Shortly after midnight on Wednesday, two DC airliners approached Washington DC's Reagan National Airport. They waited for guidance from air traffic control. And waited. And waited. And waited. They never got a response.
The two pilots—responsible for the safety of a combined 165 passengers—managed to land only by coordinating between themselves, giving each other regular status updates and confirming with their airlines which runway they were supposed to approach. A third plane was able to land a half hour later, only after ATC had been restored. Here's the audio of one of the pilots receiving word that he was going in blind:
As The Washington Post points out, planes land at small airports without air traffic control guidance all the time. But at a major hub like Reagan, maintenance workers are crossing over runways late at night, sometimes towing jets in their wake. The only way incoming pilots are aware of their positions is from air traffic control.
So what happened? No one's saying yet, but there seem to be two distinct possibilities. One is that the operator somehow got locked out of his tower, which happened two years ago at the much smaller Teterboro airport. The other is that he simply fell asleep early into the graveyard shift.
Pushing tin is no easy job, and a few hiccups—the average number of errors is 1 in 84,000 flight operations, or double that in NYC—are inevitable. But a mistake on this scale could have had grave consequences. And while the FAA has ordered Reagan to place two air traffic control officers on the midnight shift, that's kind of like putting up a stop sign only after a schoolbus collides with an ice cream truck. And makes you wonder how many other major towers are understaffed, just waiting for the next lockout.