Friday, September 26, 2014

ZAU Center Arson Incident - Exclusive ORD Coverage

 Shortwave America was at ORD today to witness the aftermath of an act that grounded more than 2,000 flights. According to a joint FBI, ATF, and FAA investigation, we know the following details about an arson that took place at Chicago's FAA ZAU Center in Aurora, Illinois:
  • The main and only offender is Brian Howard, 36, of Naperville, Illinois
  • Mr. Howard started the fire in the basement of the Aurora facility, known as the ZAU Center, around 5:40 a.m.
  • Howard is an eight year employee of the contract company at ZAU Center
  • Just prior to the fire, Howard posted an angry rant on Facebook saying  “Take a hard look in the mirror, I have. And this is why I am about to take out ZAU (the radar center) and my life…So I’m gonna smoke this blunt and move on, take care everyone”
  • Howard entered the center at 5:06 a.m., according to the center’s keycard tracking system
  • The 911 call for emergency crews to respond to ZAU center was placed at or around 5:42A.M.
  •  When medics found Howard, he was trying to slit his own throat
  • Howard is currently unconscious at a hospital, in stable condition
 Over at Flyer Talk, user milepig said that they had a conversation with an air traffic controller who told them,  "All the controllers have been put on administrative leave and are not to report to the facility for foreseeable future. They were told to call their supervisors on Monday for the latest instructions. I can confirm this having just talked to a controller."
The FAA put out a press release that gives this statement:

"The Federal Aviation Administration evacuated its Chicago En Route Center in Aurora, IL just before 6 a.m. local time on Friday, September 26, because of a fire reported in a basement telecommunications room. Air traffic controllers immediately transferred airspace management to adjacent air traffic facilities and the FAA put other steps in place to manage the traffic.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are investigating the incident and the FAA is supporting the investigation.

The FAA has conducted a preliminary damage assessment, and expects to gain access to the telecommunications area this evening to conduct a more thorough assessment. After technicians fully review the damage, they will be able to develop a timeline for repairs, replacement, and full restoration of services at the facility.

The FAA currently is managing Chicago Center traffic through adjacent high altitude radar centers in Cleveland, Indianapolis, Kansas City, and Minneapolis. Those facilities are working with the Chicago Terminal Radar Approach (TRACON) facility in Elgin, Illinois and other surrounding large TRACONs in areas such as South Bend, IN, Rockford and Moline IL, and Milwaukee, WI to track flights on radar and manage departures and arrivals in Chicago Center airspace. The FAA is re-routing overflights around the airspace.

Flights are currently arriving and departing in the Chicago area at a reduced rate. The FAA is using all of its available air traffic tools to maximize capacity at the Chicago-area airports. The FAA will continue working with operators through the weekend to reduce disruptions. Travelers are encouraged to contact their airlines for further information about specific flights."
Read the U.S. Federal criminal complaint and search warrant affidavit here. (PDF file)

Upon arrival at ORD, the first observation was an empty airfield. American Airlines aircraft could be observed parked by one of the hangars on the airfield not far from the United Airlines hangar. The ORD pedestrian walkway between terminals was almost filled to capacity with passengers who were already at the airport and droves arriving by way of the CTA Blue Line.

Baggage areas were only somewhat busy, with the bulk of crowds occupying the ticket counter areas on the departure level. 
Terminal conditions were beyond crowded at ORD, as passengers, airline personnel, and airline contractor employees worked together to get passengers where they needed to go. The tensions at ORD could be felt even on the upper-level departure curb. Media staging was at the Terminal 3 ATS area inside the terminal between the ATS escalators, just across from the American Airlines ticket counters.   

The ATS (Airport Transit System) train between terminals was at, or beyond capacity on each trip. OATS (the ATS company at ORD) did not add extra trains even though there certainly was a demand for it.

 In the photos above, media vans line the middle median at ORD Terminal 3.

American Airlines ticket agents and gate agents were rewarded for their performance in this crisis today. The management of American Airlines treated their employees to free pizza from Giuseppe's by the baggage cart loads! 

As of print time, the Chicago Center official FAA webpage is still up, but the links there are all inactive.

Some ZAU Center facts:

The Chicago ARTCC (ZAU) started at Midway Airport in the late 1950's. As the need for increased personnel and equipment arose, Aurora, Illinois was selected for the new operating location for ZAU. The building was completed in a period of 5 years and personnel transitioned into the new facility in 1962.

ZAU is a level 12 facility providing service to the Chicago and Milwaukee Metropolitan area and 16 underlying approach control facilities. The center's 9 areas of specialization are comprised of 24 high altitude sectors and 24 low altitude sectors. (courtesy of Radio Reference)

ZAU, one of 22 FAA air route centers, stretches east from Des Moines to Fort Wayne, and north from central Illinois to Oshkosh, Wisconsin. ZAU controls all aircraft arriving and departing several major airports, including both Chicago O’Hare, Midway, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Fort Wayne, Indiana. (Courtesy of  Aviation Week)

ZAU is also known as "Chicago Center". 

Chicago Center is the 5th busiest ARTCC in the United States. Between January 1st, 2012 and December 31st 2012, Chicago Center handled 2,343,281 aircraft operations.[3] Chicago Center covers approximately 91,000 square miles of the Midwestern United States, including parts of Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Iowa. Chicago Center lies adjacent to 4 different Air Route Traffic Control Centers, including Minneapolis Air Route Traffic Control Center, Kansas City Air Route Traffic Control Center, Indianapolis Air Route Traffic Control Center, and Cleveland Air Route Traffic Control Center. ZAU overlies or abuts many approach control facilities (including, but not limited to, Chicago, Milwaukee, Madison, Cedar Rapids, Des Moines, the Quad Cities, Peoria, Springfield, Indianapolis, and Grand Rapids approaches). (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

See the CARMA Chicago Center Sites PDF file for frequency coverage