A brief FAA ground stop order called on Monday afternoon is creating some speculation around the cause of the actions. Ground stops are highly unusual in non-weather situations, and although normal activities were resumed in around 15 minutes, the FAA has been tight-lipped on the reasons behind the move. However, North Korea is known to have fired a ballistic missile at around the same time, leading to conclusions being drawn.
Ground stop called
For a brief moment on Monday, all flights on the West Coast of the United States ground to a halt. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued a ‘ground stop’ notice. A ground stop is an air traffic control measure that slows or stops the flow of aircraft to a particular airport, usually implemented due to weather or an operational hazard at the airport.
The ground stop only lasted around 15 minutes, from about 14:30 Pacific Time. It included a temporary pause on all flights taking off and landing in the area, as well as aviators being instructed to land. It’s a highly irregular event, with some ATC stating that it was the first time such a widespread ground stop had been called since the events of 9/11.
A number of West Coast airports confirmed the ground stop, as reported by NBC, including San Diego, Ontario and Oakland. ATC shared what are claimed to be flight strips from the ground stop on Reddit, with images subsequently shared on Twitter.
Flight strips from the brief nationwide groundstop today pic.twitter.com/lIb7jXNUsU
— OSINTtechnical (@Osinttechnical) January 11, 2022
The FAA posted its own statement about the incident yesterday. The response was incredibly vague, with no real explanation of the cause of the action.
FAA statement on West Coast ground stop for some airports: pic.twitter.com/LwkseEMWFC
— The FAA ✈️ (@FAANews) January 11, 2022
But the FAA statement does not tell the whole story. While the FAA indicates that the ground stop was just for limited West Coast airports, ATC recordings from Honolulu, Hawaii, suggest that similar instructions were received there. Other recordings refer to the incident as a ‘national’ ground stop, with some pilots being told to land as soon as possible.
HONOLULU TOWER advising HAL278 that the ground stop orders came from the FAA Command Center. They never gave a reason for the ground stop. pic.twitter.com/XasWmFwGap
— Thenewarea51 (@thenewarea51) January 11, 2022
With a dearth of information coming forth from any official sources, people have begun to draw their own conclusions about what caused the unusual activity. Popular opinion is that it was linked to something going on over on the other side of the Pacific Ocean.
North Korea missile tests
Shortly before 07:27 Pyongyang time, North Korea launched a ballistic missile. It’s the second time in a week that the hermit country has launched what is thought to be a hypersonic missile, capable of traveling at more than five times the speed of sound.
Since the event, North Korea has publicly announced the successful test of a hypersonic missile, the launch of which was overseen by leader Kim Jong-un for the first time since March 2020. The nation claims the test was a success, saying it successfully made a turn before hitting its target in the sea some 1,000 km (621 miles) away.
— Reuters (@Reuters) January 11, 2022
The FAA has drawn no parallels between the missile test and the reported ground stop, but the timings are very much related. The launch time of 07:27 Pyongyang time is equivalent to 14:27 PT, almost simultaneous with the time that the ground stop was called.
For now, the FAA statement leaves more questions than answers. Reporting in The Drive suggests that the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) quickly assessed the launch and determined that it was not a threat to the United States. This makes it even more unusual that the ground stop was called, as the FAA works closely with NORAD on such matters.
Nevertheless, the missile did not approach US territory, and airport operations were resumed in a short space of time. However, it underscores the heightened concerns surrounding activities in North Korea at present.