The throttle was wide open and unresponsive. Pilot Cathy Lewan needed plenty of runway—and help from the world’s busiest approach controllers—to get her Cessna 172 safely on the ground.
Lewan’s flight began as a routine photography flight Feb. 14, 2016, from Madison Municipal Airport, aiming for an area about 10 miles from Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Routine became emergency when Lewan discovered the throttle was not responding, and the engine was stubbornly turning at takeoff power no matter what she tried.
The controller handling Lewan’s declaration of an emergency, Patrick Burrows, briefed controller-in-charge Clay Sutton, who tasked his team with specific duties. Lewan and her stricken Cessna were handed off to Mason Braddock, whose sector had better radio reception, and controller Nichole Surunis was reassigned to assist Braddock. As Braddock talked to Lewan, a flight instructor who heard the original distress call joined the frequency and suggested a long, shallow approach to Atlanta’s Runway 10 to control airspeed, then pulling the mixture over the numbers of the 9,000-foot runway to shut off the engine. Keith Tyus, a traffic management coordinator in the busy facility and also a CFI, joined the team to help Braddock understand what Lewan was up against.
“We just needed to get her to calm down, and describe what she needed to do to get to the airport prior to shutting off her engine,” Tyus later said. “Mason had such a calm voice the whole time which was a big help.”
There would be no go-around, but lots of pavement to work with.
Lewan, in the audio recording of the radio exchange, confirmed she understood the plan, and asked ATC to contact her family.
“I’m going to stay with you because you’re going to tell me when,” Lewan said of the idle cutoff solution to her stuck throttle problem.
As Lewan made a low approach to reconnoiter the runway, the tower and tracon controllers worked as a team to keep the Cessna safely separated from the commercial traffic streaming in and out of the world’s busiest airport. Runway 10 belonged to Lewan and her Skyhawk, and emergency vehicles were lined up and waiting by the time the pilot was ready to make her final approach.
“I should be able to knock this out. I’m so…am so sorry for all those emergency people sitting down there waiting on me,” Lewan told Braddock, who had stayed with her on the air since the handoff several minutes before.
“N66D, that is absolutely the reason we’re here. We’re here for you,” Braddock replied.
A year later, on March 14, Braddock, Burrows, Surunis, Sutton, and Tyus met Lewan, who thanked them for the help.
"I was nervous and I was terrified, but I also knew I was in the best hands in the world," Lewan told The Associated Press on March 14.
The ATC team members were among 19 air traffic controllers honored March 22 by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association with an Archie League Medal of Safety, the highest honor given to ATC personnel who rise to challenging situations and played a key role preventing disaster and saving lives. Named for the first air traffic controller, the honorees were nominated by their peers and chosen by a panel including NATCA Director of Safety and Technology Jim Ullmann, Experimental Aircraft Association CEO Jack Pelton, and Steve Jangelis, safety chairman of the Air Line Pilots Association International.
The AOPA Air Safety Institute also continued a tradition of pilots honoring eight controllers who helped pilots in distress.