An air traffic controller at Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI) was injured last September when the airport tower was struck by lightning during a thunderstorm. Controllers, concerned about the tower’s safety, stopped all arrivals and departures at BWI, one of the nation’s busiest airports, for several hours.
Edward Boyd, a controller for 30+ years, was on duty September 12, 2013 during an afternoon rainstorm when the runway lighting control system was struck by lightning. To make sure the runway lights stayed on, Boyd turned on an emergency power generator and received a shock to his hand from the generator switch. The injury apparently resulted in nerve damage which will require surgery.
The generator panel apparently wasn’t grounded correctly. In documents obtained by the Associated Press under the Freedom of Information Act, the FAA’s investigation of the incident revealed some electrical issues in Baltimore’s tower, which was built in 1960 and renovated in 1983. For instance, at least one cable used to direct electrical current to the ground had been accidentally cut during construction and was never repaired.
Although the FAA said in a statement that the accident was “the first of its kind in FAA history,” the agency was prompted to inspect over 400 towers across the nation for similar problems, especially the 200 or so that were built before 1978, when standards were put in place for airport lightning protection systems. They have set aside a budget of $400,000 to address the problems and work has already started at BWI, with plans for a new tower.
While this may have been the first lightning-related injury in FAA history, it’s certainly not the first time that lightning has struck and injured an air traffic controller. A controller at Newcastle International Airport (EGNT) in the U.K. was struck during an electrical storm on July 6, 2009. And, in 1986, a controller at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam was struck by a bolt which apparently left scorch marks on his clothing.
Bad weather that is accompanied by lightning can be challenging for pilots, but lightning itself is not a major threat to the aircraft. Even if it strikes an airborne plane, nothing usually happens. The problem is that these types of thunderstorms generate strong updrafts and downdrafts of air, and increase the risk of wind-shear. When a plane is low and slow (on takeoff and landing), strong downdrafts can push it to the ground. Thunderstorms can also interfere with radio transmissions.
Consequently, ground operations are suspended when a thunderstorm is within about 20 miles. This protects aircraft from a greater risk of flying through hail and strong turbulence. It also protects ground crews from injury.
Because they are usually the tallest things around, air traffic control towers have a good chance of being hit by lightning and are designed with this in mind. They are built with lightning rods and wiring that direct electrical current harmlessly into the ground. This not only protects the tower and equipment, but the controllers on the job inside.
Lightning protection systems are not foolproof, however, and Mother Nature occasionally wins:
FAA towers, and the controllers who work inside them, are responsible for the safety of nearly 1 billion passengers and flight crews, but, according to a January 9, 2013 by the American Meteorological Society, there are apparently no standardized lightning safety rules employed across the aviation industry.
In its 2013 budget report to Congress, the FAA indicated that, on average, America’s air traffic control towers are 26 years old and, in many cases, fail to meet today’s building requirements. In fact, 96 towers are over 41 to 50 years old, and 15 towers are over 50 years old. Many of them have water leaks; outdated heating, ventilating, and HVAC systems; and poor facility design.
While the FAA has invested billions of dollars in Next Generation Air Transportation Systems (NextGen) to handle increasingly higher levels of air traffic, the facilities that house those systems are deteriorating, and many FAA air traffic control facilities have exceeded their useful lives.
According to a December 15, 2008 FAA report, there is no process in place to ensure that there will be adequate funding for mounting facility maintenance needs. Budget shortfalls and NextGen system implementation delays have only made the problem worse.
Is air traffic control tower maintenance and repair something you think needs the FAA’s attention? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.