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Great Lakes Region

Kevin Rojek, Chicago Midway ATCT

Chicago Municipal Airport, or “Munie,” as early pilots knew it, earned the title of “World’s Busiest,” after serving more than 100,000 passengers in 1932, just five years after it opened. In 1949, the Chicago City Council changed the airport’s name to Chicago Midway Airport in honor of the Battle of Midway in World War II. But while Chicago’s larger airport, O’Hare International, claimed the “World’s Busiest” title in recent decades, Midway has grown as well, using every square inch of its cramped quarters in a densely populated neighborhood 10 miles south of downtown Chicago.

Midway Tower controllers oversee well more than a quarter of a million operations annually – earning the airport’s nickname of “World’s Busiest Mile” – and now more than ever must remain on their toes to keep the tightly choreographed traffic flows safe and efficient.

Such was the case on the morning of August 4, 2005. Controllers were using Runways 22 Left (22L) and 31 Center (31C), which cross in the middle to form one of the most famous runway layouts in aviation. On this day, in Instrument Landing System (ILS) conditions, controllers were using the familiar circling approach to 22L. It’s a very demanding approach considering the mix of aircraft that circle because there is no straight-in approach due to the proximity of the downtown Chicago skyscrapers.

The local controller in the tower instructed United Airlines Flight 1429, an Airbus 320, to taxi into position and hold on runway 31C. The same controller then told a taxiing aircraft to hold short of 31C before clearing an Exec Jet for takeoff off on Runway 22L. Moments later, the controller made contact with Southwest Airlines Flight 1486, a Boeing 737, telling the pilot to taxi into position and hold on 22L. Southwest 1486 was tightly sandwiched between the departing Exec Jet and another Southwest flight on final approach to 22L.

With United 1429 still holding on 31C, the local controller gave Southwest 1486 its clearance for an immediate takeoff from 22L. The Southwest 1486 pilot acknowledged his takeoff clearance. Then, just as the local controller moved on to issue a landing clearance to another aircraft, Kevin Rojek, who was working the ground control position, alertly noticed that the pilot of United 1429 – after apparently believing the takeoff clearance given to Southwest 1486 was meant for him – had begun his takeoff roll. Both jets were rolling down crossing runways and on a collision course to meet at the intersection.

But upon hearing Rojek say “rolling,” the local controller turned to see the aircraft and immediately got on the radio. With his voice rising, he sternly said, “United stop! United stop!” United 1429 stopped approximately 1,000 feet short of Runway 22L. After Southwest 1486 rolled through the intersection and took off, United 1429 crossed 22L, taxied back around the tarmac as his brakes cooled and eventually made its way back to Runway 31C for departure.

Said Midway NATCA Facility Representative Ron Adamski: “Kevin’s quick action and alertness allowed the local controller to stop the United aircraft prior to a meeting at the intersection with the Southwest jet. Kevin’s alertness should be recognized for saving a potential intersection collision.”

As Southwest 1486 began his ascent, the local controller gave him one more instruction, handing him off to Chicago Terminal Radar Approach Control: “Southwest 1486, contact departure.” The Southwest pilot, cognizant of the disaster averted when the controller stopped United 1429’s departure roll, replied: “Fourteen eighty six, switching. See ya. Thank you.”

Pat Forrey, Great Lakes Region Vice President:

“Preventing collisions on the ground is one of the most important responsibilities of any tower controller. Kevin’s actions at Midway Airport exemplify his ability to look at the ‘big picture’ and understand what is happening around him at all times. He wasn’t just attentive to what was happening in front of him; his instincts and attention to detail prompted him to notice an overwhelmed controller and potential disaster brewing in the form of a runway collision. Kevin’s alertness and quick action allowed his colleague to prevent two aircraft from coming together at an intersection. It is the skill and performance of controllers like Kevin that make us the best at what we do. His professionalism and technical expertise provides an example that all controllers can follow. I am proud to represent Kevin and join with my fellow controllers in the Great Lakes region in congratulating him for making a difference in air traffic safety.”

A transcript of this recording can be found HERE.

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