Air Safety Institute recognizes heroic flight assists

March 24, 2011

To a pilot in trouble, there is often no more helpful cockpit resource than the air traffic controller on the other end of the radio. That’s why the AOPA Foundation’s Air Safety Institute joined the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) at the annual Archie League Awards Banquet March 23 during NATCA’s annual Communicating for Safety Conference. After the union had presented its own Archie League Medal of Safety awards (named for the nation’s first air traffic controller, Archie William League), AOPA Foundation President Bruce Landsberg presented nine controllers with Air Safety Institute Flight Assist Awards.

This year’s Flight Assist Award winners are Rafael Naviera III, Collette Woolery, Michael Gabrick, Glen Jamieson, Jeff Wonser, John Youngblood, David Messer, Fred Steele, and John Cozart.

“We pilots may grumble about controllers when we get a less-than-advantageous routing or have to hold for release longer than we think is necessary,” said Landsberg of the pilot-controller relationship. “But when things go south, we know that they’ll do everything they can to get us safely on the ground. So the Air Safety Institute is honored to be able to pay tribute to their work.”

VFR flight in IMC

On the evening of Nov. 18, 2010, Collette Woolery, a controller at Memphis Center, used her experience as a flight instructor to talk a VFR-rated pilot of a Cessna 172 who was low on fuel through an instrument approach just as if she were sitting in the right seat. On sighting the airport, the pilot canceled radar advisories with the comment, “You saved my life.”

Equipment failures in bad weather

On Jan. 19, 2010, Mike Gabrick was working at the Phoenix Tracon in below-VFR weather when a pilot who had just departed from Deer Valley Airport on an IFR training flight reported an instrument failure and requested assistance for a no-gyro return to the airport. Gabrick vectored the pilot to a point where his GPS could pick up the approach and guide him safely back to Deer Valley. On calling to close his IFR flight plan, the pilot asked the person answering the phone to tell Gabrick, “He saved my life.”

Glen Jamieson and Jeff Wonser were working at Atlanta Tracon on Nov. 3, 2010, when the pilot of an RV-7 experimental aircraft on an IFR flight plan in night IMC asked to divert to an airport with a precision approach. Due a mechanical problem that affected both the autopilot and the aircraft’s controllability (later determined to be a heating duct wrapped around an elevator pushrod), the pilot had hand-flown the aircraft for two hours in night instrument conditions, was exhausted, and was not making good decisions. When it became obvious that the pilot was determined to force a landing despite a botched instrument approach, the controllers canceled his clearance and helped him find an airport not too far away where he could land in better weather conditions. The pilot later said, “It is safe to say you saved my son’s life and my life.”

When things break in the air

On June 6, 2010, a Cessna 172 pilot inbound to St. Paul Downtown Airport in Minnesota was working his way around areas of extreme precipitation when he reported a rough-running engine and requested assistance finding the nearest airport. Rafael Naveira at Minneapolis Tracon provided vectors and, after the pilot reported himself to be badly stressed, declared an emergency on the pilot’s behalf (but did not inform the pilot to avoid adding additional stress). Naveira continued to provide corrections as the pilot strayed from course until the pilot reported the airport in sight and was able to land safely.

The next day, on June 7, the pilot of a Cessna 177RG who was en route from Indiana to Virginia reported an engine failure and oil on the windscreen, and asked for vectors to the nearest airport. Controller John Cozart immediately provided vectors, but when it became obvious that the pilot did not have enough altitude to make the airport, Cozart began providing information about possible off-airport landing options, including roads and fields in the area. With Cozart’s assistance, the pilot was able to make a gear-up landing in a field, causing substantial damage to the aircraft, but without injury to himself or anyone on the ground.

David Messer was working the overnight shift at Memphis Center on Oct. 19, 2010, when a Beech Baron well known to the controllers there called in to report the loss of both alternators. He was operating on battery only and needed to get to the closest airport. Messer vectored him to the Jackson, Tenn., airport and, when the pilot reported that he did not think he’d have enough power to activate the runway lights, asked a FedEx aircraft to divert and orbit over the Jackson airport so it could activate the lights. The FedEx flight crew agreed immediately even though they were approaching minimum fuel state. Because of the FedEx flight’s fuel situation, Messer coordinated with his fellow controllers to expedite their arrival into Memphis once the Baron pilot landed safely, which he was able to do.

On the evening of Dec. 3, 2010, John Youngblood was working at Salt Lake Center when a twin-engine Cessna 421 reported the loss of one engine and declared an emergency. After the pilot decided to divert to Provo, Utah, he was handed off to Youngblood, who provided vectors to the Provo airport. Youngblood, himself a pilot, was also able to provide the pilot of the stricken aircraft with useful local information about the airport and terrain impacting operations there.

Memphis Center had its share of assists in 2010. On the night of Dec. 19, Fred Steele received a call from a fellow controller at the Kansas City Center that a Beech Travel Air twin-engine aircraft needed to divert to Cape Girardeau, Mo. The aircraft had suffered a total electrical failure. The pilot later said he was using a flashlight to see his instruments and a handheld radio to communicate. Steele had no transponder information or even radar track and only sporadic direct radio communication, so he coordinated with another aircraft in the area to act as a relay. He also contacted other pilots familiar with the area in order to provide the Travel Air pilot with landmarks that could help him find the airport. After he landed, the pilot called to express his gratitude for a job well done.

“In all of these cases, the controllers provided invaluable assistance to the pilots,” concluded Landsberg. “The number of times the pilots in these assists used the phrase, ‘saved my life,’ speaks to how crucial controllers are to air safety, in normal times and especially extraordinary times like these.”