COLUMN: Seven-year-old air traffic controller breach of security, safety

Thursday, March 4, 2010 | 11:00 p.m. CST; updated 9:55 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, May 12, 2010

 What a week. Health care debates or non-debates, depending on which side you are on. The war in Afghanistan, is it good, better, best, worse or “let’s get out of there.” Ethics violations in the U.S. House, at the New York governor’s mansion and not being taken seriously under Missouri’s Gray Dome. Bath water contains germs. Leno is back on late night. And the story of the week?

It is the embarrassment of the highly trained professionals who occupy the control tower at J. F. Kennedy International Airport outdone by a kid, who controlled flight operations at one of the world’s busiest airports.

Yet he was good. The kid did not skip a beat. His language was better than the air-traffic controller from Brooklyn.  I did not understand him and I am a pilot and Brooklyn is my native language. Listen to the recordings online. I personally liked the report on Fox News linked by AOL.

Fox’s Scott Brenner, when asked if he could explain how this could happen, responded the same as every pilot responded today, “No. I can’t explain it.” My dad, a pilot since 1939, laughed. I laughed. The controllers? They did not laugh.

Before 9/11, pilots were often encouraged to visit an airport’s control tower by the FAA. Even in simpler days, they would never allow  me, a pilot since 1969, to control a Piper Cub taking off from a dirt strip. Today, the control tower and air traffic control centers are supposed to be sterile environments, as secure as Fort Knox. Was this kid’s name Goldfinger?

There are three reasons why this story is so important. Stunts like this kill people. OK, the kid, six or seven years old, had a handle on the situation, had the language down pat, was understandable and may even be a child aviation prodigy. But control 747s? He’s not had time to finish the FAA controller’s training program.

Second, the stupidity is so rare that it is fuel for the fires. What else would Jay Leno, David Letterman, Jon Stewart, Comedy Central and SNL talk about? They all ran out of drunk-pilot jokes. Rush Limbaugh will call this a socialist plot lead by President Obama. Ralph Nader will write a book about it, “Unsafe at Any Airport.” Al Gore will call it a global catastrophe and Sen. John McCain will sit back in his leather senator chair, laugh and say, “The other guy won.”

Third, this was an exceptional rare breach of security. Yet there are at least six people in the air-control tower at JFK at any one time, if not more, according to Sharon Silvering, a retired air traffic controller who worked at the airport.. There are hundreds sitting in darkened rooms with dancing lights of radar screens showing in two-dimensions a three-dimensional world. There are security doors and locks that must be properly keyed. Supervisors are overlooking every operation and command. What the heck happened?

Who knew that the FAA had a “Bring your kid to work and let him guide the international flights from the runways” day.

In my half-century of flying private aircraft, I can say that one idiot does not represent the air traffic controllers I have worked with and I have known. Their professionalism as the silent hands guiding those magnificent men and their flying machines is unmatched.

Let the FAA handle the internal affairs of dad’s day gone bad; a lot of people will be losing their jobs over this. More importantly, Congress must look at this incident in the light of the successes and failures of the Transportation Security Administration and Homeland Security and ask, “Can you explain how this happened?”

If the answer is “no,” consider revamping the entire system. Or allow the seven-year-olds to take care of America’s security needs. After all, they have proved themselves on the flight line at J.F.K.

David Rosman is an award-winning editor, writer, professional speaker and college instructor in communications, ethics, business and politics. Read his blog at He welcomes your comments at

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