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'Airport in sight!' Controllers honored for saving lives'Airport in sight!' Controllers honored for saving lives

The pilot of a Piper Dakota was running low on fuel in low ceilings and fog as he struggled to intercept the ILS for Rome/Richard B. Russell Airport in Georgia. He was experiencing navigation equipment malfunctions and had already missed two approaches. The Atlanta Center controller, Derek Bittman, asked the pilot what he would do if he missed this approach—if he had a plan B.

“This was plan B,” he replied.

According to NATCA, the pilot was having trouble with his glide slope indicator and lateral CDI, and could not find the airport. “Kind of a desperate situation here,” the pilot said. Bittman provided precision vectors to guide him safely to Rome Airport.

“Airport in sight!” the pilot said. “Atlanta, thank you!”

The pilot ran out of fuel while taxiing to the ramp, NATCA said, “confirming the fact that Bittman’s effort saved his life.”

Bittman was among the controllers honored for their efforts to assist pilots at the National Air Traffic Controllers Association’s seventh annual Archie League Medal of Safety Awards banquet March 23. The Archie League awards recognized controllers from nine regions for flight assists, as well as one FAA test pilot and NATCA member who safely landed a Boeing 787 after an electrical fire. The controllers guided pilots out of clouds and icing conditions, coordinated water rescues, and helped get pilots and their passengers home safely.

"These are extraordinary safety professionals who took complete control of very difficult situations and ensured safety through skill, determination and versatility,” NATCA President Paul Rinaldi said. “This is the professionalism that defines NATCA and the safety critical jobs our members perform every day. We are so proud of the men and women being honored tonight and the entire workforce salutes them.”

NATCA’s account of Bittman’s flight assist praised the controller for using his past Marine Corps experience to help the pilot find the airport: “He provided precision vectors, similar to an ASR approach, to the aircraft while using the approach plate to give vertical guidance—a tactic not commonly used by the en route center due to its unreliable radar data and the absence of minimum vectoring altitudes.”

The Archie League Awards, named for the first air traffic controller, were given at NATCA’s 2011 Communicating for Safety conference in Las Vegas. The winners were chosen by a panel of judges comprising NATCA Director of Safety and Technology Dale Wright, AOPA Foundation President Bruce Landsberg, and Capt. Jeffrey Skiles, the co-pilot of US Airways Flight 1549 for its safe landing on the Hudson River in 2009.

The full list of honorees, along with transcripts of their assists, is provided online.

Listen to edited audio recordings of the award winners.

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