The Federal Aviation Administration moved swiftly to suspend an air traffic controller supervisor in Florida last week for a mistake akin to one made 18 years ago when actor John Travolta disappeared in the dark and cloudy skies over Washington.
The Florida supervisor became alarmed March 27 when a four-seat private plane flying toward Kissimmee fell silent for more than an hour. He asked the pilot of a Southwest Airlines flight carrying 142 people into Orlando to deviate from course to look into the single-engine plane’s cockpit.
Both planes landed safely, but that gander at 11,000 feet brought the planes dangerously close.
“By placing this passenger aircraft in close proximity to another plane, the air traffic controller compromised the safety of everyone involved,” FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt said in a statement. “This incident was totally inappropriate.”
FAA protocols for handling such incidents have sharpened since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the wayward 2009 flight of a Northwest Airlines plane that flew off course in silence for 91 minutes.
Now radio silence from an airplane calls for scrambling military jets or law enforcement aircraft, a precaution that seemed less necessary on the night in 1992 when Travolta fell silent. But the harrowing moments he and his family experienced that night help explain why the FAA continues to refine and emphasize its orders.
Travolta is well regarded as a pilot. Two days before Thanksgiving, he set out at 8:30 p.m. to fly a Gulfstream 2 turbojet from Fort Lauderdale to spend the holiday at a family home in Rockland, Maine.
All went well for almost two hours, but then things went badly wrong near Washington. Both generators failed, and Travolta barely had time to radio the problem to controllers before the radio, interior and exterior lights and virtually every instrument on the plane went dead.
“There was a solid layer of clouds beneath us as far as we could see in all directions,” he later told investigators.
Controllers tracking the plane on radar made a quick decision: They asked the pilot of a US Airways plane bound for New York to search in the dark and fog for a plane flying without lights.
“I know it’ll be hard to see him,” a controller told the pilot. “He has no electrical system, so he won’t be lit up.”
The controller pointed the US Airways 727 at Travolta’s plane until the two dots merged on his radar screen.
“Looks like he’s above us,” the pilot said. “Yeah, he’s coming toward us. I’m going to put the lights on so he can see me.”
With his co-pilot holding a flashlight on a magnetic compass, Travolta dropped under the cloud cover at 1,000 feet and spotted the Washington Monument.
“Looks like he made it down through the clouds,” the controller radioed. “He’s on a final for National.”
Unable to operate the flaps that would have slowed the aircraft, Travolta landed at 145 mph and slammed on the emergency brake. All four of the main tires burst as the plane stopped.
The National Transportation Safety Board, which has taken a greater role in reviewing mistakes by air traffic controllers in the past 18 months as recorded mistakes have soared, stepped in to investigate the decision to send the US Airways plane looking for Travolta.
It concluded that FAA regulations for separation between planes had been violated and that “the threat of a midair collision was very real.” The NTSB recommended that the rules be further clarified, advice that the FAA has followed, refining them even further as recently as this month.
After the incident that led to the controller supervisor’s suspension last week in Florida, Babbitt said the guidelines would be underscored.
“We are reviewing the air traffic procedures used here and making sure everyone understands the protocols for contacting unresponsive aircraft,” Babbitt said.
Last month, Babbitt suspended another controller supervisor who fell asleep while on the overnight shift in the tower at Reagan National Airport. Two passenger jets landed without guidance from the tower.