Following up the story I posted earlier this week where a United Expressjet flight from Peoria, Illinois had made an emergency landing at Denver, it was revealed today that the Air Traffic Controller in charge of the flight had initially dismissed the aircraft’s emergency call as a prank. Apparently prank calls are problematic because anyone with a two-way radio with aviation frequency ability can call in an emergency if they are in range of an airport. I personally have one of these radios and can attest that this is completely possible. When I was learning to fly, I always carried this kind of radio as a back up in my flight bag.

In today’s story from the Associated Press(AP), it was discovered that there was a fair amount of confusion in the communication between ATC and the aircraft. The pilot had called in a “smoke in the cockpit” emergency and requested emergency clearance. When ATC tried to confirm the details, it apparently used a different flight number that led to the confusion. Which then led to the assumption that it was a phony call.

Fortunately the aircraft did make a safe landing and only one passenger needed to be taken to a hospital. This story definitely puts into the spotlight the risks that exist in clear communications between aircraft and ATC, not to mention the potential for a 3rd party to wreak havoc by interfering with aircraft and controllers on the ground.

Here is the AP article:

DENVER (AP) — The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating after an air traffic controller was accused of ignoring a request for an emergency landing in Denver after a commercial airline pilot reported smoke in the cabin.

The controller thought the call was a prank and dismissed the emergency call minutes later, according to recordings obtained by KUSA-TV (

The United Express plane from Peoria, Ill., was evacuated Tuesday after the plane landed at Denver International Airport. An FAA report said firefighters extinguished a fire in the instrument panel.

The recordings show that the controller apparently misunderstood the call letters of the airliner. According to KUSA-TV, a voice from the cockpit, either the co-pilot or pilot, is heard saying, “Emergency, smoke in the cockpit, roll trucks please” as the plane came in for a landing.

A controller in the tower responds, asking, “Who was that?”

The voice responded “5912” — the flight number that air controllers were tracking.

After some confusion, the controller responds about 10 seconds later, asking: “United 12, what’s your position?”

After no response, more time elapsed before the controller says, “Did you hear that? I know that’s BS. I know it is.” Controllers said they were not aware of a United Flight 12.

Airline analysts say fake calls are a problem that can originate from anyone near the airport with a radio.

Controllers apparently realized the mistake when the pilot made another emergency call saying the plane had already landed and was evacuating on the runway. It was only then that fire trucks responded.

One of the 21 passengers was taken to the hospital.

The National Transportation Safety Board said the investigation has been turned over to the FAA, which said it would comment later Friday. The airline did not respond to requests for comment.