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Air traffic controllers take a nap and grab a snack while pilots’ calls go unanswered

Air traffic controllers monitor planes from inside the Boise Airport tower.
Air traffic controllers monitor planes from inside the Boise Airport tower. Statesman file photo

Police officers who entered the Boise Airport air traffic control tower after pilots could not reach controllers by radio Nov. 19 found one controller had fallen asleep and a second one had left the tower and smelled of marijuana, according to reports released Friday afternoon by the Boise Police Department.

Two Air St. Luke’s helicopter pilots were unable to get ahold of anyone on the tower radio frequencies between 2:30 a.m. and 2:40 a.m. One of the helicopters was coming to the airport from the Downtown Boise hospital, and the other was departing from the airport.

The pilots initiated alternative procedures, which led them to announce their movements over the radio to alert other aircraft that might be flying overhead.

Boise police Cpl. Mike Algate and officers Byron Grover, Andrew Morlock and Shane Langton responded to the tower after an airport operations official said he was unable to reach the controllers by land line and emergency telephones or radio, according to BPD reports.

Morlock reached an outer security gate and dialed the tower through a call button. When no one responded, the officer flashed his spotlight at the tower, turned on his overhead red and blue lights, sounded his siren and even used an air horn, to no avail.

A man pulled into the lot, identified himself as an air traffic controller and told Morlock he had spoken to the controller in the tower by phone within the past 15 minutes. The officer appeared to doubt that story, noting in his report that no one else had been able to get ahold of the controller.

Bruce Gard, an airport operations officer, told the man, whose name was blacked out of reports provided to the Idaho Statesman after a public records request, that he was “very concerned” about not getting any response from the tower.

“The man seemed to not be concerned and even stopped at the break/lunch room to grab some pizza and a drink before going with the officers up to the main radio area,” Algate wrote in his report. “The man kept saying it was no problem and everything was OK, and this wasn’t a big deal.”

On the way to the tower by an elevator, the officers and Gard reported smelling marijuana coming from the controller. In his report, Morlock described the man’s demeanor as “slow and confused as to what was going on.”

When they reached the tower, the second controller, who name was also blacked out of the reports, was standing near the center of the room. Gard asked him what was going on.

“The individual in the tower seemed very groggy and sluggish, what I would describe as dazed and confused,” Langton wrote in his report. “He responded by saying he hadn’t heard any radios or phones.”

Langton confronted the controller, asking if he had fallen asleep.

“He didn’t respond for a moment, and I asked him again. He then told me he fell asleep,” Langton wrote.

After they left the tower, Gard told the officers the air traffic controller was calling out wrong directions and runways over the radio.

The second controller told officers he was scheduled to relieve the first controller at 3 a.m. During the overnight shift, when air traffic is light, only one controller is on duty at a time, he said.

Officers were unable to find any signs of marijuana on a table or in the trash on the first floor. No other action was taken.

The FAA has declined to provide any details, other than to say an investigation is ongoing.

No incidents were reported as a result of the failure of pilots to reach the tower, which handles takeoffs and landings for planes at the Boise Airport and at Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport in Montana.

John Sowell: 208-377-6423, @IDS_Sowell