The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating a recent incident at Denver International Airport in which an air traffic controller did not appear to understand a pilot's request for an emergency landing.
The controller told a colleague that he thought the call was "BS," and maybe someone was breaking into the air traffic control tower's frequency, an area news station reported.
United Express Flight 5912 from Peoria, Ill., was evacuated Tuesday after landing at the airport. All of the passengers and crew safely evacuated the plane on the runway through the main cabin door.
An FAA report said firefighters extinguished a fire in the instrument panel and the cause of the fire was under investigation.
A transcript of the conversation between the air traffic controller and Flight 5912 reported by 9NEWS.com seems to indicate that the controller misunderstood the airliner's flight number. The FAA says the pilots didn't initially indicate their airline when talking to controllers.
According to 9NEWS.com, a voice from the cockpit, either the co-pilot or pilot, is heard saying, "Emergency, smoke in the cockpit, roll trucks please" as the plane was coming in for a landing. A controller in the tower responds, asking, "Who was that?"
The voice responded "5912" — the flight number that air controllers were tracking.
After some confusion, the controller responds about 10 seconds later, asking: "United 12, what's your position?"
After no response, more time elapsed before the controller says, "Did you hear that? I know that's BS. I know it is." Controllers said they were not aware of a United Flight 12.
The National Transportation Safety Board said the investigation has been turned over to the FAA.
Controllers apparently realized the mistake when the pilot made another emergency call saying the plane had already landed and was evacuating on the runway. It was only then that fire trucks responded.
The FAA offered this statement to NBC News on Friday: "Although the pilots of ExpressJet Flight 5912 did not initially indicate their call sign when they contacted air traffic control to declare an emergency, the controllers were able to quickly identify and locate the plane with the help of ground surveillance equipment and immediately alert the fire department, whose first truck arrived shortly after the plane came to a full stop."
Sid McGuirk, who teaches traffic management at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., said pilots are in control when there is an emergency and failure by controllers to respond would be a major violation of procedure that could result in discipline or retraining.
"They have to assume it's a real emergency, whether it's a Cessna or a 747 jumbo jet. If it later turns out to be a spoof, it's a federal crime," McGuirk said.
William Voss, president of the Flight Safety Foundation in Alexandria, Va., said pilots who declare an emergency are busy dealing with the problem, and it's easy to create confusion. He also said radios with airline frequencies are easily available and have been misused to report false emergencies.
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