03 March 2010

Hyperventilating news coverage over "child air traffic controller" is an overreaction

There is considerable reporting about the news today (here and here) that a child was "controlling" aircraft at JFK last month. Essentially, during one of the snow days in February, one of the air traffic controllers at JFK brought his son (?) to work, and allowed him to speak on one of the air traffic control frequencies a few times:
Child: "171 cleared for take off."

Pilot: "Clear for take off JetBlue 171"

Child: "Let's see your Air Mexico 403 Kennedy, runway through left position and hold."

Pilot: "Going to hold Air Mexico 403."

Unknown: "This is what you get guys when the kids are out of school."

Unknown: "Wish I could bring my kid to work."

Child: "JetBlue 171 contact departure."

Unknown: "Over to departure JetBlue 171, awesome job."

Child: "03 clear for take off."
Anyone with a basic knowledge of air traffic communications will recognize that the child is speaking on JFK's tower frequency. From listening to the audio, it is abundantly clear to me that this child was not "controlling" aircraft, he was obviously just saying over the radio what his dad is telling him to say; in fact his dad (or another controller) jumps in a few times to direct other aircraft. Likewise, the pilots are clearly aware of this and play along with comments like "awesome job".

Now I am sure that technically speaking there is a violation of some FAA procedure here, and I suspect that this controller will be suspended. And unfortunately for this controller (and especially as a result of the hyperventilating news coverage), that's probably the right course of action.

Another focus in the news coverage is how in the world this boy made it into the tower. Well, that's pretty obvious, isn't it? His dad took him in. It's not as if he snuck past the TSA/FAA/TLA or whomever is supposed to guarding the tower from children trained as rogue ATC operators looking to seize control of the skies.

Having spent my time in the Navy as a Naval Flight Officer, I recognize the critical importance of communication between aircrews and controllers, so I don't take this issue lightly. But to see this on Drudge and every major network, as if it is breaking news, seems to be to be a major overreaction.
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