Burlington departure, Burlington approach, and Burlington Radio (which talks to pilots between cities). None of them were answering. It must have been spooky for those pilots in the sky.


After 10 minutes, I did hear someone on 118.3 (the common traffic advisory frequency) who was answering the planes and telling them that BTV tower and ATC were not operational, and that they should contact Boston Center (the nearest duplicate of Burlington's ATC services). That someone must have been on a backup radio located in another building. His transmissions were scratchy, but they got through.


Meanwhile, there were eight F16s running their engines waiting at the far end of runway 33 for clearance to take off. I thought that F16s waited for no man; wrong. A few other brave (foolish?) planes taxied to the runway without permission.


Wow I thought, this must be a contingency that the FAA people plan for and practise via drills. It is certainly complicated to leave a whole sector of America's airspace suddenly deprived of air traffic control. I thought that it was going pretty well. Sure there was confusion, but there was no chaos. The planes waiting for takeoff just waited. The planes looking for clearances looked up the phone number of Boston Center and started calling them directly.


But the system did have one flaw that should have been caught in practice drills. I heard the tower backup radio man say that Boston Center was uneasy giving out clearances by phone, so they refused.


After a while, all the pilots on the ground and in the air understood what was happening. An approaching United Airlines Airbus 320 announced to any one listening that he was coming in to land without permission from ATC. That makes sense, planes in the air have priority over planes on the ground. The pilots just reverted to the procedures applicable to tiny uncontrolled airports with no ATC and no tower.


The airbus landed, and soon after another United DC9 landed. I noted with surprise that both landings were poor. Both touched down a half mile further down the runway than planes normally do. The airbus deployed his thrust reversers even before the nose wheel touched the ground. That is certainly not normal. The DC9 flared so drastically just before touchdown that I feared that his tail would strike the tarmac. I wondered why lack of ATC would make landings poorer. Then I realized that these pilots would not have up to date information about barometric pressure needed to determine altitude. Information is important and lack of information has consequences.


Around 9:15, people reappeared in the control tower, and the firemen packed up. In another five minutes the tower was back in operation, and in another 12 minutes the full Burlington ATC was back in operation. I tried to imagine the complexity of restoring control after an outage.


By 9:30 the F16s were in the air and the incident was over. Kudos to the FAA people at Burlington. I think they handled it smoothly. The benefits of their training and practice were evident. I wonder if pilots practice loss of ATC and tower control when landing their simulators at major airports.

My view of the tower. Fire trucks in front.
F16s lined up and waiting.



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