I watched this video:

where a Las Vegas controller is on duty alone and suffers a stroke.

The pilots become quite uncomfortable with the situation and basically everything is stopped. Someone finally calls the company and gets them to check up on the controller. Fortunately it was not that busy, and no other emergency emerged.

What else could the pilots have done to remedy the situation?

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    $\begingroup$ I thought controllers (as pilots) didn't work alone (to ensure redundancy) $\endgroup$
    – Manu H
    Commented Sep 18, 2019 at 11:01
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    $\begingroup$ @ManuH Well in this case obviously nobody was there to help her or notice that anything was off. One pilot even asked for her supervisor, but was struck with silence. $\endgroup$
    – Christian
    Commented Sep 18, 2019 at 11:26
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    $\begingroup$ That's scary. I felt so sorry for the controller. Hope she got well. $\endgroup$
    – PerlDuck
    Commented Sep 18, 2019 at 18:08
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    $\begingroup$ @ManuH sometimes during quiet hours there are only 2 people in the tower. One of them goes to the toilet or gets to grab some coffee, leaves the other alone for a few minutes. That's what caused a midair over Germany... $\endgroup$
    – jwenting
    Commented Sep 19, 2019 at 5:26
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    $\begingroup$ @PeterA.Schneider CPR does no good in case of strokes. $\endgroup$
    – Christian
    Commented Sep 19, 2019 at 7:32

3 Answers 3


In theory, if the lone tower controller is incapacitated, the airport is no longer controlled and pilots should use the standard procedures for uncontrolled airports, i.e. making traffic calls on CTAF.

In the KLAS case, the pilots had every reason to expect the tower to be open, and rather than getting no response, they were getting unintelligible gibberish. As a result, their reactions varied.

If the situation had persisted, one of them would have notified Las Vegas Approach, who in turn would have started advising pilots of the uncontrolled field ("change to advisory" rather than "contact tower"), and everything would have proceeded fairly normally. Since it happened at night, traffic volumes were low enough that CTAF would have worked okay, which is probably why only one controller was on duty in the first place.

However, a supervisor was in the tower on break at the time, just not in the cab, so he was able to take over relatively quickly and resume normal operations before that actually happened.


There's not much else they can do in a situation like this. ATC, in this case the tower controller is the only person(instance) that has a comprehensive enough view (both literally and metaphorically) of the situation to give orders, clearances etc.

What the pilots can and will do in a case like this, is proceed according to their last clearance. If you are cleared to land, you land. If you were cleared to taxi somewhere, you taxi untill you reach the clearance limit (typically a holding point, gate, or place at apron) and so on.

When you reach the clearance limit, if you want to proceed you ask for further advice/clearance. After landing you would vacate the runway, then ask for taxi instructions (if none were automatically given). If you were taxiing for takeoff, and reach, say, a holdingpoint, you'd tell ATC you are ready for takeoff at that holdingpoint. If you are on approach, but not cleared for landing, you obviously have no other option but to conduct a missed aproach as per published procedure.

When you reach your clearance limit and you don't hear anything from ATC, or as in the video, the communication is incomprehensible, you simply stop and wait (or go around) and keep trying to communicate with ATC. And as in the video, if this situation persists, you try establish communications with someone else who can check the status of the ATC.

One should keep in mind that despite having an ATC control your movements, as a pilot you still have to maintain an alert lookout. You allways have to be aware of what is happening around you, by looking out, listening to radio communications etc. Someone might have misheard/-understood their clearance or act unexpectedly for any other reason, and you have to be "awake" and ready to adjust your actions.

*Edit: I'll take the liberty to add some hindsight here. From the very beginning of the recording it is dead obvious there is something wrong with the controller. Even without seeing her, it's pretty clear she's either under the influence, or having a stroke, latter of which she was. It's kind of disturbing that none of the flightcrews either recognized this, or if they did, decided to let it go (at least one obviously did notice the gibberishly speech and made a remark about comedy or something). It's also weird that the controller kept on working throughout the stroke, but I'm guessing the stroke had impaired her judgement.

So: if you ever encounter someone speaking like that, check out what it's about. You might end up saving that someone's life.*

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    $\begingroup$ I was wondering about why the pilots took so long to send someone there. The probably all had cell phone coverage. I guess it's because ATC usually gives commands, and one does not question the authorities. $\endgroup$
    – Christian
    Commented Sep 18, 2019 at 20:12
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    $\begingroup$ @Christian Almost any pilot has access to multiple radios, often configurable in a dual-receive configuration. Unaugmented, cellphones have problems at altitude and high speed. The pilots have easy access to the frequencies for Approach (or the corresponding service in other areas); they either just spoke to them or expect to speak to them soon. (ATC giving the frequency during handover serves more as a sanity check.) It would be more reasonable for the pilot handling the radios to just switch frequencies and keep monitoring Tower for a minute to alert e.g. Approach than to use a cellphone. $\endgroup$
    – user
    Commented Sep 19, 2019 at 9:41
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    $\begingroup$ @Christian As for "one does not question the authorities", it is well within the purview of a pilot to reject a clearance and ask for a different one, if they feel the clearance they received would somehow be unsafe. If ATC tells a pilot "climb and maintain (FL) 430", but the pilot knows that their airplane at its current weight can only maintain up to 390, they are well within their rights to say something like "unable, require 390 or below due to weight". The controller will then issue a different one; maybe "left turn to 220 for separation, climb and maintain 370, expect turn to 240". $\endgroup$
    – user
    Commented Sep 19, 2019 at 11:44
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    $\begingroup$ @Christian I haven't watched the video, but as a pilot you certainly can relay through another aircraft if necessary. So if Delta 9876 can't raise Springfield Approach on their own, a next step might be to switch to an appropriate frequency, listen for an appropriate flight, and transmit something like "Southwest 123, Delta 9876, are you able to relay to Springfield Approach?". Indeed if you're on the ground and not moving, then a cell phone might also be a reasonable alternative, assuming you have the phone number for Approach! $\endgroup$
    – user
    Commented Sep 19, 2019 at 11:47
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    $\begingroup$ If the controller sounded like the one on the video, 911 would be a viable option when dialing. There are actually some psycological reasons why nobody called 911 in this case, but they would be a subject of a whole new question... $\endgroup$
    – Jpe61
    Commented Sep 19, 2019 at 12:01

There was a case in DCA (Reagan National, near Washington, DC) of the lone controller at night falling asleep. In that case Washington Approach declared the airport uncontrolled and took over the tower frequencies. At least one flight landed without receiving clearance from the (asleep) controller.


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