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Controllers Work Through Lightning Strike to Aid Flying Public - (4/24/2009)

CONTACTS:  NATCA Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson Facility Representative, Daniel Walker, 404-559-2845, dwalker@natca.net; NATCA National Office, Alexandra Caldwell, 202-220-9813, acaldwell@natcadc.org

ATLANTA – When major thunderstorms, complete with microbursts, wind shear and hail hit the Atlanta area Thursday night the air traffic control tower at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport was struck, knocking out all primary and backup radar feeds.

All airfield lighting on the north side of the airport, including runways and taxiways, also failed and commercial power was lost in the tower – and even though the tower is less than three-years old, the backup generators for the power failed to kick in.  At one point the tower’s radios failed as well and backup, battery-operated, hand-held radios were used.

When smoke was detected in the tower the majority of the controllers were evacuated.  It fell to three controllers to work through the ordeal until the generators were stabilized and technicians could begin to bring the tower’s systems back online – but the controllers had to wait for help from the technicians and firefighters that were called because the main elevator had also failed.  Their help had to climb the stairs of the 398-foot tower, the tallest in the country.

During this time many aircraft had to return to gates to be checked for hail damage and several medical emergencies were reported as having occurred on the aircraft.  Because of this the controllers had to direct all of the aircraft on the ground to return them to their ramps safely, like assembling a puzzle – all without radar.

When it was clear that there was not a fire in the tower the remaining controllers were allowed to return, after which multiple aircraft were moved to the south side of the airport when departures were finally able to resume after multiple manual restarts had to be performed to get the system up and running.  Diverted aircraft began to arrive and, due to the high volume, all arrivals were not down until after 3 a.m. – many of the controllers finally ending their shift after a long, grueling 10 hours.

Said NATCA Hartsfield-Jackson Facility Representative Daniel Walker:  “Through much of the ordeal, they had nothing more than a radio, their professionalism and the teamwork of their coworkers to assist them.  These controllers continued to work through what was truly a stressful and trying experience and they went above and beyond the call of duty to ensure the safety of the flying public at the busiest airport in the world.”

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