Controllers react quickly as storms ravage North Texas
Friday, April 13, 2012

Fierce tornadoes and nearly baseball-sized hail rained down upon North Texas last Tuesday, causing an estimated $500 million in insured damages and creating a series of diverse challenges for NATCA controllers.

As is common in these types of storms, the damage across the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex varied widely from city to city, and in some cases, from block to block. The same was true for the region’s airports; Dallas-Fort Worth ATCT (DFW) and TRACON (D10), both located near Arlington, suffered notable damage, while airports further out were nearly unscathed.

At DFW, controller Marlene Mendel was starting her afternoon shift in the airport’s west tower when the storm hit. Around 1:30 p.m., she said, the tower’s supervisor told all the controllers to evacuate the tower, as there was a major tornado cell approaching quickly.

“At that point, all traffic pretty much shut down,” she said. “Everyone went into a ground stop because we knew the weather was so bad that there was no way we could get any planes in or out.”

About 15 miles east of DFW, at Love Field Airport (DAL), facility representative Joel Petrone said his controllers had to evacuate for a brief period as well. They then assisted two diverted planes immediately after the storm passed.

“When the funnel clouds came down, we had to evacuate,” Petrone said. “But really, the mayhem came before and after the storm when we had to land diverted planes and figure out how to reopen operations.”

Travis Young, the facility representative at Dallas TRACON, said the hour-long storm swept through suddenly, giving his team only a short time to react.

“We knew there was bad weather coming, but the tornado cell just popped up and it caught us by surprise, both that it happened at all and just the voracity of it,” he said. “I’ve been here a long time, but this was one of the few times I’ve seen guys poke their head outside to watch the weather.”

Adding to the challenge, Young said the weather system occurred during a shift change, which meant some controllers couldn’t make it in to work. He said the TRACON’s first move was to halt all arrivals into Dallas-Fort Worth and Love Field airports, though they were able to continue landing planes safely right up until the storm hit.

After the storm passed, Mendel said DFW remained shut down until nearly 9 p.m. It took nearly three days before traffic was back to normal. More than 100 of American Airlines’ jets were damaged, and they all had to be inspected before they could go airborne.

“After the storm, we may have had 60 arrivals, and we usually have a few thousand arrivals and departures throughout the course of a day,” she said. “Even though it was clear, there wasn’t really anywhere to park the planes because there were so many grounded ones.”

Further to the west, both small Fort Worth airports avoided the worst of the storms, and immediately shut down because small planes can’t safely fly in that kind of weather to begin with.

“There weren’t any real problems at all, but we were close to one of the tornadoes, so we got lucky,” said James Akin, the facility representative at Spinks Airport, located south of the city. “There was a lot of wind, but nobody we land flies in that weather anyway.”

The facility representatives at Meachum Airport, north of downtown Fort Worth, and Addison Airport, north of Dallas, said traffic shut down as the storm approached, but that their properties escaped damage.

“We were very lucky,” said Addison facility representative Ty Hearnsberger.

Back at the commercial airports, some of the controllers there weren’t as lucky. Mendel, the DFW controller, said every car in the east tower parking lot suffered damage from baseball-sized hail.

“The worst part is that we had a really bad hail storm about a year ago, so a lot of us just had our cars fixed,” she said. “Some people lost windows, but everyone must have had 30 to 50 hail pellets at least.”

Young, at DFW TRACON, said their facility has a parking garage, a most fortunate of luxuries, but that one controller had part of the roof of their Arlington home blown off.

Through it all, NATCA members across the Metroplex were able to safely guide down planes ahead of and behind the storm, and divert as needed. And, Mendel said, it provided a nice bonding moment between the FAA supervisors and the NATCA employees.

“Our NATCA representative, Tom Rizzardo, and one of the FAA operating managers called everyone on staff to make sure they were okay,” Mendel said. “It was a nice collaboration in midst of this massive storm.”