US military pilots flying missions over Yemen and Somalia are regularly put in danger—by air traffic controllers, according to documents obtained by the Washington Post. The papers show the military's counterterrorism base at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, the only permanent US base in Africa, is powered by air traffic controllers who fall asleep at work, commit an incredible number of errors, chew the plant stimulant khat, and are generally hostile to Americans. Observation reports describe workers ignoring pilot communications in order to nap on the floor, play video games, and text. Controllers have also reportedly made US pilots circle the base until they're nearly out of fuel, a move done as payback for the Americans' "perceived lack of respect," per the Post. Controllers are hired by Djibouti's government, in an arrangement that the Post notes isn't replicated at our other major bases around the globe; the base and Djibouti’s sole international airport share a pair of runways.
"Literally, it's the most dangerous airspace I've seen in the world, and I've been to Afghanistan," a former FAA official says. Documents show a remarkable 2,378 errors per 100,000 aircraft operations over a three-month span—that's 1,700 times our domestic rate. In one case in May 2013, a plane carrying Djibouti's president nearly missed another jet. The same month, a controller threatened a Navy officer with a metal pipe and said he would "slit Americans' throats" if he met them outside the base. He remained at his post. Attempts to retrain the controllers in 2012 and 2013 went poorly; at one point, trainers were locked out of the flight tower. Camp Lemonnier's commanding officer, Navy Capt. Matthew P. O'Keefe, says current conditions differ from what's in the documents. The full report has more jarring details. (Read more Djibouti stories.)