Boise & Garden City

Investigation of Boise airport tower silence may include if FAA staffing rules violated

A plane takes off from the Boise Airport early on Sept. 28, 2016
A plane takes off from the Boise Airport early on Sept. 28, 2016 Idaho Statesman file

On the morning a Boise Airport air traffic controller fell asleep at his console, a second controller left the tower building in a possible violation of Federal Aviation Administration rules, according to documents released Friday by the city of Boise.

Police who responded to a call for a welfare check on Nov. 19 encountered a man who drove in behind them, identified himself as a controller and provided them with access to the tower’s gated parking lot and to the building.

It was unclear in previous reports provided to the Idaho Statesman whether the controller was already on duty or whether he was reporting for work that day.

In an email that morning from Boise Police Lt. Brett Quilter to Chief Bill Bones and other senior commanders, Quilter said there were supposed to be two controllers in the tower “at all times.”

That’s not an ironclad rule, FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said Friday.

“There are provisions that allow one controller to be in a tower cab under certain circumstances,” Gregor said, referring to the main control room at the top of the tower. “We are still investigating the Nov. 19 incident and cannot comment on the specifics of it until it is complete,” Gregor said.

FAA regulations require controllers to remain in the building because they could be called back even when they’re on a break or eating a meal.

The documents included emails among police officials, airport managers, FAA investigators and city officials. They clarified that pilots of two air ambulance helicopters had to approach the airport and land without assistance from air traffic controllers. Previous reports said two Air St. Luke’s pilots, one coming to the airport and one leaving, called out their positions on the radio to alert any other aircraft in the area.

The documents revealed that a Lifeflight helicopter also landed at the airport shortly after 2:30 a.m.

No incidents were reported as a result of the pilots being unable to contact the controllers, who handle takeoffs and landings for both the Boise Airport and Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport in Montana.

When were drug tests done?

Four Boise police officers who responded to the tower said they smelled marijuana as they took the elevator to the top of the tower. They said the controller who accompanied them appeared “slow and confused as to what was going on.”

When they reached the tower, the second controller seemed groggy and sluggish, police said. That controller admitted he fell asleep.

Last week, Gregor said both controllers were tested for drugs and the test results came back negative. The FAA has not said when those tests were administered.

In a Nov. 29 email to Patricia Pausch, an FAA security official in Washington, D.C., Airport Manager Rebecca Hupp expressed concern that the FAA had not filed a request for police reports, airport records or a timeline of events. She also mentioned the need for drug tests.

“The Boise Airport has a vested interest in ensuring reasonable suspicion testing is completed in a timely manner and that the proper process is followed. Time is of the essence,” Hupp wrote.

The city notified an FAA investigator on Dec. 2 that it had received the agency’s records request. The documents released Friday contain no followup reference to drug testing.

John Sowell: 208-377-6423, @IDS_Sowell