Air traffic

Alarming: Quito Airport Air Traffic Control Audio

I’m not sure exactly what’s going on here, but it’s certainly concerning. If you’re not an avgeek, skip this post, but I know a lot of us find things like this interesting.

The Quito air traffic controller is beside himself

VASAviation has air traffic control audio from a recent night at Quito Airport (UIO), where controller communications were rather alarming:

  • An airline pilot reported this situation, saying the aviation authorities in Ecuador were trying to cover up this incident, rather than investigate it (I can’t comment on one way or another)
  • The approximately nine-minute video contains communications that took place over a two-hour period, but periods of no communications are removed; it was late at night, around midnight
  • The controller in question is responsible for the ground, tower and approach (it looks like they are performing a skeleton operation at this time of night, despite the fact that there are several flights to and from the United States at that time)
  • If you don’t speak Spanish, I recommend starting the video around 80 seconds, which is when communication is mostly with American, Delta and United pilots; controller communication is gradually deteriorating, and if you just want to hear the worst, watch the last two minutes

You can watch the video for yourself below, which has audio, as well as subtitles (which you really need).

What’s going on with the air traffic controller?

Those familiar with listening to air traffic control audio will probably easily recognize how “off” the controller’s communication sounds. It goes without saying that there are sometimes language barriers, but it goes far beyond that.

For those who don’t usually listen to air traffic control audio, here are some of the things that are unusual about this communication:

  • The controller mumbles and articulates his words, and repeatedly has to correct his instructions (which happens in moderation, but not at this level)
  • When a Delta pilot requests taxi clearance, the controller appears to give takeoff clearance multiple times instead, which is not what was requested
  • The controller repeatedly tells the pilots to contact another frequency (118.35), when in reality that is the frequency he is on
  • A United pilot must repeatedly request a shout and an altitude; at this point, the controller gives him a take-off clearance for the runway, rather than a flight clearance

Something seems wrong, but no one knows what. It is suggested that the controller may have been drunk – I don’t think we have enough information to draw that conclusion. It’s also possible that he’s just incredibly exhausted, that he had some sort of health condition that caused him to act in unusual ways, that he was on medication that had side effects, and so on.

Either way, I don’t think any airline pilot would feel terribly confident leaning on someone like that for instructions.

At the end of the line

Air traffic control audio from a night shift at Quito airport has been uploaded, and the communications are startling. Obviously something is wrong with the controller, so hopefully this incident will be properly investigated.

What do you think of this ATC audio from Ecuador?