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Jetliner Lands Without Guidance After Controller Apparently Fell Asleep

May 7, 1993

MIAMI (AP) _ The lone air controller at Palm Beach International Airport fell asleep in the tower, forcing a jetliner to land without guidance, authorities said Thursday.

Delta Air Lines Flight 198 landed safely with 42 passengers aboard during the April 29 incident, officials said.

Three private planes flying over the area reported they also were unable to contact the tower over the 39-minute span, Federal Aviation Administration regional spokeswoman Anne Eldridge said in Atlanta.

When police entered the tower at 1:40 a.m., they found air traffic controller Rodney Tatum, 36, shoeless and apparently just waking up, said Palm Beach Sheriff’s Sgt. Bruce Barkdoll.

″Rodney Tatum said that he had fallen asleep,″ Barkdoll wrote.

Barkdoll said a gun and ammunition were on the table near Tatum. A nearby kit indicated he may have been cleaning the pistol, Barkdoll said.

It is against regulations to have a weapon in the control tower, Eldridge said.

She said her agency, which is in charge of the tower and its employees, is investigating. It could be several weeks before the report is completed.

Meanwhile, the controller remains on the job.

″He is still working at the tower, and as far as I know, he is working the same schedule,″ Eldridge said.

The tower referred all calls for Tatum to the FAA. His home number is unlisted.

The FAA refused to release details of the controller’s work history.

Delta pilot Capt. D. Grunkemeyer said he was unable to raise the tower as he approached Palm Beach on the final leg of the flight, which originated in Sacramento, Calif., with stops in Dallas and Fort Lauderdale.

Grunkemeyer circled the airport while trying to reach the airport, Delta said.

″After determining that no response was forthcoming, the pilot began broadcasting in the blind so all other pilots in the area could hear he was going to be treating the airport as uncontrolled,″ said Delta spokesman Clay McConnell.

Grunkemeyer called the Miami and Fort Lauderdale towers, which in turn notified Palm Beach authorities.

″They were extremely concerned because several aircraft had to fly through and in air control space without benefit of his assistance,″ Deputy Tyler Watts said in his report.

The report said a private plane was on a taxiway as Flight 198 was landing. The FAA would not comfirm that. The airport has only one runway.

Deputies surrounded the tower in squad cars - lights flashing - and aimed spotlights on the tower windows, but without success.

They then asked the FAA for the access code to the electronic lock on the tower’s front door, and entered to find Tatum just waking up.

″Rodney Tatum began taking telephone calls from his FAA supervisors,″ Barkdoll said. ″The conversations appeared to be very intense.″

Eldridge said several attempts had been made to telphone the controller before authorities arrived, ″but exact details can’t be released at least at this time.″

Police said there was no indication Tatum was drunk or on drugs. No charges were filed.

Eldridge said it is not unusual for one controller to be in the tower at some airports during slow morning hours. Tatum was on the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift, during which about 20 planes either take off or land, she said.

Airport director Bruce Pelly defended the airport, saying the Palm Beach tower has been designated the best in the Southeast.

″An individual in the tower apparently fell asleep. There were no real problems as a result of that,″ Pelly said. ″It’s obviously unfortunate from our standpoint that the actions of one individual reflect on what is generally a very good group.″

Eldridge said she only knew of one similar incident in her region. A controller fell asleep in Raleigh, N.C., in 1989, and was suspended.

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