Awhile ago there was a request for an Air Traffic Controller involved in the Sept. 11 attacks to do an AMA. My son has convinced me to somewhat belatedly answer your questions.

A quick Bio:

I joined the FAA in 1989. On Sept. 11th 2001 I was working initial departure (the Air Traffic Controller that directs aircraft just after takeoff during climb) at Boston Logan Airport, and directed both American Airlines 11 and United Airlines 175 before they were hijacked (I was not controlling them during the hijacking). In this NTSB transcript of American 11, I'm labeled ID (B).

I have also controlled Air Force One several times, John Travolta's 707, and in 2008 an Angel Flight aircraft I was controlling lost control and crashed. The accident was completely due to pilot error.

Ask me almost anything!


edit - Heading out to birthday dinner for a family member, not sure if I will be back in time to answer more questions. If not, it's been fun, thanks!

Comments: 1688 • Responses: 45  • Date: 

choochoo777664 karma

When you first came to know AA11 and UA175 were hijacked, what was your first instinctive reaction? What's the first thought that came to your mind?

atcamaa1461 karma

"My god. I was just talking to those pilots, pilots I may have probably spoken to hundreds of times over the course of my career, and now they're dead."

I felt very violated. That may sound strange, but they had used our airport to do this horrible thing.

Eternally65515 karma

How did you get the order to ground all flights? What was the reaction from the pilots?

atcamaa724 karma

FAA Command Center. However, our supervisor was already in the process of stopping all departing aircraft.

Most pilots were very professional about it. They attended to the business of flying their airplanes. Some pilots wanted specifics. If I recall correctly, we were instructed to tell them that aircraft had been hijacked and to ensure their cockpit was secured.

slenquist430 karma

What's the biggest problem with today's flight transportation system, in your opinion?

atcamaa878 karma

Over reliance on automation.

This has been happening in the cockpit for quite some time now, the result of which are computers, not pilots, flying airplanes. This type of automation is reaching the ATC system now and will most likely have a similar effect.

While automation has actually made the system safer, overall. When something goes wrong with the automation, the human responsible may not be up to the task.

essen23363 karma

What's your opinion about the MH370?

atcamaa627 karma

I am fascinated by the disappearance by this aircraft on a professional level. But, I don't think I have anymore insight into what happened beyond what the experts that the news media employ's, say.

I_Am_Intoxicated332 karma

What would you say to someone who is afraid of flying?

atcamaa1511 karma

You're more likely to be killed in the car ride to the airport than in the plane. Way more likely.

Flying is ridiculously safe. However, I completely understand the fear. You are stuck in a metal tube, can't see forward, pressed up against some sweaty asshole you don't even know and you have to hope the pilots and controllers know what they're doing.

Let me reassure you, the pilots and controllers know what they are doing and the machine you are flying in is completely safe.

Disclaimer: If you die in a plane crash, I didn't talk you into flying.

Snarfing281 karma

Forgive the novice question, but are tv's or other media sources allowed to be turned on in your working area while you're on the job? Are cellphones now allowed in light of what happened on 9/11? Are the electronics we'll shielded to prevent stray signals ?

atcamaa481 karma

No TVs, Radios or cell phones are permitted in the operation. Mostly, because these things would be distracting to the controllers.

The FAA does say there is a possibility of radio interference from cell phones, but I think that is highly unlikely. However, air traffic control is a safety business. Always better to avoid even a slight possibility.

And yes, our electronics are well shielded.

Avenger_272 karma

Anything you care to share that the public doesn't know about 9/11? Share your individual experience of that day.

atcamaa764 karma

I don't think there is any information that I have that is not already available to the public. However, there has been many changes to air traffic procedures when handling hijacked or suspicious aircraft. Those I cannot discuss.

On that day, it was surreal. One the controllers that I worked with that was in the breakroom watching TV, came into the TRACON saying that an aircraft had flown into one of the World Trade Center buildings. He said it appeared to be a large aircraft. Between working the airplanes the controllers on duty discussed how an aircraft could hit a tall building during very VFR (good weather) conditions. Five or so minutes later the supervisor said that Boston Center (high altitude ATC facility) had a suspected hijacked aircraft. Two or three minutes after that, they were reporting that NY Center also had a suspected hijacked aircraft.

At that time we put it together what was happening. Our supervisor called the control tower to discuss stopping all departures. Before he hung up the phone, the same controller from before came in to report another aircraft hit the other tower. Within seconds the FAA Command Center ordered all departures stopped and for every airborne aircraft in the US to be vectored to the nearest suitable airport and landed. For the next 30 minutes we worked frantically and through the confusion to line up arrivals to airports in our jurisdiction (mostly Boston, Logan Airport). And then, something I've never seen in all my years of experience, radar scopes with no aircraft.

ImJonAndILikePlanes244 karma

What was your role in the days following 9/11, when there was no commercial air traffic in the air?

atcamaa413 karma

At the time my days off were Wednesday and Thursday. Since 9/11 happened on a Tuesday, I didn't return to work until the 14th. Air traffic had been resumed by then. However, my coworkers that had to go to work spent most of their time watching TV in the breakroom, taking turns sitting in front of the one open radar scope working no airplanes.

JafeeZy236 karma

How did you park all of those thousands of airplanes

atcamaa305 karma

The tower put many of them on closed runways or taxiways. I'm a radar controller, so that wasn't my job.

Dhaecktia216 karma

Is Air Crash Investigation (or May Day) credible or is it just a TV show?

atcamaa357 karma

I watched many of those episodes. I believe they are very accurate.

TerribleHang0ver213 karma

Have you ever controlled Ed Force One?

EDIT: Thanks for the Gold

atcamaa114 karma

If I did I was unaware of it.

kentrel166 karma

Non 9/11 Question here!

Did you watch Breaking Bad, and if so, how realistic do you think it could be for John Delancie's character to be allowed to work in his emotional state. If you haven't seen the show he lost his daughter to heroin, and then out of grief made a whole bunch of mistakes that caused two aircraft to collide.

atcamaa236 karma

I don't watch Breaking Bad. However, controllers are not allowed to work air traffic if they are in an obvious bad emotional state, on prescription medication (we're also drug tested routinely), or any number of other things that can disqualify us.

mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmph165 karma

Do you know the legendary Boston John?

atcamaa199 karma

I do indeed. A great guy. I have never worked with him because he worked in the tower and I am a TRACON controller.

You will hear John control aircraft, no more. He is now the facility manager at an air traffic control tower elsewhere. I don't feel comfortable saying where.

pdxpilot127 karma

If the FAA were to shutdown the national airspace system right now, would you be able to handle it?

atcamaa353 karma

yes, I'm at home.

Joking aside, air traffic controllers would handle it today just as well if not better than they did on 9/11.

Domesticus_taximus117 karma

How has your ATC knowledge affected your perception of flying? And are there any airport towers you would like sit in and do a shift?

atcamaa211 karma

Ironically, I am a bit of a nervous flyer. I know personally that aviation is ridiculously safe, but I've also seen what happens when things go wrong.

I would love to sit down and vector one of the finals at ATL, ORD and LAX.

Jason_Silvervein100 karma

Have you been affected by any hatefull behavior after the incident of 9/11? Was there a lot of preasure on your department from the puplic?

atcamaa195 karma

No, not at all. Anyone I spoke with about 9/11 was either inquisitive or sympathetic.

There was no outside pressure on air traffic controllers or how the air traffic system handled the crisis. overall, we were praised for our performance that day.

sooovad96 karma

Is a part of you that is glad you were involved in such a monumental day in ATC history? It was an awful day, but air traffic controllers really did something amazing.

atcamaa114 karma

Yes I am. And thank you!

trustmeimthepilot88 karma

Are there any rules akin to our sterile cockpit (nonessential conversation prohibited below 10000 ft)? Sometimes it sounds like a party in there.

atcamaa93 karma

It's a party. When traffic is light sometimes people can get goofy. If it's busy it's all business.

RichardPerle84 karma

What is your opinion of the theory that 9/11 was an inside job?

atcamaa283 karma

Complete bullshit. I am 100% certain 9/11 was exactly what it was reported as, an attack by terrorists.

Sadly, it was a simple and brilliant scheme. They exploited a vulnerability.

collared_dropout40 karma

Maybe this isnt your area, but what would you say that vulnerability was?

atcamaa203 karma

Hijackings prior to 9/11 were landed and the held as hostages. Using the aircraft as a weapon wasn't really planned for.

9Country79 karma

Why point out that the accident was "completely due to pilot error"?

atcamaa254 karma

interesting question. As an air traffic controller, when an aircraft crashes that you are responsible for, the first thought that goes through your mind is "did I do everything correctly. Did I do anything that may have caused the accident. Did I do everything I could have to help the pilot when he was in crisis."

Even though the NTSB exonerated me from any culpability, I still was haunted by the fact that there may have been more I could have done to help the pilot, if I had figured out sooner that he had become spatially disoriented (cause of the accident).

9Country77 karma

Very good answer... follow up. I fly professionally and I want to know what it takes to get violated? Several times I miss a restriction by a few hundred feet or fly 200 when you say 180. Is it up to you if I get in trouble or is it out if your hands if there is a loss of separation?

atcamaa77 karma

It's out of hands of the controller if there is a loss of separation. The radar reports loss of separation. If there's no loss of separation, it may or may not be up to the controller. If it's obvious and gets seen by management it gets reported. If it's subtle it would be up to the controller.

Healing_touch76 karma

My boyfriend is getting ready to go to the training facility in Oklahoma City. Do you have any advice for him or words if wisdom?

atcamaa170 karma

The FAA's training program has changed considerably since I went through it in 1989. However, this basic rule still applies to controller training, most of which will occur at the facility he is assigned to, study your ass off and always put forth 100% effort.

Besides being a controller, I was also an instructor. Nothing irritated me more than a lazy trainee or the ones that thought they had it all figured out or new better than myself and the other instructors.

Air traffic control is a complex job. I have done it for 25 years and still frequently learn new things about it.

Euain_son_of_70 karma

Have you or anyone you worked with ever seen any UFOs on radar? That is, anything that you knew wasn't a plane, but you didn't know what it was, even if you didn't think it was of extraterrestrial origin.

atcamaa157 karma

I had a pilot report seeing a UFO. He actually accused me of vectoring another aircraft too close to him. When I insisted that there was no other aircraft near him, he reported it as a UFO. This happened in the late 90's. Nothing since then.

lady__of__machinery57 karma

Was there a description of sorts? As someone with an astrophysics degree, I've always been a Scully. Super skeptical of stuff like that. Until two years ago when I saw this gigantic triangle in the sky (took up about 1/3 of the visible sky, no sound, whooshed away in a second) - I'm not sure what to believe anymore.

edit: no drugs or alcohol was involved. I was babysitting my then 10 year old brother who saw it as well.

atcamaa129 karma

The pilot said he saw an aircraft directly off his left wing, then it flew away quickly. I said there was no other traffic nearby. I also checked the sectors above and below, nothing within 15nm. The captain said the aircraft was within 100 meters, and asked if the military was nearby. I said there were no other traffic I could see on my radar. The pilot then said he wanted to file a UFO report.

I don't know what he saw, all I know is he thought he saw something and there was nothing unusual on my radar.

After my shift I had to file a report about the incident.

sustanons13 karma

Did he describe the aircraft? And was this a commercial or private pilot?

It's more than likely military.

atcamaa25 karma

It was night, so he could only see lights.

BreakfastBurrito61 karma

Regarding the aftermath, what kept you in ATC? Or, I suppose another way of asking, Why did you stay in ATC as opposed to going into dispatch or flight planning?

I'm getting ready to tackle the ADX myself; just curious I suppose.

atcamaa101 karma

Basically, I love being an air traffic controller. It is an amazing, intense and rewarding job. There are many jobs in aviation that I would also love doing, I'm sure. But besides being a rewarding career, air traffic controllers are paid very well.

kennygomien58 karma

How do you take your orange juice? Pulp free, some pulp or lots of pulp?

atcamaa80 karma

No pulp.

sallyjay41 karma

I know that English is mandatory for aviation, but sometimes you hear things like this and I begin to wonder how often this occurs. Have you experienced something similar or is there an airline that you have noticed to have consistent issues(even minor) when communicating with ATC as a result of poor English skills?

Apart from the incidents you've already mentioned, what has been the hairiest moment for you, or maybe even your colleagues as a result of some sort of miscommunication/pilot error, language barrier or not?

atcamaa82 karma

JAL has some pilots with excellent English, and some with the worst ATC English. Most foreign carriers are pretty good, but occasionally you get a very bad one where you have to ask them to repeat over and over and it takes up time and you feel bad.

Ironically occasionally British airways accents can be hard to understand.

bigsam8328 karma

In the past 25years that you have been a air traffic controller, How much has the techonology and methods changed? And how much continuing education and training is required? Finally, do you have to get re-certified every X amount of years?

atcamaa60 karma

We have to have our "credentials" (ATC licence) renewed every two years and pass a physical examination annually.

We constantly are being trained on updated procedures and equipment. I have had to sit through a staggering amount of training during my 25 years.

k_onda_guey27 karma


atcamaa57 karma

Mostly, we just eyeball separation. The video map on the scope becomes very familiar and you know the distances between all of the features of the map. From this, you use your eyes to judge distances.

We do have tools on the radar scope that will precisely measure distances between aircraft or between aircraft and objects (such as tall buildings and towers). However, to activate these tools requires input from the controller. These inputs take up valuable time and attention.

pdxpilot26 karma

Is it better to be prior military or CTI in today's hiring climate?

atcamaa30 karma

I'm not sure one gives you an advantage over the other. Of the people I work with, it's about a 50/50 split.

shtaaap26 karma

How stressful is your job really? is has a rep of being crazy stressful..

atcamaa55 karma

It is a very intense job and it can be very stressful. When you're at work and it's a busy evening shift with thunderstorms and bad weather and the airport authority has closed one of the arrival runways for repainting, then it is extremely stressful. However, you can't take your work home with you. Most air traffic controllers are people who manage stress pretty well. If you can't, you won't succeed at the job.

stejmg24 karma

We're you involved in the re-routing of planes to Newfoundland?

atcamaa39 karma

No, that would have been the Center (high altitude facility).

Duderplease23 karma

I am a 22 year old pilot that recently lost my medical. I would like to get into ATC. Do pilots have an advantage when it comes to positions?

atcamaa40 karma

Controllers are required to pass a class 2 medical exam.

Former pilots have less of an advantage as military controllers and CTI students.

jabaski21 karma

Have you ever had one of These situations before?

atcamaa42 karma

The events in the video occurred in a control tower. I actually work in a TRACON (Terminal Radar Approach Control). TRACON's control the airspace around the airport out to about 30 miles, but do not manage any of the traffic on the ground.

That being said, I have had many instances of confusing things happen over the years. The important thing is to not let things get dangerous.

PastorPaul19 karma

Were there any special procedures (special routes and the like) put into place after the attacks or did everything just kind of go into over drive mode?

atcamaa46 karma

Everything was in controlled chaos, basically. Nothing was done unsafe by ATC, but we bent the rules to put aircraft on the ground as fast as possible. There was no time to institute any type of special routes or programs.

Ask_If_I_Care16 karma


atcamaa35 karma

The military continued to fly during the air traffic shutdown. Boston TRACON has very little military activity, however.

Eternally6511 karma

When you say that there were F15s circling Boston, were they based out of BTV?

atcamaa20 karma

They were based out of FMH (Otis ANG Base).

M4SSMAN14 karma

Was your job affected on that day by the military exercises being run at the time? It has been said that Vigilant Guardian, and other exercises caused great confusion over what what real world and what was simulated.

atcamaa35 karma

Unfortunately, I don't have an answer for you. At Boston TRACON we had no military activity occurring in our airspace (about 30 miles around Logan airport, up to 14,000ft) that day.

dick_wool9 karma

How did you find time to use the restroom that day?

atcamaa27 karma

We generally work 2 hours on, half an hour off, so we eat and use the restroom during the breaks.

blakekaiser7 karma

Hey sort of more off topic question:

How hard was the ATC exam? Are jobs very readily available? I've been wanting to get into the aviation industry and considered the ATC route. Is there any other jobs I should look at in the aviation industry at smaller local airports? Thanks!

atcamaa16 karma

The exam (when I took it) was essentially an IQ test heavily slanted toward spacial perception. I believe the current test is very similar if not identical.

Jobs are available. We have controllers retiring several times a year. The best way to get this job is to be a former military ATC or have graduated from an accredited CTI program.

WittiestScreenName3 karma

Is Travolta a dick?

atcamaa8 karma

No, he was quite professional, but we didn't get too intimate... I could clearly tell from his voice that it was him.

Whitemann2 karma

Do you feel there are still holes in out airline defenses?

atcamaa6 karma

Like any type of security system or plan, nothing is completely foolproof. However, today's airline/passenger security is significantly greater than it was on 9/11.