Non aviators may be confused by some of the news about the Reagan National traffic controller who has been suspended from his job after no one could reach him as planes were landing at the airport.
Reports of planes "forced to land" or "landing without clearance" point to a control problem, but not a cockpit problem or a passenger safety problem.
The Daily Beast labels the article "scary" and summarizes that pilots were "forced to land their passenger airliners without direction." Similar language appeared in other reports.
Pilots are in charge of a flight, not controllers. A few hundred airports have control towers. Thousands do not. All pilots train constantly on standard approach and landing procedures and do not depend on controllers to conduct safe operations.
Three keys: 1. Shared communication channel. Each airport has a designated radio frequency for all cockpit-to-tower and cockpit-to-cockpit communication. All pilots approaching National or departing National will be communicating on the same frequency. 2. Automated weather and airport condition reports. All pilots know to obtain weather and airport conditions from a separate standard radio broadcast for each airport. It includes wind speed and direction and which runway or runways are being used for landings and departures. 3. Collision-avoidance radar. All airliners have cockpit radar equipment that displays the location of other aircraft and sounds alarms if planes are approaching each other.
In addition, all airports have standard approach and departure lanes in the sky, clearly marked on navigation charts, that pilots know to follow.
Does a pilot need clearance to land safely? No. Controllers do provide essential traffic guidance and are a vital part of a safe transportation system. Flights to and from airports without air-traffic controllers are not, however, out of control.
If you are worried about flying to Reagan National, this might come in handy. Click to read the AOPA refresher guide to landing at non-towered airports.