Taking Your Kids to Work

March 5th, 2010

By Tom Carter

Anyone who has watched or read the news in recent days knows about the kerfuffle over a tower controller at JFK International Airport taking his kids to work recently.  Problem is, he let both kids talk on the radio to airline pilots, relaying directions and clearances. 

The reporting on this incident is, for the most part, a classic case of ill-informed journalists and talking heads showing their ignorance, complete with interviews of equally uninformed passengers.  They’ve also interviewed government officials and union spokesfolks who probably know better but don’t want to risk getting publicly dumped on for telling the truth.

What’s the truth?  Nothing dangerous happened, and no one was at risk.  As a professional military pilot, I’ve had thousands of radio interactions with controllers and been in a number of air traffic control (ATC) facilities.  I’ve also studied ATC procedures and taught them to other pilots. What was going on in this case — taxi to a runway and take-off clearance — is kind of a choreographed procedure, and the pilots all know what’s coming next from the controllers.  They’re in command of their aircraft and do not follow ATC instructions or clearances that could be dangerous.  From what I heard, everything the kids said was exactly correct and the pilots thought it was cute.  I would have felt the same way.

The talking heads are repeatedly referring to the crash of Aeroflot Flight 593 in 1994, in which 75 people died because the pilot let his teenage kid sit in the pilot’s seat at the controls.  The autopilot was disengaged, resulting is loss of control of the aircraft.  Makes for dramatic “journalism” on TV, but to compare that with a couple of kids relaying ATC information with their dad standing right beside them is stupid and inflammatory.

Both the controller-dad and his supervisor have been placed on admin leave and will probably be fired.  I suppose a sharp slap on the hand would be appropriate, given that they violated procedures.  The real reason for disciplining them and probably firing them, however, is not that they put anyone at risk — they just caused a public relations problem.  In today’s environment, that’s even worse.

Here’s one typical report, including the kids’ radio transmissions and the pilots’ unconcerned and humorous responses. Unlike many other reports, it includes comments from an experienced pilot:

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