Safety Pilot: Air traffic saviors

July 1, 2008

Bruce Landsberg has logged more than 6,000 flight hours, is a CFII, and holds multiple ratings.

Pilots have a high regard for air traffic controllers except when being sent the wrong way or asked to hold for extended periods and, even then, ATC is only keeping us from bumping into each other.

We really come to appreciate ATC, however, when they provide a life-saving assist. Last winter I joined Wilson Riggan, an American Airlines captain, and Ray Gibbons, a recently retired Chicago Tracon controller, on the selection committee for the Archie League Medal. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) presents the award annually, in recognition of heroic acts by controllers and is named after the nation’s first air traffic controller. Each FAA region is represented. Here are this year’s winners:

Alaskan Region—On August 13, 2007, Fairbanks tower controller John Brown, using his 20 years of experience, guided a Piper PA-12 pilot safely to an off-airport landing when the aircraft ran critically low on fuel. A sustained headwind of more than 40 knots and the pilot’s decision to continue toward the destination created the fuel emergency. As the aircraft descended below radio and radar coverage, controller Brown and a pilot of a Cessna Caravan flying overhead managed to set up a radio link. Coordination between Anchorage Center and the Caravan helped to roughly determine the aircraft’s position, allowing Brown to recommend headings to direct the Piper to a gravel road and a safe landing.

Central Region—On the evening of December 27, 2007, a Cessna 182 en route to Spirit of St. Louis Airport (SUS) accumulated considerable ice on descent. Over the next two hours, St. Louis Tracon controllers David Brown and Jack Bowers worked with the pilot to ensure a safe landing. After the pilot missed the approach at SUS, he advised Brown that he had iced up and had determined that going to St. Louis Downtown airport (CPS) where the weather was better would be prudent. At this point, controller Bowers, a CFI, took over and provided vectors for the pilot to get into CPS. After three attempts to land, Bowers suggested a diversion to another airport where the weather was better. Fortunately, the ice was melting, and the pilot, with all the recent approach experience, was able to complete the landing on the fourth attempt.

Eastern Region—On the evening of December 19, 2007, a Cessna Citation crew taxiing for departure at Baltimore-Washington International Airport became unsure of their location. Cleared for takeoff on Runway 28, the Citation instead began its westbound takeoff roll on the parallel taxiway.  A Boeing 737 was taxiing eastbound for departure on the same taxiway when the Citation started its takeoff roll. Tower controller Christopher Foust spotted the problem and reacted immediately by instructing the Citation to hold its position and canceling its takeoff clearance.

Great Lakes Region—On the evening of January 3, 2007, Detroit Tracon controller Patrick Eberhart noticed that a Beechcraft Bonanza inbound to Pontiac, Michigan, was off course in its initial approach. As the aircraft was being re-vectored to start the approach again, the pilot declared a fuel emergency and advised of a flight instrument malfunction. Eberhart cleared his frequency of other traffic and provided no-gyro vectors to the Bonanza, a procedure that hasn’t been used in Detroit for more than 10 years! It worked, and the pilot descended below the clouds perfectly aligned with the runway.

Great Lakes Region—A second medal was presented in the Great Lakes Region because the selection committee felt both incidents merited recognition. On December 15, 2007, a Cessna 182 pilot, who was in icing conditions and needed an immediate descent, contacted Terre Haute tower controller James Kmetz. While being vectored to the ILS Runway 5 approach, the flight, barely able to remain airborne, dropped to 1,100 feet and well below the 2,200-foot minimum vectoring altitude. Kmetz provided step-by-step descriptions of shopping malls, gas stations, restaurants, and the approximate locations of some tall towers to guide the stricken aircraft to a crash landing on the runway. There were no injuries, although the aircraft sustained substantial damage.

New England Region—A Cessna 182 pilot started a VFR cross-country flight on the evening of October 8, 2007, but pressed way too far into deteriorating weather and wound up trapped on top at 6,800 feet. Burlington, Vermont, Tracon controller Steve Walsh heard from the Cessna 57 miles south of Burlington, where the pilot hoped to land. Weather at the time was 400 feet overcast, but with three hours of fuel on board, they began to work on options for better weather. After two hours of vectoring and coordinating, Plattsburgh, New York, turned out to be the best option with a 900-foot overcast—there the pilot successfully penetrated the cloud deck to a safe landing.

Northwest Mountain Region—Salt Lake City Center controller Lee Wheeler, likely prevented a major accident when a Northwest Airlines Airbus A320 got lost on the non-radar instrument approach into Bozeman, Montana, on the evening of February 19, 2007. Wheeler had a second aircraft holding for the approach waiting for confirmation from the tower that the Airbus was in sight. Wheeler, curious about the delay, called the tower who had the second aircraft visually in holding. About that time Wheeler got a freak radar hit on the Airbus, well below normal radar coverage, showing the aircraft 35 miles to the northwest and in imminent danger of striking the terrain. He immediately broadcast climb instructions on 121.5, and asked the tower to also radio a warning, which saved the day.

Southern Region—Miami Center controller David Rivero prevented a midair collision between an IFR aircraft he was working and a VFR target over south Florida on the afternoon of December 7, 2006. A fast-moving VFR target was called to the IFR aircraft two miles off his left wingtip and 400 feet above. Approximately a minute later, the VFR target reversed course and descended toward the IFR aircraft. Rivero provided an alert and the IFR flight made an evasive maneuver noting afterwards, “Thanks for that,” its pilot said. “I would have hit him.”

Southwest Region—On April 10, 2007, Oklahoma City Tracon controller, Paul Heil, heard several microphone clicks on his frequency but no voice transmission. Heil figured someone was trying to get in touch with him and, by asking the mystery pilot to respond with two clicks for affirmative answers to questions, determined that an aircraft was trapped on top of the overcast. The instrument-rated Bonanza pilot had started out VFR, but was stuck on top with a malfunctioning radio and turned toward Oklahoma for help. Ceilings in the area varied between 400 and 800 feet, but through progressive questioning and click responses, Heil issued an IFR clearance and provided vectors for a successful ILS approach into Norman, Oklahoma.

Western Pacific Region—When a student pilot became lost on a solo cross-country flight, Southern California Tracon controllers Bill Jacobs and Bruce Snoddy spent more than an hour directing her to a nearby airport. The pilot was attempting to navigate by pilotage as the sun set on November 16, 2007. She became increasingly uncertain and concerned, but the calm reassuring voices from the ground guided her to an airport, established the flight in the traffic pattern, helped her through a go-around, and ultimately to a safe landing.

Pilot Lessons—In a few cases, pilots got a bad break but in the vast majority of the award-winning incidents—and those that were not selected—it was poor pilot decision-making that created an emergency. In just the small sample here, you’ll see some recurring themes:

Fuel is essential to flight and essential to resolving a problem if you get in a bind. It doesn’t give you, or ATC, much to work with when you’re down to 20 minutes remaining. That’s why ASF recommends the “Golden Hour” of fuel reserve.

Some VFR pilots have difficulty recognizing that cloud decks do not always offer holes where and when you really need them. Several of these flights were undertaken at night or late afternoon, and the overcast conditions were fairly widespread. Hope is a wonderful attribute, but skepticism and paranoia regarding weather forecasts is far more likely to ensure survival in aviation.

Finally, icing in unprotected aircraft is a bad deal—you may have heard that before somewhere. As various ASF decision-making programs have noted, trying to get too much utility out of an airplane that really isn’t up to the job is also not conducive to aeronautical longevity. Previous comments regarding psychological attributes in VFR pilots apply here as well.

For the phenomenal efforts of these controllers, and thousands of others who periodically save us from ourselves in less dire circumstances, pilots everywhere offer our sincere thanks.       

You can hear the actual audio of the winning life-saving assists on NATCA’s Web site. To hear and see more on how ATC can assist pilots, after you may have painted yourself in to a corner, go online. See Interactive Courses, Say Intentions.