A Naperville, Illinois engineer who severed critical communication cables at a Chicago air traffic control center in Aurora, Illinois—causing thousands of flight cancellations and delays throughout the country; a $123 million impact in the first four days alone—was sentenced on September 11, 2015 to 12 ½ years in federal prison.

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Brian Howard used wire cutters to sever multiple telecommunication cables at the Chicago Air Route Traffic Control Center in Aurora on Sept. 26, 2014, disabling the Control Center’s communication with critical data centers and in-flight aircraft. He then set fire to the equipment to inflict further damage. The result was the immediate grounding of planes flying over the Midwest, and several days of flight cancellations and delays across the country.

Howard, 37, pleaded guilty in May to one count of willfully damaging, destroying or disabling an air navigation facility, and one count of using fire to commit a federal felony. In addition to the 150-month prison term, U.S. District Judge Gary Feinerman ordered Howard to pay $4,502,361 in restitution to the Federal Aviation Administration.

Chicago air traffic control

Defendant admitted to severing the cables and setting fire to the Control Center’s telecommunication equipment.

According to Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Polovin, a prosecutor in the case:

Brian Howard attacked a critical piece of infrastructure in our nation’s airspace, causing one of the most severe disruptions to air travel in recent memory. He committed a violent crime that put thousands of lives at risk, and his crime warranted the sentence he received.

According to the FBI, Howard worked at the time as an engineer for Harris Corp., a telecommunications contractor for the Federal Aviation Administration. This position enabled Howard to gain access to an area of the Chicago air traffic control center’s basement that housed key components of the Control Center’s telecommunication infrastructure.

Howard admitted in his plea agreement that by severing the cables and setting fire to the Control Center’s telecommunication equipment, he increased the risk to aircraft traveling through the Control Center’s airspace. He further acknowledged in the plea agreement that his actions were intended to disrupt air travel and to effectively shut down the Control Center.

Federal criminal inmates typically serve at least 85% of time sentenced.


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