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05 March 2010

Letting kids talk on ATC radio not smart, but also not dangerous

Last month, an air traffic controller on two occasions brought a child to work at the control tower at JFK Airport in New York and allowed the child to radio instructions to pilots. By now you have probably heard the exchange between one of the children and a jet on the ground at JFK. Clearly, having a child talking to an aircraft is out of bounds, and the FAA has responded by suspending both the controller and the controllers supervisor pending an investigation of the incident. Like the deliberate crash in Austin and the accidental crash in East Palo Alto discussed previously by and, audio played an unexpected role in the JFK incident.

Air traffic control transmissions and

Unlike cockpit voice recordings, which are rarely released to public, transmissions between aircraft and air traffic control can be heard by anyone with the proper equipment. In the old days, one had to be in the local area with a specialized video. Today, thanks to the Internet and a worldwide network of enthusiasts, it is easy to listen to just about any air traffic control transmission. In the last few weeks, one web site,, has provided the public with recordings of one of the two children at JFK, and the eerily normal conversation the Austin suicide pilot had with ATC shortly before his death. The simple lesson is that any conversation with ATC can be recorded, and if the recording is particularly controversial, it will be widely available to the entire world.

Access differences between cockpits and control towers
Access to airline cockpits and air traffic control towers in the US are subject to many restrictions, with airliner cockpit access being extremely restricted during all phases of flight, and it is very difficult for anyone other than crew member or government official. Control towers on the other hand don't have severe restrictions, and having visitors in the control tower or other ATC facility is a common occurrence.

How dangerous was it to have a child on the radio?
The JFK incident, although good for a few scary headlines, was a clear violation of the rules, but probably not a violation that put aircraft at risk. The child was apparently having a routine conversation with an aircraft that was on the ground, with the air traffic controller directing what the child said. There was no indication that the pilots were told to do anything that was in any way risky.

Is audio surveillance a good thing?
Had the JFK incident happened 15 years ago, it is very likely that anyone other than the the pilots and air traffic controllers tuned to that frequency would have heard it. If the public found out about it, it would not have been through a recording, but through a second or third hand story that would likely escape the attention of the mainstream media.

In contrast with the past, the future will likely have more, and not less private audio surveillance from the likes of If you are a pilot or air traffic controller, the safe assumption is that anything that gets broadcast can be recorded. Given the ongoing improvements in computers, storage, and search technology, it would be safe to assume that one day transmissions would not only be recorded, but also accessible and searchable online.

Whether this kind of surveillance is good or bad isn't important. It is a reality that is happening now, and will likely continue to happen in the future. Given these trends, the best advice to any pilot or air traffic controller is to be careful of what you say on the air.

Audio of both incidents on February 16 and 17th
The the following video, courtesy of has audio from both days. Day two starts at around the three minute mark. Clear space is edited out. The radio scanner that recorded the audio clips the audio between both tower channels as it's recorded, so not every word exists on this audio recording. This is the reason for missing audio in some sentences.


  1. I am a airline pilot retired after 36 years on the job.
    The air traffic controler at JFK was at all times in control of the tower frequency, even if his young son was doing the talking.
    I can't see where was the danger.

  2. Are you kidding, not dangerous for a kid to provide ATC take-off clearances? What is wrong with people who are saying this. It is incredibly stupid, incredibly dangerous, and if I was a pilot, I would NEVER accept a clearance from a kid. How did this pilot know whether this was a legitimate clearance or some kid pulling a prank with a radio on an aircraft, perhaps their father's GA aircraft? Come on...controllers work years to handle these complex scenarios correctly. One slip, or distraction, and everything could go south quickly, particularly in an emergency split second...

    Any pilot would be an idiot to accept such a clearance...with all the talk about runway incursions and ...well, if you have already said this on your web site, I doubt I will change your mind.

    I am not happy about what this controller and HIS SUPERVISOR did. It was incredibly irresponsible and the pilots involved should also be reprimanded. A control tower is not a place for a child , particularly in light of the distractions it might bring to other controllers thinking "isn't that cute". Good grief, what were they thinking....what are you thinking as a safety professional?

    At the most, I might accept a child listening in on ATC traffic conversations BUT NEVER talking and accomplishing actual runway clearances. But especially in JFK, one of the busiest east coast ATC corridors and towers...geez, they should be fired for such a lapse in judgment.

    So let's say I work in construction and my company is building a hi-rise building. I am a crane operator so I let my son or daughter sit in and work the many lives am I putting at stake? Let's say I am a police officer, will I let my kid drive the car? Or handle a police radio?

    There are just some things that should not be done. Bring your child to work is fine and a positive thing for kids. Let them look but do not let them do safety sensitive jobs....ever! Would you let your 10 year old drive your car? Oh, wait, they have dual controls on driver training vehicles...would you still let your 10 year old kid drive a driver training car in traffic? is ILLEGAL!

    What has happened to logic in the U.S. I hope you'll reconsider your position.

    "Asking me to overlook a simple safety violation is asking me to compromise my entire attitude toward the value of your life" Unknown author.

    My rant, for what it is worth.

    - Dave

  3. Wow Dave!

    And what a rant it was, Dave! Obviously you are not a pilot. The pilot takes instructions from the ATC, not orders. If you listen to the tapes, it is obvious that the pilots realize that a father has brought his child to work, and appear to be happy about the incident, one pilot even lamenting that wishes that he could take his children to see were he works. If the pilots were concerned that any instructions were not clear or even dangerous, they would have been asking for clarifications. Do you really think a commercial pilot is not intelligent enough to have understood what was going on? I guess along your lines of thinking, all the pilots who followed the instructions of a child should be grounded too, right?

    Any air traffic controller should be proud of his job, and any father would want his kids to know that his job is important. I think it was a great way to give the kids a glimpse into what their father does for a living. I agree with There was never any danger to pilots or passengers. Give the guy a break. My dad took me to work with him several times when I was a kid. Those are some of the best memories of my life. Have you ever been in the bomb bay of a B52? Or sat in the cockpit of an F4? I have, because my dad took a bit of time for his kids.

  4. Although I understand the child was under the supervision of an experienced air traffic controller it was still a serious safety violation. The memory of the Aeroflot A310 crush a few years ago because the pilot let his son handle the plane full of fare paying passengers is still very fresh

    George Frangos,
    Nicosia, Cyprus

  5. Hi all,
    Being a good father and being professional should not be mixed up...I have no right endanger safety of lives and property through my acts John, you sure had a great time in B52 & a F4 but what about the sons who lost their dad's in the Aeroflot crash..

    I think has got it's logic mixed up....You need to look at it from the Safety Management point of view, not for a pilot's or controller's angle ...If anything can go wrong it will !! We need to ensure it doesn't.

  6. It's not a matter whether it was dangerous or whether the kid was under supervision or not. It a matter of a total lack of professionalism on the part of the father and his supervisor.

    If they are going to be OK with letting someones kids be a distraction in the tower, why not let the controller come into work after having a few stiff drinks, or maybe take a nap, or ignore his duties because he is texting his wife or surfing the net.

    These people are supposed be highly trained professionals, not bringing their kids to work to play at being "air traffic controllers". For ever one Sully Sullenberger, there's a hundred unprofessional idiots.


  7. I understand the sensationalism of this story and it is a subject so powerful, we are hyper paranoid about all issues aviation. But, from the many comments I've seen, all pilots and aviation workers have repeatedly stated there was never any risk. I believe that this ATC used his professionalism to ensure this. The instructions that were sent out were routine, the pilot was very aware of what was happening and was perfectly fine with it, even enjoying it. Policy will be implemented now to insure that this never happens again, but the ATC does not deserve punishment...I applaud him for being a good dad!

  8. s a former Air Traffic Controller and Supervisor and Tower Chief this is my take on the incident. I also brought my son to my Tracon to LISTEN and WATCH to what Dad was doing during a busy IFR session when I was working Final Vector (Busiest position in the room). Before taking the position I disabled the mic on the headset he was wearing and told him he could only talk to me when I turned my head and looked at him. He listened and watched for an hour+ and loved it. He went on to become an aerospace eigineer and had an experiment on the Discovery spacecraft. While it is true that Air Carrier pilots generally know what the next transmission a controller is going to make to them AND he/she must decide whether or not to execute that instruction there are different types of transmissions,Transfer of Control Instructions and Control instructions. "Delta 123, Contact departure Control, Adios" is Transfer of Control, Delta 123 Cleared for Takeoff is not, it is a Control Instuction that involves separation and is not to be taken lightly, that is my main objection to this scenario. The second one is hearing a different voice between transmissions especially a child's. Anyone can buy a VHF Transciever and transmit on that freq. band.I used to tell new guys "Just remember every word you say (radio or landline)is recorded and anyone with a VHF radio can listen to what going on.
    Enough for now but you pays ya money and ya takes ya chances, good luck to the controller and the supe.

  9. I cant believe that the extent to which people will go to justify something that is obviously wrong. We're talking about safety guys, not somethings that's nice to do. Was the controller given any security training at all? The way we usually view occurances is very narrow, real sad it is. Creating a beautiful memory for a kid that could, very easily and quickly turn out to be a nightmare for the world is not responsible behaviour. Then again why complain? we're living in a world of throw away morality and misplaced values.