It started like any other day, with air traffic controllers choreographing a ballet in the skies, and directing planes heading to and from Chicago and across the Midwest.
Then everything went dark. Radar was off-line. Automated systems were down. Audio released by their union reveals controllers were not even sure if pilots could hear them.
Smoke filled parts of the air traffic control facility in Aurora known as Chicago Center. Controllers didn't know it then, but a well-regarded FAA contractor named Brian Howard had used his access and knowledge to target a key junction in the facility. Lifting up floor boards, cuttings specific wires, and then soaking rags with gasoline and lighting them on fire.
"7-1-5 Lima Mike I have to evacuate," the controller said. "I'm trying to find a frequency that I can give you but I'm going to have to evacuate. We got a fire in the building."
Initially, controllers in Aurora could not even call other FAA facilities to report the problem or ask for help managing the crowded airspace.
"I've got no way to call them," the controller said. "All our lands are dying, so I've got no way to get ahold of them."
The last call from Chicago Center came four minutes after the first alarm sounded.
"Attention all aircraft on 121.5: If you can hear this, this is Chicago Center," the controller said. "We are evacuating the building due to a fire. If you need any assistance just try to contact a nearest FAA approach facility."
Take-offs and landings at Chicago's O'Hare and Midway airports were stopped. Cross-country flights had to be re-routed around several states. Travelers missed meetings, weddings and one man testified the crippled air-traffic control network prevented him from seeing his sister before she died. The Aurora control center was off-line for 17 days.
The intentionally set fire exposed the FAA's lack of an effective back-up plan in the event one of its key control facilities goes down.
A judge sentenced Howard to 12-and-a-half years in prison. His attorney told reporters earlier this month that Howard is sorry for his actions and regrets them with every fiber of his being.