AUDIO: DCA tower cab — Lights on but no one’s home

Air traffic control conversations from just past midnight on Tuesday (early Wednesday morning, 23 March) show an amazing dose of bravado in the post-9/11 era.

Click on the link below to hear the recording

ATC tapes – DCA tower 23 March.mp3

Rather than repeat myself, here’s an excerpt of what happened from a story I posted today:

Pilots of at least two airline flights arriving at Reagan National airport just after midnight on 22 March were given the option of landing at the airport despite receiving no response from the tower when on final approach.

The American flight, and a United Airlines A320 that arrived shortly thereafter, both decided to land at Reagan despite being told that communications with the tower were not possible for unknown reasons. Reagan National is located in one of the most secure flight zones in the US due to its proximity to the US capitol.

Recordings between the Potomac consolidate terminal radar approach control (tracon) and an American Airlines 737-800 inbound to the airport from Miami reveal that pilots performed a missed approach after failing to receive a call back from the tower after being cleared for the visual approach to Runway 1.

After re-establishing contact with Potomac, the pilots learned that attempts to call the tower by the tracon using several different phone systems had also failed.

“Remember a year or so ago, the controller go locked out of the tower and aircraft went in taking it as an uncontrolled airport,” the Potomac controller said as the American flight climbed to 3,000ft (914m) over the area. “Think that over”.

News reports later suggested that the lone controller on duty may have been sleeping when the incident occurred. Transportation officials are calling for two controllers on duty at all times as an investigation continues.

The Potomac controller told a third inbound aircraft that “we’ve made a few calls, no one is answering” and that two other aircraft had landed there in the last 10-15min. “I’m going to take a guess and say the controller got locked out,” he said. Shortly thereafter the controller said, “the tower’s back in business”.

What I didn’t put in the web story was the actual audio tapes, which I downloaded from

What’s surprising to me is that the pilots elected to land their aircraft not knowing what was happening in that tower cab. In the post-9/11 world, especially in Washington DC, where general aviation is largely prohibited due to “security concerns”, that seems absurd 


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