Air traffic controller out after mystery spell in tower

CHICAGO (WLS) -- "Las Vegas tower, United 448."

The pilot of a Chicago-bound jetliner struggled to communicate with an incoherent air traffic controller before takeoff last Wednesday in Las Vegas and now the FAA tower employee is out of her job, but what led up to the bizarre and potentially disastrous few minutes is still a mystery.

FAA officials on Monday will only confirm that the air traffic controller is no longer employed by the agency, following a tense, 15 minute slurred exchange with the cockpit crews of several jetliners.

"Something's going on up there," said the voice from Chicago-bound United 448, urging a well-being check on the tower.

As about a dozen planes were either preparing for takeoff or landing at McCarren Airport in Las Vegas; the tower controller, by herself as the clock edged toward midnight on Wednesday, became increasingly incoherent and pilots grew impatient, concerned and testy.

CONTROLLER: "United 448, cross runway 26R at Delta, Ground 1...alright. United 448, cross runway 26R, Ground 1."

UA 446 PILOT: "Uh, Ground.1 you want us to go to?"

CONTROLLER: "United 448, cross runway 26 R, Ground 1....Sorry, I'm choking a little bit. United 448, cross runway 26R, Ground .1."

Federal authorities would not reveal whether the controller resigned or was fired nor whether its investigation of the incident has been wrapped up.

The Las Vegas confusion is eerily similar to a tower incident at Chicago's Midway Airport in June, 2016 that was uncovered by the ABC7 I-Team.

In that case, a Southwest Airlines flight from Houston to Chicago had to be diverted when the cockpit crew couldn't even reach anyone in Midway's tower. It was unclear whether the Midway mishap was the result of an ill or sleeping controller, a technical glitch or staff shortage-and FAA officials on Monday told the I-Team to file a Freedom of Information request for conclusions or action, if any, in that case.

No one was hurt in either of the incidents, the Chicago case in 2016 and the Las Vegas last week. But both raise questions of who is managing the nation's air traffic control towers. In Las Vegas, federal authorities have pledged to ensure that two controllers are in the tower at all times-in case one of them has a medical episode.

At one point on audio recording last week, the controller could be heard coughing and gagging as a microphone was apparently left in the on position. Pilots of the several planes that were preparing for takeoff all opted to hold their positions until some resolution could be made. The situation quickly improved when a second controller entered the tower and took over the operation.

The FAA said late last week that the incident between 11:09 and 11:50 p.m. Wednesday when the female controller began slurring words, gave incoherent commands to pilots, began coughing, then went silent. The controller has not been identified.
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