On February 17th, someone at JFK Tower had their child with them, and subsequently let the child issue instructions to aircraft. (The instructions were takeoff clearances and then handoffs from JFK Tower to the New York TRACON controller, not issuance of any radar vectors or changes in assigned altitude.) As you can hear in the audio clip below, pilots communicating with the child seemed to take in it a humourous spirit, but that was evidently not the case with the FAA, which has suspended those involved from ATC duties pending the outcome of an investigation.
Before we go any further, it’s worth remembering that first, a fully-qualified controller was looking over the kid’s shoulder at all times (just they would for ATC trainees), and second, aircraft entering and exiting busy Class B airspace like New York follow pre-planned departure and arrival routes. These are known as SIDs (Standard Instrument Departures) and STARs (Standard Terminal Arrival Routes). Here is one of the SIDs for John F. Kennedy Intl. Airport:
The destination and enroute routing of your flight will determine which transition your aircraft flies, but as you can see, the routes are not random, they are well-defined. The SID is assigned while the aircraft is still on the ground, so the pilots have ample time to look it up and familiarise themselves with it. The runways in use will also be obvious (via automated ATIS, listening in on TWR’s freq, or simply asking the clearance delivery controller while he’s examining your flight plan). By the time of your handoff from tower to the departure controller, where you are headed and how you will get there is no great mystery.
Aside from the violation of federal aviation regulations—no small matter, to be sure—my only (minor) beef is that the kid’s handoff call didn’t include the next facility’s full name and frequency. It should have been something like “JetBlue 171, contact New York Departure on one-three-five decimal niner, good day.” Still, for an amateur, it was a fairly creditable job.
As highly regimented a creature as aviation is, it is still staffed and run by human beings, with all of the virtues and foibles that entails. In my younger days (pre-September 11th), I had dated a woman whose father was a very senior controller at Nav Canada. When the young lady flew from CYYZ to various destinations abroad, she would inevitably get called to the cockpit to chat with the controllers on duty—friends of the family—who had known her from the time she was a child. If there were delays in departing, these controllers would subsequently prioritise her flight’s departure above all others (excepting medevacs), which was no doubt a pleasant surprise to the captain of said aircraft.
We live in a human world, and humans—by nature—are going to deviate from the script every now and then. Determining the difference between harmless and harmful deviations is not always easy (especially when inflexible bureaucracies become involved), and one hopes the controller and supervisor at the heart of the matter don’t lose their jobs over this.
RELATED: Ars Technica has a terrific article on the science and technology of air traffic control.
ALSO RELATED: Kent Wien, Gadling.com’s resident 757/767 driver, notes that this is why IFR flights require detailed readback of instructions, so that there is no mistake about what the aircraft is expected to do in the airspace. The pilots departing JFK did read back the kid’s instructions, and those instructions were not incorrect, otherwise a duly-qualified controller (i.e., the tyke’s dad, or the tower supervisor) would have leaped in and corrected it.