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Severe storm created problems, delays at airport

By Maria Jose Subiria

msubiria@news-daily.com

Severe winds, along with continuous lightning strikes, hail and excessive rain swept over much of metro Atlanta Thursday, and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport was not immune to the storm's wrath.

The control tower at Atlanta's airport was struck by lightning at approximately 8:45 p.m., Thursday, and employees were temporarily evacuated from it, as an emergency precaution.

"People in the tower smelled a smoky smell," said Kathleen Bergen, communications manager for the Federal Aviation Administration in the Southern Region. "I don't recall having it being struck by lightning before."

According to Bergen, there was no evidence of fire, or smoke, and air traffic controllers returned to the tower to assume their positions and restart equipment.

Later, because of the excessive amount of lightning strikes and power surges, runways on the north side of the airport suffered power outages, and commercial power shut down, according to Bergen.

One of the north runways, she said, "went back in service at 11:22 p.m., and the other at 12:05 a.m." The south runways -- which had been closed by airport officials -- went back in service at 10 p.m., she said.

Bergen said that, when the severe thunderstorm began, there were no flights coming to or leaving, the airport. The air traffic control tower had advised pilots to stay in the outlining areas of Atlanta until the storm subsided.

More than 100 airplanes, destined for Atlanta, were in holding patterns in the sky waiting for a command from their airlines, she said. "The airlines decide where they [aircraft] go, and they go to airports that are relatively close," Bergen explained.

She said radar controllers monitoring flights via, either Peachtree City, or Hampton, Ga., directed traffic for the airplanes in the holding patterns.

"People in the [airport's] tower only control five miles outside of the airport," said Bergen. "The Peachtree City Approach Control controls 50 miles outside the airport, and all the way down Macon to Columbus, Ga., at 12,000 to 15,000 feet in the air."

"If it [a plane's flight pattern] is higher than 15,000 feet, and outside the 50-mile ring outside the airport, the Hampton End Route Center takes over."

According to Bergen, the crews and passengers on planes that were diverted during the storm, waited at their alternate destinations until it was safe to fly into Atlanta.