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The airplane was on short final, descending from a 600-foot overcast, when Philadelphia Tower controller Dave Giberson shifted his attention from the airborne radar to ground radar and saw a blip.
Visibility was about a mile and a half, Giberson recalled, so the first third of the runway was obscured by fog. Ground radar sometimes returns false targets, so he watched the screen for motion. It moved. Then it moved again, he said.
“Brickyard 3137, I’ve got a target on the runway, go around,” Giberson told the airliner. Giberson estimates that the airliner was about 10 seconds—about 100 feet—from touchdown when he told it to abort the landing. He gave climbout instructions while Corey Grafe, who was coordinating departures for the busy airport, kept departing aircraft off the runway and out of harm’s way.
“Air Wisconsin 4086, everybody on niner left it’s gonna be a delay,” Grafe said. “You guys can shut down if you need to, we got a rogue vehicle driving around on the airport, we’re not talking to him …”
Law enforcement officials later determined that a Jeep Grand Cherokee had crashed through a locked gate and barreled down Runway 9R at speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour with the aircraft approaching behind it. The Jeep turned off 9R, crossed another active runway, and drove down the length of the departure runway, 9L, with airport police in pursuit.
Giberson and Grafe were honored for their role in keeping aircraft safe during the March 1, 2012, incident at the ninth annual Archie League Medal of Safety Awards banquet in Las Vegas, Nev., March 6 during the National Air Traffic Controllers Association Communicating for Safety Conference; AOPA Foundation President Bruce Landsberg served on the selection committee for the awards. Controllers in nine regions were honored for offering assistance to pilots when they found themselves confronted with the unexpected: a rogue vehicle, hypoxia, weather, power loss, mechanical problems, and more.
‘I’m in a little over my head’
Ryan Williams at Anchorage Center was honored for assistance he provided to the pilot of a Cessna 172 who was stuck on top of an overcast layer in the dark over the Talkeetna Mountains. The pilot reported picking up frost on the windshield and was looking for a break in the clouds to descend to the destination airport.
“I’m headed to Wasilla, I’m about 30 miles west of the field, at 10,000 feet, um, I’m in a little over my head I think,” the pilot reported. Williams’ radar identified the aircraft, provided weather reports and safe altitudes, shared reports from other pilots. The pilot found the airport and continued safely under VFR.
Roy Teshima and developmental controller Emily Birkland of Oakland Center earned the Western Pacific Region for their role in the rescue of the crew of a Cessna 185 floatplane that lost power and went down in rough waters off the coast of California. With assistance from a Civil Air Patrol aircraft and a Socata Trinidad, which relayed information and messages from the downed aircraft, the controllers obtained information important to the rescue that was forwarded to the Coast Guard and other agencies. The Coast Guard extracted the two occupants of the aircraft just moments before it sank into the ocean.
When a Beechjet reported a dual flameout—and then losing navigation systems—Jeff Richards at Chicago Center provided assistance as the aircraft descended in heavy precipitation. He talked through the pilots’ options for nearby airports, including runway lengths, and provided vector assistance until the pilots could see the airport.
St. Louis Tracon controller Kevin Cook was giving directions for the approach to Scott Air Force Base to a military jet that had to divert there for weather when communication with the pilot was lost. The pilot missed the approach, and when communication was regained declared minimum fuel—a condition that escalated to a fuel emergency after another missed approach. To get the pilot safely to an airport that was reporting slightly better weather, Steve Clark cleared the airspace so the aircraft could gain altitude and reduce drag. Cook talked the pilot through an improvised emergency airport surveillance radar approach, and it landed with little time to spare.
When a pilot exhibited signs of hypoxia, LouElla Hollingsworth at Fort Worth Center repeated instructions to descend and asked the pilot to put on his oxygen mask, checking in with him as he strapped on the mask and became more coherent.
Donovan Carson at Portland Tracon recognized that a Pilatus was off course, headed toward an area with charted hills and obstructions. When the pilot descended below the minimum vectoring altitude, Carson instructed the pilot to climb, and once the aircraft was at a safe altitude, helped the pilot set up correctly for the approach.
Erik Anderson at Boston averted a potentially disastrous collision when he instructed a Delta flight to go around after recognizing that a taxiing aircraft was not slowing to a stop short of the runway. NATCA said his reaction was so fast that the Airport Surface Detection Equipment had not yet projected the problem.
Bill Sullivan gave instructions to a pilot who reported problems with the controls of his aircraft until the aircraft made it down safely in Tampa, Fla.; he then notified the pilot’s wife of his whereabouts.
Giberson said the award winners were not alone in aiding pilots: While he and Grafe handled traffic at Philadelphia International, their colleagues at approach control handled the backup of aircraft in the half hour that it took to apprehend the suspect and verify the runways were clear of foreign object debris. He credited controllers Joe Colagreco, Ernest Robinson, and Jeff Paynter, along with trainee Jennifer Pan, with coordinating the holds. Aircraft had to hold as far out as Washington Center and New York Center, he said.
When the incident was over and the tower had brought the delayed aircraft into the airport, he said, “We looked at each other as if to say, ‘My god, did that really just happen?’”