A hectic job got even worse on Feb. 28 when air traffic controllers at Waco Regional Airport learned aircraft over Mount Carmel were being shot at.
The Federal Aviation Administration established what it thought was a temporary flight restriction (TFR) zone over the home of the Branch Davidians, steering civilian flights away from the area, while setting up ground-to-air communications with at least three government agencies.
It would be two months before things returned to normal.
“It was draining,” said air traffic controller Charles Diseker. “A lot of people here were glad when it ended. But that’s one of the things about the FAA, there’s always something new you have to deal with.”
Most people are unaware that Waco’s air traffic controllers had anything to do with Mount Carmel.
But they’re used to their actions going unsung.
“These guys do a great job on a daily basis,” said Randy Ramey, chairman of Waco’s airport board. “When they do a perfect job, no one notices.”
That changed Thursday.
Waco’s air traffic controllers were honored by the FAA for their efforts during the Mount Carmel crisis. In addition, the entire crew of the air traffic control tower was awarded the FAA’s rare Golden Eagle award, which goes for exemplary performance.
“The amount of activity over Mount Carmel itself was kept a secret,” said James Cummings, FAA air traffic manager. “That place was under surveillance for 24 hours a day, every day. At times, special aircraft flew over the compound, capable of audio and visual recordings. People probably haven’t heard a lot of this.”
Cummings said the Branch Davidians largely dictated the huge TRF area — which was 5 miles wide and had a ceiling of 11,000 feet.
“We started out restricting aircraft to 3,000 feet,” Cummings said. “Within a day and a half, we went to 11,000 feet. Part of that was because of the threat to aircraft. The Branch Davidians said to get all aircraft away from them or they would shoot them down.
“We felt they had the capability to do that. It was a real concern. They were known to have a 50-caliber rifle. Plus good sources said they had rocket launchers. We didn’t want to take chances with civilian or government aircraft.”
Also contributing to the extended ceiling was a too-close encounter between a military plan and a civilian helicopter, Cummings said. The plane was climbing and came upon the helicopter, which was several thousand feet above the 3,000-foot limit.
“It wasn’t filed, but it was a fairly close call,” Cummings said.
Byron Sage, an FBI supervisor in Central Texas, showed up Thursday to thank Waco’s air traffic controllers for their efforts during the Mount Carmel standoff.
“They were critical in our being able to carry out the mission at hand and put a lid on a volatile situation,” he said.
Cummings said Waco’s air traffic controllers appreciated their moment in the spotlight, but they were glad it didn’t come during the siege.
“We really didn’t want people to know our role,” he said. “It could have caused us some security problems, and we had an airport to run.”