Air Traffic Controller Dies to Make Sure His Plane Took Off Safely

This is an incredible story. Air traffic controller Anthonius Gunawan Agung was working at Palu airport in Indonesia on Saturday when several earthquakes occurred.

The tower evacuated but he stayed behind to ensure Batik Air flight ID 6231 got off the ground. It was a 5:55 p.m. scheduled departure. The captain pushed back 3 minutes early and was cleared for takeoff at 6:02 p.m.

Pilot Ricoseta Mafella says he had no idea that an earthquake struck, though he “felt something wrong on the runway” during the aircraft’s take off roll. It was right at 6:02 p.m. that the earthquakes began, ultimately measuring a magnitude greater than 7.4.

AirNav Indonesia spokesperson says the air traffic controller waited in the tower for the aircraft to get into the air before leaving. The last thing the pilot heard from the tower was “Batik 6231 runway 33 clear for take off.”

“I saw circles getting bigger and bigger,” he said. “I thought it was very strange but didn’t realize that it was an earthquake and tsunami.

“At 4,000 to 5,000 feet, I did a left turn and contacted air traffic control, but received no response.”

The quakes became stronger and were followed by a tsunami.

People tried to call Anthonius Gunawan Agung out of the tower. He reportedly told them “No, the aircraft isn’t airborne yet.” He knew that if the aircraft needed assistance he’d be the only one who could lay eyes on the plane. The tower roof began to collapse.

Eventually the controller jumped “from the top of the crumbling four-story tower” trying to escape. He broke his leg and he suffered internal injuries. He was taken to a hospital but died before he was able to be transported to a more advanced facility.

Anthonius Gunawan Agung, age 21, has been given a posthumous two rank promotion by Indonesia’s air navigation service provider.

I have a tremendous amount of respect for the work that air traffic controllers do. I suspect that the best sense most people have gotten for the job comes from the Billy Bob Thornton / John Cusack film Pushing Tin. When I flew United regularly I loved nothing more than listening in to “Channel 9” a.k.a. “From the Flight Deck” the ATC communications for the flight.

Unfortunately that’s been removed from United’s Airbus narrowbodies, but premium transcons as well as 767 and 777 aircraft are equipped though it’s up to the captain whether to make it available for each flight.

(HT: Jonathan W.)

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. This guy deserves the Indo equivalent of a Presidential Medal of Honor. As Spock once noted: “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”

  2. “ktc says:
    October 2, 2018 at 6:49 pm
    wont find that kind of behavior here”

    Please tell that to the 414 firefighters and police killed on 9/11 at the World Trade Center. They sacrificed their lives saving others.

  3. He didn’t need to remain in the tower. He had already cleared the aircraft to take off:

    “He had just cleared Batik Air flight 6231 for takeoff as the ground started to shake, but instead of running for safety he waited until the plane was airborne before finally leaving the air traffic control tower.”

    The aircraft would have continued its takeoff roll regardless of where the controller was.

    He may have been fearful of losing his job if he didn’t stay on. Not as good a news story though unless precarious employment is the story.

    I’m not saying this was the case, just that it might be.

  4. For those of us not as familiar with the departure and ATC process. Can someone explain the biggest risks present here, and what would’ve likely gone wrong had there been no ATC support?

    Would the departing plane simply have sat on the ground because the pilot would not have realized the danger in time, and then become overtaken by the earthquake or tsunami?

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