WASHINGTON – A lightning strike that injured an air traffic controller at Baltimore's main airport has exposed a potential vulnerability at airport towers during storms and is prompting Federal Aviation Administration officials to inspect hundreds of towers nationwide, The Associated Press has learned.
The FAA will be looking for problems with the lightning protection systems for airport towers, where air traffic controllers do the vital job of choreographing the landings and takeoffs of tens of thousands of flights each day.
The FAA told the AP about the planned assessments of the towers' lightning protection systems after responding to a Freedom of Information Act request about the Sept. 12, 2013, lightning strike at the Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.
FAA said in a statement that the accident was "the first of its kind in FAA history," and the agency plans on "assessing the condition" of lightning protection systems at the 440 air traffic control towers it is responsible for across the country. In particular, the agency said it will examine lightning protection at more than 200 towers that were built prior to 1978, when the FAA first issued standards for the protection systems.
Because of their height, airport towers have a greater chance of being struck by lightning, and tower designers plan for the bolts. Towers are built with lightning rods and wiring to direct the electrical current from a strike harmlessly into the ground. That protects the tower and equipment from damage and protects the air traffic controllers working inside.
But the system in place at BWI's airport tower failed last Sept. 12 during an afternoon thunderstorm. As lightning flashed and a wall of rain moved in, air traffic controller Edward Boyd, who was working in the tower, saw sparks and heard an electrical snap coming from a piece of equipment that controls runway lighting.
A few minutes later, he turned on a generator to ensure the airport's runway lighting stayed on, part of a standard procedure during a storm. Boyd had his right hand on the generator switch when he saw lightning flash outside and felt a shock on his ring finger.
"It basically felt like somebody had whacked me on the tip of the finger with a tool of some kind," he said during a recent interview, describing a stinging sensation.
Boyd, an air traffic controller for more than 30 years, dropped to one knee and told colleagues: "I got hit."
Boyd was taken to the hospital and wasn't allowed to return to work for about two months. He says lingering nerve problems in his hand will require surgery, and he called the incident a "fluke."
John Dunkerly, president of BWI's chapter of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said he had never heard of a similar incident in his more than 30 years in air traffic control.
Air traffic controllers ultimately stopped all arrivals and departures at the airport, one of the nation's 30 busiest, for more than two hours because of concerns about the tower's safety. More than 100 flights were canceled and around 75 delayed that afternoon and evening, according to the flight tracking service FlightAware.
Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act showed that an investigation after the strike identified several electrical issues in Baltimore's tower, which was built in 1960 and renovated in 1983. For example, one cable designed to take electrical current from a lightning strike to the ground had been cut during construction at the airport, probably years ago.
Chuck Graves, who heads the FAA office that oversees airport towers' lightning protection, wrote in an email to colleagues that given the "demonstrated vulnerability of the facility," the tower's lightning protection systems should be overhauled.
The FAA told the AP it has approved $400,000 to address the tower's lightning protection systems. Preliminary work started there this week.
The FAA is also working on replacing the tower itself. The agency said in 2013 that officials had begun preliminary planning for a new tower at the airport, and the FAA has a program in place to replace aging facilities. On average, air traffic control towers are 26 years old and in many cases, they do not meet today's building requirements, the FAA said in a 2013 budget document submitted to Congress.
As for the assessments of other towers, it is not clear when those will begin. FAA spokesman Lynn Lunsford said they are now in the planning stages. Assessments of older towers and towers at airports where there is a lot of construction will likely take priority, and once the assessments are completed, the agency may need to request additional money to do repairs, Lunsford said.