Shortly after starting his 6 a.m. shift at Houston Tracon on Feb. 25, 2013, air traffic controller Stewart Pearcy noticed a VFR target over Houston, Texas’s William P. Hobby Airport, in the Class B airspace. Ceilings were overcast between 100 and 200 feet, and every airport within 70 nautical miles reported solid IFR conditions—controllers were holding and diverting even IFR traffic that couldn’t land, Pearcy later explained.
“I’m sure that that guy doesn’t really mean to be there,” he thought.
When he learned that no one had contacted the VFR pilot, he broadcast in the blind. Then he tried the emergency frequency 121.5 MHz. No answer. The pilot had taken off from the Texas Gulf Coast Regional Airport in Lake Jackson before 5 a.m., he learned, and so he asked a Southwest Airlines flight to try to contact the lost pilot on that frequency. Then he heard from the pilot on his frequency.
“I am, uh, in a bit of a pickle here,” said the pilot, who explained his situation. Pearcy said that he learned that the man at the controls of the Cessna 172 was a new pilot with about 90 hours, and was not instrument rated. He had gone into the clouds after takeoff at Lake Jackson.
Pearcy’s efforts to get the pilot back down on the ground safely earned him one of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association’s tenth annual Archie League Medal of Safety Awards.
The pilot wanted to get back to Lake Jackson, but no airports in the Houston area had VFR conditions, so Pearcy directed him to the west. San Antonio had better weather, but Pearcy, a pilot, did the math and didn’t know if the airplane would make it: The pilot reported he had 2.5 hours of fuel remaining, and was faced with 50-knot headwinds. Pearcy found VFR conditions in Austin and gave him a heading to fly.
“Roger that,” said the pilot, according to an audio recording of the exchange. “I gotta tell you, it’s very comforting, guy. I, uh, I was getting a little nervous up here.”
Pearcy assured the pilot that ATC was glad to help out, and that he was a pilot with almost 2,000 hours of flight time, who flies 200 hours a year. “I’ve got to tell you, your voice is very comforting,” the pilot responded. “I was getting pretty nervous up here. Thank you so much.”
Nearly three hours after taking off, the pilot descended through a hole in the clouds and landed safely at Giddings-Lee County Airport near Austin.
“It was an exciting day, to say the least,” said Pearcy, who traveled to Las Vegas to receive the award at the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA)’s Communicating for Safety conference March 26. AOPA Foundation President Bruce Landsberg serves on the selection committee of the awards, named for the first air traffic controller.
The awards honor controllers, some of them pilots themselves, who helped pilots get on the ground safely after finding themselves in situations that could easily have led to an accident. In 2013, when pilots were lost in heavy snow and limited visibility, headed on a collision course, low on fuel and disoriented, picking up ice, lined up to land on a taxiway, tossed in severe turbulence, or taxiing onto an active runway, these controllers stepped in.
Analyses by the Air Safety Institute have shown that weather-related accidents are consistently among the most fatal type of accident. Several award winners went above and beyond to offer pilots assistance when the weather threatened to get the best of them—in one case sending B-52 bombers 200 miles out of their way to track down a pilot who was lost in heavy snow and had lost contact with flight service.
In November, the pilot of a Cessna 172 lost contact with Fairbanks, Alaska, Flight Service Station in heavy snow and extremely limited visibility. Controllers Todda Yonge and Mark Lacy at Anchorage Center enlisted the help of B-52 bombers, the only flights in the area, to broadcast in the blind in hopes of reaching the distressed pilot. When they couldn’t reach the Cessna, Yonge asked the B-52 pilots if they would continue westbound to attempt to contact the aircraft. Two bombers found the Cessna flying low to the ground through a valley surrounded by rugged terrain, according to the NATCA award. The bomber pilots relayed vital messages between the pilot and ATC, and it landed safely at the Calhoun Memorial Airport in Tanana.
Madison (Wis.) Tower/Tracon controller Jack Deutscher came to the aid of another pilot caught in deteriorating weather Feb. 21, 2013, when the chief pilot at nearby Watertown Municipal Airport relayed the Piper pilot’s reports of trouble on the unicom. Increasingly low ceilings and poor visibility prevented the VFR pilot from returning to Watertown, and the pilot could barely see because of icing. Deutscher gave every heading and altitude for an ASR approach into Madison, and though the pilot strayed from the headings Deutscher gave him, Deutscher guided him over the airport several times and helped him look for it through a small corner of the windscreen that wasn’t covered in ice. The aircraft was getting low, and at full throttle was at 95 knots and losing speed. Finally the pilot saw one of the runways and made a last-chance attempt to land. Ice on the antenna broke up Deutscher’s communications with the pilot, so he stayed on the telephone with the tower. Moments later, the tower reported the aircraft’s safe landing.
In the Northwest Mountain Region, the pilot of a Piper PA-34 Seneca descending through turbulence and picking up ice received help from Seattle Tracon controller and fellow pilot Jared Mike. At 8,000 feet it was so bad that utility boxes that were bungeed down in the rear of the aircraft were thrown about the cabin. As it continued to descend, the Seneca became almost impossible to control: Turbulence tossed it about, power was fluctuating, and airspeed was dropping from ice. Mike declared an emergency for the pilot, and when he exited the clouds at 2,000 feet gave him instructions based on landmarks until enough ice melted that the pilot could see outside again. The pilot continued to a safe landing at Boeing Field/King County International Airport.
Kansas City Center controllers Andrew Smith and Joseph Moylan earned an award for assisting a pilot of a Piper Arrow who was unable to complete an approach to the Topeka, Kan., airport, wandered off course, and was nearly out of fuel. Smith vectored the pilot back for a straight-in approach to Runway 13, giving updates on his distance to the field. He asked how many people were on board and how much fuel the airplane had.
“Three on board, and I’m showing empty,” the pilot responded. Nine miles from the airport, he reported again.
Smith informed the tower of the pilot’s condition, and Moylan, a pilot who is familiar with the airplane, asked the pilot to verify he had switched tanks and activated the fuel pump. He also reminded the pilot to put his landing gear down, and the aircraft landed successfully with the engine still sputtering.
At Boston Logan International Airport, smaller airplanes often adjust their approach to land beyond wake turbulence. As a Cirrus SR22 turned to line up for landing on Runway 4L the evening of Sept. 27, 2013, tower controller Nunzio DiMillo noticed that the pilot had lined up with Taxiway B, where a JetBlue Embraer 190 was taxiing. He instructed the pilot to go around. “You were lined up for a taxiway,” he said as the Cirrus aborted the landing.
Another potential airport collision was averted May 21, 2013, when an aircraft that had been cleared to cross Runway 8L at Miami-Dade County began taxiing instead onto Runway 8R, where an airliner had been cleared for takeoff. Controller Ramiro Martinez instructed the taxiing aircraft to stop while Edward Holden canceled the airliner’s takeoff clearance.
On June 13, 2013, two jets were inadvertently cleared on a collision course after one jet’s company filed a return flight plan, which removed it from the system. New York Center Oceanic controller Robert Ezzard, who was working traffic to and from Bermuda, sensed something was not right. He recalled that the jet had earlier shown up as traffic at that altitude and stopped the other aircraft’s climb, calling another controller who also noticed the missing flight plan. Just 30 seconds after the first airplane passed over the waypoint JIMAC in one direction, the other passed in the opposite direction 1,000 feet below.
While many controllers helped pilots stay safe in dangerous situations, others proved their mettle in their response after a crash. After witnessing the July 2013 landing accident of Asiana 214, a team of nine controllers at San Francisco International Airport diverted landing aircraft, kept taxiing aircraft clear, and kept Northern California Tracon informed of the unfolding situation in an effort to prevent the situation from getting worse.
Pearcy, a commercial pilot with single- and multiengine ratings who says “my life and my love is aviation,” said he reached out to the lost pilot over Houston in part because he remembered when he was a brand-new pilot and knew that many pilots are intimidated by talking to ATC.
“You might not know who to call, you might be embarrassed that you made a big mistake. I didn’t want to just sit there and watch him,” he said. He decided to do whatever he could do to contact the pilot and “get him where he needed to be.”
“Our job is to help pilots out, especially when they’re in trouble, so I was just doing my job and doing what they ask me to do.”
Listen to audio recording of the assists that earned these controllers the Archie League Medal of Safety Awards.