The full details are still unknown, but the FAA is investigating a bizarre April 3 incident at Denver International Airport in which controllers are heard on a tower audio recording ignoring an emergency call from a United Airlines flight with smoke in the cockpit, apparently deciding the call is a hoax. A controller is heard telling co-workers the emergency request is “B.S.” before the airliner touches down and passengers begin evacuating on the runway.
According to the audio recording, a pilot aboard the United Flight 5912 radioed the Denver tower as the airplane approached for landing, requesting emergency ground assistance. “This is 5912, emergency, smoke in cockpit, roll trucks, please,” the pilot says.
But the tower controller did not hear who was calling.
“And who was that?” the controller replied.
“United 5912,” the pilot responded – but the controller apparently heard only “United 12.”
“United 12, what’s your position?” the controller asked.
The pilot did not respond, possibly attending to the more vital “aviate” and “navigate” responsibilities on approach. That’s when the controller apparently decided the call was a hoax and should be ignored.
“Did you hear that?” the controller asked another controller. “I know that’s B.S. I know it is. United 12. You know of United 12 anywhere?” he asked a controller. “And, I apologize. If you probably heard there, that’s not real what we’re hearing on the frequency,” the controller tells co-workers.
The United flight reportedly made an emergency landing believing that fire crews had been dispatched and were ready to assist. After the airplane landed and no assistance was provided, the pilots called the tower again. “We’re on the runway. We’ve been evacuating. We’ve been evacuating. 34 Right,” the pilot says.
Still, even with the airplane on the ground, the controllers still apparently do not believe the emergency is real.
“12, verify that wasn’t you,” the controller says.
The FAA so far hasn’t commented on the incident, which raises a host of questions about emergency procedures and controller and pilot responsibilities when emergencies arise. It is unclear whether the crew of the United flight squawked the emergency distress code 7700, but given that the airplane was on approach to the airport and in contact with controllers at the time, the pilots might have decided not to switch transponder codes. The pilot of the United flight could be considered guilty of using non-standard radio phraseology -- somewhat understandable given the circumstances.
The reaction by controllers to the emergency call, on the other hand, defies explanation.