Atlanta ATC Makes Stupid Joke, News Overreacts

There’s an interesting story out of Atlanta regarding an air traffic controller that jokingly told a Delta 777 to go around. The flight was coming out of Detroit, and on approach (about 1,000 feet in the air) the pilot was told to go around, and then immediately told that it was just a joke.

Via CBS 46 Atlanta:

The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating a potentially dangerous prank an air-traffic controller played on a pilot.

Delta Flight 630, loaded with passengers from Japan, was about to land at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Wednesday afternoon when an unnamed controller told the pilot not to.

The controller immediately said he was just joking, but the pilot had already aborted his landing and could not resume the touchdown.

Here’s the conversation between the controller and pilot:

Controller: “Delta 630, go around.”
Controller: “I’m kidding, Delta 630. After you land, I’ve got no one behind you. Expect to exit right.”
Controller: “Delta 630, you’re cleared to land on 27L.”
Pilot: “You sent us around. Delta 630 is on the go.”

So lets be clear about a couple of things. If the controller was in fact making a joke, he’s just a moron. Partly because you don’t joke when you have planes with hundreds of people in the air (especially during a critical stage of flight), and partly because it simply isn’t funny.

Now, I haven’t seen this scenario mentioned, but maybe the controller genuinely thought a go around was necessary for some reason, and quickly corrected himself when he realized he was wrong, and tried to pass it off as a joke.

The controller either made an honest mistake or is an idiot, and it should be investigated either way. Though more idiotic, in my opinion, is the media coverage of this.

Here’s CBS 46’s coverage of the incident:

To CBS 46:

  • Your audio from the control tower isn’t really “exclusive audio.” It’s publicly available.
  • “A source tells us this is as bad as an air traffic controller falling asleep on the job.” I think you need a new source. What this controller did was stupid but not dangerous. An air traffic controller falling asleep is dangerous.
  • The plane wasn’t “loaded with passengers from Japan,” when the flight was coming from Detroit (though the flight number originated in Nagoya).
  • “A source tells CBS 46 this could be a very dangerous prank.” Stupid prank? Yes. Waste of time? Yes. Dangerous? There’s absolutely nothing dangerous about a go around. That’s the whole point of a go around, to avoid any danger…
  • Interviewing random people in Atlanta Airport and asking them their thoughts on this? Are you for real? “Hearing about this prank makes him wonder if he’s safe in the skies.”

And to the air traffic controller, why don’t you leave ATC humor to Air China 981… ;)

Bottom line

Again, I’m not in any way trying to shift blame from the controller. If it was in fact a joke, that was really dumb/not funny. But ultimately the biggest “consequence” here is that it wasted ~15 minutes of everyone’s time, and cost Delta extra in fuel and crew costs. This should be investigated and the controller should be reprimanded if it was a joke (in my opinion), but no one’s life was at stake here.

Am I off base?

Comments

  1. D Wonderment says

    Nothing remotely funny about the controllers actions.
    Its a possibility of an accident waiting to happen just from confusion and a misunderstanding
    Bad move. I wouldn’t want the guy helping to land my plane I’m flying on

  2. Stehan says

    Yeah, have to agree – not funny in the slightest. The guy should be reprimanded.
    I’m sure DL will also complain, because they just wasted a pile of $$$ going around for no reason.

  3. Kris says

    Incredibly stupid, but no safety risk unless the pilots were stupider than the controller.

  4. Brian L. says

    This dumbass controller should, at the very least, be reprimanded and suspended without pay for a while. At the very least.

  5. Chris S. says

    I wonder if this was just a slip of the tongue rather than a prank. I know a handful of people who say, “Just kidding” when they misspeak. Hopefully an ATC would have more control of themselves than that.

  6. Troy says

    Haven’t heard the audio myself, but one would think this could have turned very bad very easily.

    All it would have taken would be the pilot to react and try to follow through with the landing. Chain reaction of starting to abort, then going back to landing so quickly could easily have caused a mistake to be made with possible fatal results.

    Luckily in this instance the pilot stuck to his guns and went around. But a less experienced pilot, or a tired pilot may have made a completely different decision.

  7. Dax says

    In other news Royal Jordanian is a perfectly safe airline piloted by unfunny morons. Just to be clear, I’m not trying to shift blame away from away from the airline just because one blog overreacted.

  8. says

    I think that it was degerous, a go around is an emergency procedure. The pilots have lots of things to think about. Although they are trained for that and usually it goes well, this extra stress could lead to a mistake and be dangerous.

  9. JustSaying says

    Reprimanded? Are you you guys kidding me? FIRED……PERIOD……There is absolutely ZERO excuse for putting these people at additional risk……..FIRED……………TERMINATED……………

  10. AAExplat says

    Not dangerous? Simple mistake? You’ve got to be kidding me. First of all, a goaround inceases workload on the pilots significantly. In this case, they may not have expected it. If you want to see how a GA can go wrong, read up on the GA an AF crew did last year when they nearly stalled the airplane due to confusion on the climbout after GA.

    Then there is the extra fuel the plane had to burn. Surely thousands of gallons. I guess DL should send the controller the bill.

    This clown ought to get fired.

  11. Darth Chocolate says

    The two most dangerous time during flight operations are takeoff and landing. Moron ought to be fired. Then executed.

  12. Bostonwalker says

    What makes you think it’s not dangerous for going around? It could go wrong easily.

  13. Mike Palmer says

    @ AAExplat

    Lets not carried away, a go-around doesn’t burn “thousands of gallons!” A trip-7 burns around 30 gallons a minute in level flight, go-around will burn more, but then the landing will burn less, so for an extra 15 minutes we’re looking at 450 gallons. Not trivial, but not thousands.

  14. says

    @ AAExplat — I didn’t say it was a simple mistake. I said the possibility of it being an error shouldn’t be ruled out, and that the ATCer was just trying to cover it up as a joke. But you can’t honestly believe a go around is dangerous, especially in good weather? I’ve had a handful this year alone, so I guess I should’ve started praying right away.

  15. says

    @ Bostonwalker — What could go wrong with a go around? It’s no different than a takeoff or landing. It’s certainly “critical,” but there’s nothing risky about it.

  16. mbh says

    Okay, from Atlanta here. I’ll grant you we have at least one less than sharp ATC. And, we certainly have more than our share of stupid overly dramatic local news. BUT, as of last week, we DO have free Wi-Fi throughout the airport. So, there’s that.

  17. Lantean says

    i also agree with commenter who suggested termination… it’s simply unacceptable and unprofessional.

  18. markiteight says

    Radio communications between ATC and aircraft has a VERY specific vocabulary, and “Just kidding” is not part of it. If an Air Traffic Controller makes a mistake they issue the new command prefaced by “Correction.” For example:

    “Cessna six-eight-six-sierra-pappa clear for takeoff runway one-six right, climb and maintain tree-thousand feet on runway heading. Correction: turn right heading two-four-zero climb and maintain fower-thousand feet.” The pilot then reads back the command to the issuing controller (omitting the errant command) to insure he/she properly understands the command.

    When the controller said “just kidding” it’s highly likely he actually meant it as a joke, which is reprehensible. I agree with Lucky that at no time were the passengers or crew in any danger, however the risk of accident is significantly higher during the takeoff and landing phases. This controllers “joke” put a lot of people at greater risk for an incident, but a no time were they in any real danger.

    Judging by the transcripts of the conversation the flight crew did everything exactly right. First, they committed to aborting the landing and going around and they stuck with it, rather than trying to get back on the glide slope after the go-around command was rescinded. 1000 feet on the glide slope puts them at approximately 1/2 mile from runway threshold. Plenty of time to make those sorts of corrections in a Cessna, zero time in an airliner. Second, the transcript shows several broadcasts by the controller before the pilots responded, meaning they were busy configuring the aircraft for departure and establishing a pattern approach and ignoring any distractions (including radio communications) that could compromise safety. One of the very first things you learn in flight training is the pilot’s main priority is to fly the airplane. Seems simple, but you’d be surprised how easily this can be forgotten, especially by fresh pilots.

    The pilots did a great job in this scenario, hats off to them. The controller? While he didn’t put the aircraft in any real danger his behavior is inexcusable, especially in this day-and-age when every organization under the umbrella of the FAA and NTSB are implementing safety management systems which act to improve safety proactively. In the best interest of conforming to those policies this controller needs to be terminated and an investigation undertaken to determine if this is an isolated incident or if there is a fault in the system that could allow this sort of thing to happen again.

  19. V8chpr says

    As soon as those words “Go Around” left his mouth, that crew did what they were supposed to do. The pilots aren’t going to discuss if he meant it or not. This is a new level of immaturity and stupidity on the part of the controller.

  20. Dax says

    lucky said,

    @ AAExplat — I didn’t say it was a simple mistake. I said the possibility of it being an error shouldn’t be ruled out, and that the ATCer was just trying to cover it up as a joke. But you can’t honestly believe a go around is dangerous, especially in good weather? I’ve had a handful this year alone, so I guess I should’ve started praying right away.
    ————

    You didn’t honestly believe your life was in danger on the Royal Jordanian flight right? I mean what could have possibly gone wrong? Bad weather happens all the time Ben.

    I don’t remember a wave of comments dismissing your concerns back then. So why are you trying to so hard to deflect criticism from others now?

    Air traffic control is about as far from “open mike joke night” as you can possibly get. The protocol and the expectations of all involved are well defined and never includes screwing around or covering up a mistake with a joke.

    For someone who claims to be a big fan of Air Crash Investigation you seem amazingly naive about how even little mistakes can cascade into much bigger problems, even when the person who started it didn’t intend for anything bad to happen.

    I think the reason you can’t fathom why this guy should be fired is because you’ve never had to hold down a “real” job with a real boss yourself. Maybe you should try it some time.

    It’s a rough world out there Ben. Large companies fire people every day of the week. Which is something your special situation and your parents have apparently shielded you from ever having to think about.

  21. markiteight says

    @Dax: It is painfully obvious that you are neither a pilot nor an Air Traffic Controller based on the ignorance of your post. I will break down my conclusions that you are utterly clueless thusly: comparing Lucky’s Royal Jordanian flight to this simple go-around is the perfect analogy of apples and oranges. The scenarios cannot be more different. Your attempt to use Lucky’s traumatic experience as an argument is a logical fallacy. You then proceed to talk about “little mistakes can cascade into much bigger problems…” News flash: little mistakes happen ALL THE TIME! The reason we have such specific, rigid communications procedures in place is to minimize the deleterious effects of these little mistakes. It’s common reality. It’s routine. Every single pilot had dealt with them from day one. It’s part of the job and it’s a non-issue. This is not opinion, it’s fact coming from someone who communicates with ATC on a daily basis. I make mistakes. They make mistakes. We have protocols for clear communications that make these mistakes a non-issue.

    Your assumption that Lucky doesn’t hold a “real” job and therefore doesn’t have a grasp on reality is proof positive that you yourself do not have a good grasp on reality. Lucky is the master of a market. It’s a specific market, but it is a market that exists in the real world. The entire POINT of this blog is to provide readers a REAL WORLD perspective into this specific market. If you cannot understand and respect that, move on. This blog is obviously not for you.

  22. Dax says

    @markiteight: What’s with the foaming at the mouth? Maybe you should “go around” and come back when you’ve hand a chance to calm down and stop shouting. Bottom line is that someone made a mistake, a news station overreacted to the mistake, and then a blog overreacted to the news station. Lucky has been shocked by suggestions that someone might be fired before. It’s as though he has no concept of what average people are fired for in a conventional job. It’s by no means limited to ATC. Remember when hew was mortified that the Chinese OBS might be canned as a result of his review? I can scarcely imagine how sheltered you’d have to be not to see that coming.

  23. AAExplat says

    @Mike Palmer.

    Your numbers are low. 772 burns about 2300 gallons per hour. But with GA (even considering landing), fuel burn will be higher. At a 15 minute GA, we are probably looking at 750 gallons+ of fuel. Definitely less than my less than scientific approach, but not a trivial amount of money, either.

  24. Tkey says

    Sorry Lucky, gotta disagree with you on the danger involved in this particular go-around. What the ATC employee did was introduce confusion into the situation. It was only the professionalism of the pilots, who were able to ignore the subsequent call of “Just kidding”, that made it a routine procedure. There’s no saying a less experienced pilot wouldn’t have, only 1000′ off the ground, stopped for a second to consider what’s happening. That’s when tragedy strikes. Not dangerous? Again, I disagree.

  25. Todd says

    A few comments:
    1) I worked in TV News in my first career. One of the reasons I no longer work in TV news is because if there’s no news, they’ll go out of their way to make news to report. This event isn’t news, but it must’ve been a slow news day. And yes, interviewing people in the airport who have nothing to do with this is fairly common practice with almost anything.

    Second… when I was in high school I had a biology teacher who used to say, “I lied” every time he would say something incorrect, and then he would fix it. He wasn’t actually lying, it was just his way of saying, “I’m wrong.” I don’t actually believe it was a joke with the ATC. I think a poor choice of words, but likely there’s no joke or kidding going on, IMHO.

  26. Lynn spencer says

    As an airline pilot, I cannot disagree with you more. The “joke” was completely inappropriate, absolutely created a hazardous situation (a stabilized approach became an unexpected go around in a busy airspace and calm pilots became distracted and likely irritated by the unusual and inappropriate controller action)). Controller should be fired.

  27. JustSaying says

    If my fellow government supervisors can’t find the moral courage to shitcan this dirtbag then perhaps they should consider other employment……..I believe the Boarding Area readers have spoken and it is a landslide…………….

  28. Bobby says

    30 years in busy atc facilities. Any one who suggest that
    an added danger is not added to the mix is just a plane fool, pun intended. Go arounds always tend create a little panic in the tower and in the cockpit. The departure side of the airport has a controlled series of aircraft that are cleared for takeoff based on the traffic in front of them. A go -around …..all of a sudden inserts an ac into the mix that that there really may not be room for . I have witnessed go arounds overtake preceding aircraft because of the head start they had with speed. Now, enter the Wake turbulence rules and you have another dangerous situation. As for the controller let us just agree that he is a complete idiot . Per the manual a reason for the go around is to be included in the instruction . Using text worthy JK for Phraseology ……is just unacceptable. Hot mike joke or not this incident is worthy of two weeks on the street.

  29. Ivan Y says

    @ markiteight, Lynn Spencer, and others – thank you for providing very valuable insight into this situation.

    It’s hard to imagine that someone would use that phrase if they made a mistake (instead of something like “my bad”) but, even if we give a benefit of a doubt, sounds like ATC didn’t use correct terminology (“correction”).

    Does anyone have any idea what sort of a punishment could be levied given that this person is probably union (NATCA)? Assuming no prior incidents, perhaps a short suspension?

  30. Orltran says

    Ok, just a question, what if the communication went like this:
    Controller: “Delta 630, go around.”
    Controller: “Disregard previous message, Delta 630. After you land, I’ve got no one behind you. Expect to exit right.”
    … the rest is the same.

    Everyone would just assume he had a reason for saying go around, then he changed his mind because the circumstances changed, and everyone would think it’s within standard operations, I’m quite sure. Yet it would be the exact same situation from an operation standpoint, so should “disregard” be removed from standard phraseology or are ATCOs still allowed to change their mind?

    Of course wording it like this is not a good thing and if he had no reason for telling Delta to go around, then it’s very unprofessional and should be corrected, but some of you act as if every time ATC gives a new clearence that changes the previous one it would create a dangerous situation.

  31. PMAR says

    I don’t buy the “had to circle for 90 min” headline bit. Flightaware shows the flight in question landed about 20 minutes later than usual, but this route seems to be sort of sloppy on the arrival time anyway so not clear if this was normal or not. However, a go-around does not take an hour and a half, not even at KATL. Maybe 20 minutes. And wow, that was how much the flight was apparently late. Imagine that.

    Flightaware’s radar track appears to show a go-around loop. The flight was headed straight in and diverted on final for a loop to the south. Yeah. 20 min maybe.

    If they did actually circle, even for 20, certainly Delta should throw a fuel bill at the FAA.

  32. bobby says

    Orltran
    Controller: “Delta 630, go around.”
    Controller: “Disregard previous message, Delta 630. After you land, I’ve got no one behind you. Expect to exit right.”

    The HUGE problem is that communication is a 2 way street.There was no room for the Delta crew to respond on the mic. By the time they did, the train and in this case the plane had already left the station. Controllers can not spit out a subsequent control instruction without receiving an acknowledgement of the previous instruction.

  33. Orltran says

    bobby: If he changed his mind, the faster he takes it back, the better, isn’t it? If Delta had time to respond that wouldn’t have changed anything in this situation, ATC’s second message was apparently earlier than their response and if they already started the go around procedure then they started it before read-back. (Which is also questionable, but easy to understand in this situation). Therefore in this case it changed nothing that he didn’t wait for read-back. I agree it invokes the feeling that he wasn’t serious in the first place, but that’s still an assumption.
    IMHO if an ATCo changes his/her mind, he/she should notify the crew asap, especially so close to the ground. I assume the mentioned 1000′ is actualy AGL, not AMSL, because the airport elevation is a bit above 1000 feet, so they had approx 3 miles or a minute to go ’till touchdown, so if he still wanted them to land he had to retract his previous instruction asap. It’s up for debate if it’s a good idea to withdraw a go around instruction or not, in my opinion this also depends on the circumstances, they may have regulation about it, I don’t know, but it’s a split second decision and maybe under pressure from environmental factors, so even if it’s a mistake, that’s an honest mistake and I find it very unfair to condemn someone based on an assumption. I know he did say he was kidding, but I’m not convinced at all that he really was.

  34. AhK says

    Some pretty interesting comments. I agree, the ATC – for whatever reason – did not follow proper protocol. The audio sounds like as soon the GA was given, the pilots initiated the GA, and only answered after they committed. “Just Kidding, joke brah.” Umm, yea, we’re already going around. Also, from a couple of posters, sounds like the fuel consumed could have been as much as 750 gallons for this maneuver. Not sure what jet fuel runs these days, but I wouldn’t want to foot that bill. And yea, slow news day or something.

  35. bobby says

    Orltran. If you are stepping into a busy street and your best friend or parent (someone you trust yells STOP!!!! because they know you do not see the truck that is about to run you over, what do you do?

  36. bobby says

    I have a sneaky feeling that the climate in the tower is that….. well if there is no place to park just send em around rather then pass the headache on to ground control. No inside scoop just a guess.

  37. Doug says

    The controller at JFK was not funny at all. He was embarrassing, just like all the dick-heads that I’ve worked with over the last 29 years, in a couple busy towers, that think yelling at, and belittling the pilot helps the situation.

  38. Robert Deese says

    Quite frankly, when I started way back….. when…. such stunts would not be tolerated. Watch for the the Supe on duty to take a bigger hit than the controller.

  39. Tpilot says

    Absolutely dangerous, first to be told to go around, then just kidding!? The pilots initiate the go around then get an off the cuff ‘just kidding’ mid procedure. Now under extra workload at 1000 feet or less, they have to decide what to do. Low altitude + high workload + confusion = danger.

  40. Retired ATC from the OLD-School says

    As a retired ATC with 37 years experience all in a radar environment, this is new to me, never heard of an incident where a controller jokes likes this. My opinion is that immediate termination is the only acceptable option period.

  41. Little Plane Pilot says

    A Go-Around is (or should be anyway) ALWAYS expected by EVERY pilot during EVERY landing (big or little airplanes). It is trained for and routinely precticed – ESPECIALLY by “big airplane” crews. In fact many pilots treat all landings as “optional” (in other words planning on that GA).
    That being said, and as previously stated, the crew reacted correctly. ATC’s clearance should have included something like “disregard the go-around, cleared to land if able”. Or simply “Delta 630 now cleared to land”. Regardless, by this point the landing was entirely at the pilots discretion.

  42. Erik Fisch says

    So the controller had a momentary lapse in judgment, the pilots did the right thing, the whole situation was totally undramatic. The pilot bears at least partial responsibility since he set the whole thing up with his non-critical blather about not having a parking spot (not the tower’s problem at that moment). So pardon the controller for being human.

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