Sunday, November 01, 2020

One Boise air traffic controller slept, another reeked of marijuana. The Federal Aviation Administration sat on emails

NOVEMBER 01, 2020 04:00 AM

One night four years ago, the lone air traffic controller on duty on an overnight shift at the Boise Airport fell asleep. A second controller had left earlier only to return to the tower reeking of marijuana smoke.

An Air St. Luke’s helicopter pilot seeking to land at the airport, and a second pilot trying to take off, tried for more than five minutes to contract an air traffic controller. The pilots finally received permission from an airport grounds operation officer.

Today, the Federal Aviation Administration has still not fully explained what led to the breakdown that night in air-traffic control, a key part of the nation’s aviation-safety system. Nor has it said what happened to the two controllers.

The Idaho Statesman has been able to piece together some of what took place in those early morning hours of Saturday, November 19, 2016, from staffing logs and 313 emails the FAA released to the Statesman. They were released on Oct. 14 — 46 months after the newspaper filed a Freedom of Information Act request. The records are from FAA officials who looked into the incident.

The Boise Airport, operated by the city of Boise, never received an official report on the incident, though it was the city officer’s intervention that enabled the helicopters to land.

“The Boise Airport and the Federal Aviation Administration are separate agencies, and the airport has no authority over the FAA,” airport spokesperson Sean Briggs said by email.

The FAA would not disclose the controllers’ names, citing a personnel exemption in the public records law. Their names were blacked out throughout the emails provided to the Statesman.

Here’s what we know.


The two controllers began their shifts at 10:30 p.m. on Friday, November 18. One handled traffic in and out of the airport. The second one was assigned to flights arriving and leaving from Bozeman, Montana.

That time of night is fairly quiet, with only a few commercial flights between 10:30 p.m. and midnight. A schedule from November 18, 2016, showed seven flights scheduled to arrive between between 10:38 p.m. and 12:28 a.m. Nov. 19. The next flight wasn’t scheduled to arrive until 7:52 a.m.

Only one departure was scheduled before midnight, at 11:03 p.m. The next one wasn’t until 5:30 a.m.

At Bozeman, there were two commercial arrivals scheduled and no departures between 10:30 p.m. and 12:15 a.m.

The FAA emails explained that the controller handling the Bozeman traffic was allowed a break after the Bozeman air traffic control station shut down at 12:15 a.m. A memo written after the incident said “breaks should be of a reasonable duration” but did not specify how long reasonable was. It also said that “at no time” should one controller be left to work alone for an extended period.

However, under FAA rules, the controller was required to ask for permission from the other controller to leave the building.

“He was not asked, nor did he approve the absence of the second controller who left,” Holly Delay, the FAA tower manager, wrote in a Nov. 30, 2016, email to James Carter, an FAA labor and employee relations specialist.


Beginning about 1:30 a.m., Bruce Gard, an airport operations officer, drove across the airport’s taxiways and runways, checking for burned-out lights. He was initially able to speak to the lone controller in the tower, who gave him permission to enter those restricted areas. His last communication with the controller was at 2:14 a.m.

At 2:31 a.m., as Gard proceeded to another location, he could not reach the tower on either a ground operations frequency or a tower frequency.

Meanwhile, the Air St. Luke’s pilot coming from the downtown Boise hospital asked for permission to land but received no response. An Air St. Luke’s pilot leaving for Twin Falls could not reach the tower, either.

Gard tried to call the tower three times on his phone. He had another airport operations employee call by phone and radio, but that person was not able to raise anyone.

Gard pointed his pickup at the tower and flashed his lights, which he described as “extremely bright,” again with no response.

He then asked the operations employee to use an emergency line to contact the tower. That failed too. Gard asked the employee to notify Ada County emergency dispatchers to send police and fire units to the tower. He thought there may have been a medical emergency.

Meanwhile, Gard gave the pilots permission to land and depart.


Four Boise police officers were dispatched to the tower at 2:41 a.m. They arrived a few minutes later, followed by Gard.

Officer Andrew Morlock pressed a call button at the tower’s access gate but got no response. He flashed his patrol car spotlight at the tower several times. He turned on his overhead flashing blue and red lights, activated a siren and used an air horn. All to no avail, according to a report he filed later that day.

About 2:50 a.m., a four-door sedan with Idaho license plates pulled into the lot. The driver identified himself as an air traffic controller. He said he was returning to work after having gone home to eat. He said he had not been notified of any problem.

Morlock later wrote that the controller said he had spoken to the controller in the tower within the last 15 minutes, “even though no other attempt to contact him had been successful.”

The controller let the officers through a security gate and escorted them into the building.

Investigators later determined that the controller had been gone for 2-1/2 hours. Despite saying he had gone home to eat, the controller was evidently still hungry: He went into a ground-floor kitchen and grabbed a pizza box and a soda from a refrigerator.

Gard was incredulous.

“I stated ‘seriously, pizza with what is going on, pizza?’” Gard wrote. “And he stated, ‘What, it’s pizza.’”

The controller joined the officers and Gard in the elevator for the ride to the top of the 268-foot tower.

“We ascended the tower and while in the elevator and after exiting the elevator, I could smell the odor of marijuana coming from the heavier-set male,” Morlock wrote, referring to the controller. “The male’s demeanor appeared to be slow and confused as to what was going on.”

They found the second controller awake at his desk.

“He appeared to have just woken up, but I did not observe him sleeping,” Morlock wrote. “The male had a demeanor and drowsy facial expressions that is common with an individual that was just sleeping.”

The controller admitted he had fallen asleep.

“He kept saying ‘Everything is OK, man, everything is OK,’” Gard wrote in his report. “I and the officers questioned him on what happened, why he was not answering his radio and phone, and he would just state ‘everything is fine.’”

Gard asked the sleepy controller whether he realized Gard had given the Air St. Luke’s pilots permission to land and take off.

“This seemed to get his attention (and) he stated, ‘You did?’” Gard wrote.

Meanwhile, the heavy-set controller didn’t act worried.

“This whole time (he) was sitting and eating his pizza and drinking his pop and was not even fazed,” Gard wrote.


After the controllers went back to work, Gard said he heard one of them twice incorrectly identify two private planes by the wrong tail number. The pilots corrected the controller in both instances, Gard wrote.

It’s unclear from the report which controller it was. The man’s name was blacked out.

While that was going on, a second officer, Officer Shane Langton said he wandered around the tower in an attempt to smell marijuana again. He said in a report that he was 3 to 4 feet from both controllers but could not smell any marijuana.

After Gard and the officers rode the elevator down and walked out the building, they discussed what they had seen and smelled.

“They all at once stated, ‘Did you smell the pot on the pizza guy in the elevator?’” Gard wrote.

An unidentified tower employee, possibly one of the controllers, informed FAA managers that a controller had been unresponsive for about 20 minutes.


Later that morning, Sarah Demory, then-deputy director of airport operations for the Boise Airport, notified Holly Delay, the FAA tower manager in Boise, that police believed the one controller had been smoking marijuana. About 11 a.m., Delay emailed Christine Mellon, a Northwest FAA district manager in Renton, Washington.

“I feel at this point it would be important for us to substantiate through the police department if this ‘suspicious allegation’ is, in fact, true,” Delay wrote.

Delay questioned whether reports of the officers’ suspicions were accurate.

“I find it hard to believe that a policeman would ignore the fact that an individual was possibly impaired and allow them to return to work or duty without taking action,” she wrote.

After obtaining the police reports 20 days after the incident, on December 9, the Statesman reported that officers were unable to find any signs of marijuana on a table or in the trash on the tower’s ground floor. They took no further action to determine whether the controller was impaired.

Hayley Williams, spokesperson for the Boise Police Department, declined to say why officers did not conduct field sobriety tests.

“The information available about this incident is what was in the police report,” she wrote in an email.

It took the FAA four days after the incident to convene a hearing and order both controllers to submit to a drug test. The hearing took place after the FAA obtained reports from each of the Boise police officers detailing their suspicions.

Both controllers were tested, with the results coming back negative. The controllers cleared to return to duty on November 28.


The emails do not indicate whether either controller was disciplined.

The FAA previously said disclosure of any disciplinary action would be considered an invasion of the employees’ privacy. On October 20, the agency reiterated that policy.

A Boise controller policy manual at the time said that controllers were not allowed to leave the building during their shifts. A month after the incident, the FAA told its Boise controllers once again that they were not allowed to leave the tower during their shifts. In case of sickness or an emergency, an employee would be required to sign out and notify management by telephone.

The emails showed the FAA was concerned about press coverage. Several hours after the incident, Jeff Planty, vice president of technical operations for the FAA in Washington, D.C., asked if there had been any media inquiries in an email sent to Peter Abbey, an FAA air traffic manager in Renton, Washington.

At the time, there had been no inquiries. The Statesman received a tip two days later and broke the story on November 22, 2016.

On November 30, 2016, Mellon wrote to Delay, the tower manager, asking what the Boise tower’s midnight shift policy was and whether she believed there was a violation. Mellon said the information would be provided to the FAA’s public affairs office, but no statement was ever provided to the Statesman or other media.

The only information provided to the Statesman was that the matter was under investigation and that the controllers had passed the drug tests.

On December 6, 2016, Delay sent an email to Mellon and other FAA officials informing them the investigation was completed.


On December 9, 2016, the Boise Police Department released the police reports of the tower incident following a public records request by the Statesman. Earlier that day, an FAA lawyer in Los Angeles, Lierre Green, wrote to other FAA officials saying that the city of Boise had notified her of the impending release.

“I am working ... to see if there is any way we can stop the release,” Green wrote.

Her efforts failed, and the Statesman that day reported the allegations that one controller fell asleep and the other smelled of marijuana.

Despite Delay’s message that the investigation was complete, the agency maintained on December 10 that it was still ongoing, according to an email from the Statesman from Ian Gregor, an FAA spokesperson in El Segundo, California.

On Dec. 13, acting Boise Airport Radar Manager Frederick Wilson emailed Delay a copy of the Statesman’s Dec. 9 story.

“The printed articles continue to prompt questions and comments from family, friends and neighbors to our Tech Ops folks,” Wilson wrote. “I imagine it is bad for your folks, too.”

The Statesman filed its Freedom of Information Act request on December 12, 2016. The federal Freedom of Information Act gives agencies 20 working days to respond to records requests, though they can often take an extra 10 days, and the FAA said it would.

But the law does not penalize agencies or their employees for delays; citizens must sue. The FAA has not explained why it took nearly four years to comply with the request.

In a statement October 20, the FAA said it addressed the incident “at the Boise control tower in accordance with standard agency processes and policies.”

The FAA said it continues to require two controllers to work overnight shifts together, and it reinforced the importance of following this policy with its Boise workers.

“As a general practice, FAA air traffic managers review data and monitor our air traffic facilities, including during the overnight shift, to ensure policies are being followed,” the statement said.


How we did this story

Why did we write this story?

The Federal Aviation Administration never has explained what happened when no one was in command at the Boise Airport air traffic control tower during a 20-minute period on November 19, 2016. The only information provided by the agency was that the incident was under investigation. It would not say whether the two controllers were disciplined, saying it would be an invasion of their privacy.

What were we trying to do?

We wanted to go beyond what was contained in Boise Police Department reports on the incident and determine whether the two controllers were disciplined and what steps were taken by the agency in records alight of what happened.

How did we report it?

Business reporter John Sowell filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the FAA on December 12, 2016. Agencies have 20 working days to respond to records requests, but the FAA asked for an additional 10 days to collect the records. They were never delivered. On February 10, 2020, the FAA contacted Sowell and asked whether he was still interested in obtaining the records. He said yes. They were finally delivered on a CD received by the Statesman on October 14. There was no explanation of the delay. The records blacked out the names of the two controllers whenever they were mentioned. The records mentioned reports submitted by the two controllers under a program meant to resolve safety issues, but the FAA did not include them.


  1. The FAA could certainly disclose the actions they took without releasing names, making invasion of privacy impossible. The e-mails do seem to illustrate that the government will only operate to standards if media catch them not doing so and start reporting on it. Studies have shown for years that the FAA needs to implement on-site sleep breaks for controllers out of safety considerations. They have steadfastly refused, not yet rising to the level of common sense found among firefighters, and others. I suspect most pilots would much prefer to be working with alert controllers who are able to get a sleep break if needed, especially when they are working overnight shifts. Pitting biology against safety is not especially bright.

    1. "Pitting biology against safety is not especially bright."
      Bravo. Well said.

  2. I worked a lot of midnight shifts in the Border Patrol. Staying awake when it's busy is not a problem but when it slows to a crawl or stops, as it did in heavy pea-soup fog, staying awake is hard. Very hard. The Z monster will get you no matter how much bad coffee you drink.

  3. I find the reaction of the FAA to be completely consistent with the official response I expect of the FAA and other federal agencies (in particular the DOJ, FBI, IRS, and DHS). If any of these agencies are concerned that a press release could harm their image, they need not be; that ship has not only sailed, it has also sunk.

  4. We have the technology. Surveillance cameras with lights and horns that can be activated remotely, IN THE TOWER CAB. Problem solved.

    1. Can't anyone see this is part of the SWAMP that President Trump is trying to cleanup The FAA,FBI,DOJ ECT..?? That is such BS the one controller stated about the Z monster .... Come on, you guys are suppose to be professionals !! SLEEP ON YOUR OWN TIME !!!!!! I have worked 3rd shift 11pm to 7am Go home and get your 8 hrs of continuous sleep !! TAKE YOUR JOB SERIOUSLY !!!!!!