FAA Air Control Center Arsonist Gets 12 1/2-Year Prison Term

  • Fire grounded flights at Chicago's O'Hare, Midway airports
  • Ex-FAA contractor says he acted out of despair, not anger

The former Federal Aviation Administration contractor who grounded Chicago flights by setting fire to a regional air traffic control center was sent to prison for 12 1/2 years.

Brian Howard, 37, pleaded guilty in May to cutting communication wires and setting the Sept. 26 fire at the facility in Aurora, Illinois. The fire at the center, which helps guide high-altitude air traffic over the Midwest, halted flights in and out of Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport and Midway Airport.

Through tears, Howard apologized in court Friday and said he hadn’t intended to hurt anyone. Reading prepared remarks and glancing at family and friends in the gallery, Howard said he had been frustrated for a long time and that an impending move for his company had elevated his stress.

“I did not act out of anger, but out of despair,” he told  U.S. District Judge Gary Feinerman in Chicago. “I can’t explain it. I cannot tell you exactly what I was thinking.”

Feinerman told Howard that his actions endangered 135 planes in the air at
the time and caused thousands of flights to be canceled or delayed across the U.S. Many people missed job interviews, weddings, exams and honeymoons, the judge said. One traveler tearfully recounted in court how he was unable to get a flight to see his ill sister before she died.

“It was the equivalent of severing a person’s optic nerve, aural nerve and
speech center,” Feinerman said.

The charges against Howard carried a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison. In court Friday, prosecutors sought a 13-year sentence. Howard’s lawyer had asked for 10 years, saying his client, a Navy veteran without a criminal record, acted completely out of character and in a depressed and sleep-deprived state.

Firefighters responding to the blaze found Howard in the center’s basement with self-inflicted knife wounds.

Howard had worked for eight years as an FAA contractor and had specialized knowledge of communications infrastructure at the Aurora center and other FAA facilities, according to the plea agreement he signed.

Feinerman also ordered Howard to pay $4.5 million in restitution to the FAA.

The case is U.S. v. Howard, 14-cr-00537, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Illinois (Chicago).

(Howard’s age and the amount of restitution was corrected in an earlier version of this story.)

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