Controllers honored for saving pilots' bacon

April 3, 2008

Controllers honored for saving pilots’ bacon

By Nathan A. Ferguson

For radio transmission transcripts, audio recordings, and a video of the awards presentation, see NATCA’s Web site.

Those disembodied voices you hear over the radio take on a new life during emergencies. Suddenly they become comforting, if not your immediate best friends.

All it takes is some chilling words from a pilot, “I’m not having a good day,” for a controller to step up the game.

Often their heroic feats go unrecognized, even by the FAA. For the past four years, the standouts, divided by geographic region, have been honored with the Archie League Medal of Safety Awards, named after the nation’s first controller, and presented at a National Air Traffic Controllers Association safety conference. The 2008 awards ceremony took place on April 1.

One of the more dramatic stories this year involved controller Paul Hiel at the Oklahoma City Tracon. On April 10, 2007, he heard several microphone clicks on his frequency, but no voice modulation. Hiel asked if there was an aircraft out there trying to contact approach, and he received more clicks. He knew the weather wasn’t good with ceilings between 400 feet and 800 feet.

“If you need IFR services, click your mike twice,” Heil said.

Two clicks.

Heil asked the pilot to squawk 0303 for radar identification. Once his position was known, Heil initiated a series of questions to determine where the pilot wanted to land and whether he needed IFR services. Over the next 15 minutes, Heil provided weather information for Norman, Okla., issued an IFR clearance, and coordinated with other personnel for vectors to the ILS.

Click, click. And so it went on.

The airplane, which turned out to be a Beechcraft Bonanza 36, made a safe landing, all without any verbal communication with the controller. The pilot had gotten stuck on top of the cloud deck and had a malfunctioning radio.

“It was an honor to be selected as one of the three judges for this year’s awards. In reviewing all the submissions, it was wonderful to see how the controllers worked with pilots who had gotten themselves into life-threatening situations,” said Bruce Landsberg, executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation. “We also had some very tough choices to make. Every controller likely prevented an accident through their efforts.”

In another story, a pilot in northern Alaska was desperate for fuel and unable to find a landing spot, so he called for help. Fairbanks veteran tower controller John Brown came to the rescue. Brown started working with other controllers to give the pilot of a Piper Super Cruiser vectors to a small airport, 44 miles northwest of Fairbanks. But then the airplane descended below radar coverage.

Luckily, another airplane had heard about the situation over the radio and started relaying messages from Brown via Anchorage Center and on to the Piper. With 20 years of experience as a controller and local knowledge of the terrain, Brown was able to determine the airplane’s position and suggest that it land on the gravel Steese Highway. The pilot was successful.

Elsewhere in other regions, Jack Bowers and David Brown at St. Louis Tracon helped the pilot of an iced-up Cessna 182; Cristopher Foust, a Baltimore controller, prevented a business jet from slamming into a Boeing 737 on the ground; and Patrick Eberhart at the Detroit Tracon provided no-gyro vectors for a Beechcraft Bonanza in distress.

James Kmetz at the Terre Haute, Ind., control tower helped an iced-up Cessna 182 pilot steer around obstacles; Steve Walsh of the Burlington, Vt., tower and tracon guided a noninstrument-rated pilot through the clouds; Lee Wheeler of Salt Lake City Center kept an airliner from hitting terrain in Bozeman, Mont.; and David Rivero of Miami Center prevented a midair collision.

April 3, 2008