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Wednesday, April 7, 2010 as of 11:14 AM ET



Kids at JFK Clear Takeoffs?

March 3, 2010 - 11:46 AM | by: Eric Shawn

When does cute not cut it?

A child, or even two, clearing airliners for takeoff from John F. Kennedy International airport is shocking many today. On the tower tapes a child is heard, using correct air traffic control lingo, clearing a Jet Blue and an AeroMexico flight as they depart J.F.K.

Child: “Jet Blue 171, clear for takeoff.”

Pilot: “Clear for takeoff, Jet Blue 171.”

Child: “Jet Blue 171, contact departure.”

Pilot: “Over to departure, Jet Blue 171, awesome job.”

Child: “Aeromex 403, contact departure, Adios.”

Pilot: “Contact departure, Aeromexico 403, Adios.”

What you can hear is an apparent controller laughing and telling the pilots: “That’s what you get, guys, when the kids are out of school.”

The youngster was reportedly in the control tower on February 17th, two weeks ago today, during the Presidents’ Day holiday week when many New York area schools were on vacation, and now it turns out he wasn’t the only one. The F.A.A. says a controller brought his young son into the tower on the first night, and then brought another youngster the next evening . The unidentified controller has been suspended.

The F.A.A. has launched an investigation but the incident is clearly an embarrassment and also shocking for the lack of judgment by aviation professionals, even if the experienced controllers were standing over the child, including,  presumably, the father.

“This is totally unprofessional and stupid,” one retired air traffic controller who had worked for many years in the J.F.K. tower told me. “You don’t do this type of behavior. There’s a supervisor in the tower, this is not what you do,” he said.

Only certified air traffic controllers are supposed to be in towers, but as anyone who works in an office knows, friends and family can sometimes tag along to work but it’s a different story when the job requires guiding airliners full of passengers into the sky.

Some are saying the incident is being blown out of proportion, since the youngster was repeating standard, routine directions to pilots, with the adults presumably alongside the children.

“That’s not the point,” aviation lawyer Doug Latto told Fox News. His firm, Baumeister and Samuels, one of the premier aviation law firms in the country, represents victims of last August’s mid-air collision over the Hudson River in New York between a small plane and a helicopter. Nine people were killed.

“I think this is awful,” says Latto. “Controllers in their air traffic control manual are required to eliminate distractions and obviously this was a distraction. Unfortunately we’ve seen controller distraction result in aviation accidents.”

Latto says in the August mid-air crash, “a controller was on the phone with his girlfriend while simultaneously directing traffic,” even as the small plane and helicopter were under visual flight rules.

In August of 2006, 49 passengers and the crew of Delta Comair flight 5191, a small commuter jet, took off from the wrong runway just after 6 in the morning in Lexington, Kentucky. The pilots didn’t notice the runway was too short, and the controller in the tower had turned his back to do administration duties as the jetliner barreled down its fatal path, not realizing the pilots’ mistake.

Fortunately, nothing of that sort happened with the youngster behind the J.F.K. tower microphone. The pilots seemed to get a kick out of having a kid bid them goodbye, exclaiming: “awesome job.”

The FAA sees it otherwise, saying in a statement: “Pending the outcome of our investigation, the employees involved in this incident are not controlling air traffic….This behavior is not acceptable.”

Doug Church, spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said in a statement: “We do not condone this type of behavior in any way. It is not indicative of the highest professional standards that controllers set for themselves and exceed each and every day in the advancement of aviation safety.”

Maine Republican Senator Olympia Snowe, a member of the Senate Subcommittee on Aviation, Operations, Safety and Security, called it “suprising and stunning.” She thinks there should be a Congressional investigation because “you are talking about people’s lives and their saftey is at stake…this is an issue that must be treated very seriously.”

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