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Stuck on top, no gyro in IMC: Top ATC assists

NATCA awards controllers for 2014 assists

With solid instrument meteorological conditions extending hundreds of miles in every direction, a VFR-only pilot was stuck on top of the clouds. The Cessna 172 would have to descend through almost 8,000 feet of IMC—a task the pilot accomplished safely Sept. 16 with the help of Houston Tracon controller Hugh McFarland.

McFarland, who was among 14 controllers honored March 4 with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association’s Archie League Medal of Safety Award, helped the pilot load his GPS with the information for Houston Executive Airport and maintain a steady descent through the clouds to a safe landing. The Archie League awards, presented at NATCA’s annual Communicating For Safety conference in Las Vegas, recognize the role air traffic control plays in keeping the National Airspace System safe and efficient.

A private pilot with multiengine and instrument ratings, McFarland said he understood the 20-plus minutes of solid instrument flying would require tremendous focus from the pilot. “That’s challenging even for a rusty instrument pilot,” he noted: Inattention to flight attitude can easily lead to unusual attitudes in instrument conditions.

Not knowing the pilot’s experience level, he didn’t want to take anything for granted, he told AOPA in an interview. For those 20 minutes, he calmly reminded the pilot to stay calm, keep the wings level, trim the aircraft, enrich the mixture, and ensure the carburetor heat was on, guiding him through slow, gentle banks and a stabilized descent. He said he wanted to help the pilot with these “housekeeping” tasks—small but important, as carburetor ice could cause an engine failure, for instance—so he could maintain his focus on flying.

“If I was in the airplane, if I was with this guy in the airplane, what would I be doing to help the situation?” he said. “…I wanted his focus and attention to be on flying the airplane.”

McFarland owns a Beechcraft Baron he flies on family trips and volunteer flights, and he had coincidentally refreshed his knowledge of the 172 just weeks before, when he flew with an instructor to regain his single-engine passenger-carrying currency, he said. His knowledge of the aircraft helped him provide advice as the pilot descended, eventually breaking out at 700 feet msl and landing safely. McFarland helped him orient himself to the airport and said he used position reports from another airplane that had seen the Cessna on TCAS when it wasn’t showing up on his radar.

McFarland said he has since met the pilot, whom he credits for keeping control of the airplane; he said the pilot’s familiarity with the airplane and proficiency from flying regularly played a role in the successful outcome. “A lot of prayers were answered that day, for sure,” he said.

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Winners of the Archie League Awards, several of them pilots themselves, went above and beyond to lend assistance to pilots in distress. These controllers averted collisions when aircraft were on converging courses, recognized signs of equipment malfunctions and guided pilots safely out of IMC, helped aircraft picking up ice make it to an airport to land, and more.

“While many controllers often feel that they are ‘just doing their job,’ their hard work is often viewed by others as remarkable and extraordinary,” explains NATCA on its website. “Named after the first air traffic controller, the Archie League Medal of Safety Awards program highlights a variety of ‘saves’ – some which involve a team of controllers working together and others which are the result of one controller’s efforts.”

Air Safety Institute Senior Safety Advisor Bruce Landsberg serves on the panel of judges selecting the winners; the Air Safety Institute also honors controllers at the awards banquet with Flight Assist awards.

Trouble in the soup

A calm voice and capable assistance from ATC can be a lifeline for a pilot dealing with equipment malfunctions in IMC. Several winners of the 2015 awards helped pilots with equipment failures and other problems in IMC steer clear of obstacles and make it down safely.

After vectoring a Piper Saratoga for an ILS approach to Lincoln, Nebraska, on Dec. 13, Omaha Tracon controller Travis Arnold noticed the aircraft pass the final approach course and issued a corrective heading. When the aircraft continued in the wrong direction, he asked if the pilot’s gyro was working.

“I don’t know, I just got crazy readings when I made that last turn,” the pilot said. Arnold issued no-gyro turns and monitored the aircraft’s altitude, and the pilot was able to get his equipment working again and land safely.

On Nov. 1, a Cessna Skyhawk encountered icing and downdrafts on an IFR flight to Boeing Field in Seattle. Seattle Center trainee Mark Haechler, along with Al Passero and Matt Dippé, declared an emergency and guided the aircraft to lower terrain. The controllers assisted the aircraft, which could not climb and continually turned west, until the pilot broke out of the weather and was able to see the airport.

On Feb. 13, 2014, a Beechcraft Baron began picking up ice on descent inbound to Menominee, Wisconsin. Circumstances worsened after the pilot was cleared for the approach.

“We’re going to climb, how can I climb to get out of this? My gyro just spun,” reported the pilot. Three controllers in the Green Bay Tracon were honored for their actions assisting the pilot. While Justin Krenke, a former airline pilot, climbed the aircraft in an attempt to get above the icing conditions, Mike Ostrander called Minneapolis Center to let controllers know they were handling the aircraft as an emergency and needed to clear it past 4,000 feet. Adam Helm, an instrument-rated pilot who passed through the tracon on a break, checked the weather at nearby airports to find one with higher ceilings.

The pilot was having an increasingly difficult time maintaining headings and altitude because of icing, NATCA noted, and declared an emergency to descend below the minimum vectoring altitude trying to get under the icing conditions. The controllers informed the pilot of obstructions and vectored him over an alternate airport several times, and the aircraft made a hard landing with only minor injuries, according to NATCA.

NATCA honored Anchorage Center controller and instrument-rated private pilot Parker Corts for assisting a Piper Comanche pilot who was having trouble navigating inbound to Juneau on Aug. 8. When the pilot was unable to find an intersection to begin the LDA approach to the airport, Corts gave the pilot vectors and altitudes to keep him away from higher terrain. He enlisted the help of another aircraft in relaying transmissions to the pilot and helping him find an airport in better conditions to make a visual approach.

Close calls

Potomac Tracon controller Joe Rodewald was working Charlottesville Approach Oct. 5 when he saw two aircraft that appeared to be on converging courses at the same altitude. Since the aircraft were squawking VFR and not in contact with ATC, Rodewald broadcast traffic alerts in the blind. One pilot was monitoring the frequency and began looking for the traffic, and Rodewald continued to make traffic calls until the pilot reported the traffic in sight—when the two aircraft were less than a mile apart.

On Sept. 15, a JetBlue airplane missed its departure time, so Boston Tower controller Kelly Eger routed it around the airport for a new departure time, instructing it to hold short of Runway 22R. The pilot responded correctly, so she cleared a United Airlines aircraft for takeoff on 22R. But the taxiing JetBlue aircraft didn’t stop, placing it on a collision course with the aircraft beginning its takeoff roll. Sarah LaPorte Ostrander, who was training a controller on ground control, alerted Eger, who saw the incursion at the same time, NATCA said, and Eger told the JetBlue flight to stop.

On Oct. 24, a Cessna Citation Mustang departed Orlando International Airport and entered Central Florida Tracon controller Sarina Gumbert’s airspace. While the pilot stated the correct heading, Gumbert saw he was instead turning to a heading that put him in conflict with a departing aircraft. She issued a new heading and alerted the pilot to the traffic.

On Dec. 7, Brackett Field Tower controller Jesse Anderson noticed that a Cessna Skyhawk inbound to the California airport had turned toward Cable Airport, a private, nontowered field four miles to the northeast. While Anderson told the pilot to turn away from the airport and gave traffic alerts, the pilot inadvertently joined the downwind for Cable in the opposite direction of traffic, in conflict with three aircraft in the pattern. He directed the aircraft away from Cable and back toward Brackett. On the way, he instructed the pilot to climb to avoid terrain.

The pilot then reported that the sun was in his eyes and he could not see the airport. Anderson helped the disoriented and noticeably shaken pilot find his way back to the airport and land.

Sarah Deener

Sarah Deener

Senior Director of Publications
Senior Director of Publications Sarah Deener is an instrument-rated commercial pilot and has worked for AOPA since 2009.
Topics: Communication, ATC, Training and Safety

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