FAA OKs weather radios in control towers

The Federal Aviation Administration reversed itself and announced it would allow air traffic control towers to use weather radios to warn them of impending severe weather, especially tornadoes.

They could have used their weather radios Wednesday night at the Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C., when the tower was vacated after tornado warnings from the National Weather Service, a controller said. None of the equipment in their tower warned them. The controller said, "I think a weather radio would have been a tremendous help."

Deputy Administrator Bobby Sturgell said the FAA would provide weather radios for the nation's control towers in response to concerns from controllers in a May 30 memo that the FAA provided to The Plain Dealer on Wednesday in response to questions for this story.

On Sept. 3, the FAA ordered all radios, stereos, iPods and similar devices banned from towers, maintaining the music could be a distraction. Historically, controllers listened to music with the added advantage of hearing local weather alerts from radio stations.

On Dec. 25, controllers at Florida's Daytona Beach International Airport tower had no warning when a tornado came within 150 yards of the tower.

The tornado carved a destructive path through the adjacent Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, damaging planes and buildings.

Controllers said they would have been warned if the FAA hadn't removed their radios.

The incident sparked a nationwide reaction from controllers, who argued that they should at least be permitted to have weather radios. There was confusion as FAA spokesmen in some parts of the country said weather radios were permitted, but ultimately the national spokesman said they were not.

"The FAA removed the radios to punish controllers," said Paul Rinaldi, executive vice president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, in January after the Daytona incident. "But it's turning out to be a fateful decision that has serious, life-or-death consequences that clearly the agency foolishly overlooked."

Wednesday night, the Dulles controller e-mailed NATCA spokesman Doug Church that the tower was evacuated for 30 minutes after the National Weather Service called and warned of "possible rotation of clouds west of the airport, moving toward the airport."

He said the equipment at the tower did not indicate any tornado activity.

He said there was no damage, but that a vehicle used as a controller's lounge parked nearby was struck by lightning.

On April 24, during a thunderstorm in Tulsa, Okla., a funnel cloud passed directly over the Tulsa airport and was about a mile from the FAA air traffic control tower.

The controllers said they had no warning.

The FAA said in the May 30 memo that the controllers "have access to an array of weather data and sources," but controllers say none of those resources will alert them of a tornado.

In describing the weather radios the FAA will provide to the towers, Sturgell said in his memo, "These are specially enhanced weather radios that only broadcast alert messages relating to severe local weather. These weather radios will provide an additional level of assurance for our controllers."

Sturgell said tower managers will be notified "regarding the purchase and use of these weather radios, [and] provide the guidance necessary to obtain them for each FAA facility." But he gave no time frame.

NATCA spokesman Doug Church said, "All we have to do is pick one up at the local Radio Shack, but we're waiting for the regulations."

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter: msangiacomo@plaind.com, 216-999-4890

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