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Confusion over ColoradoConfusion over Colorado

The student pilot was headed to Colorado’s Pueblo Memorial Airport, a cross-country of nearly 80 miles that might have ended very badly if not for a persuasive controller in Denver.

Pilot and air traffic controller Aaron Grijalva was working his radar sector on Dec. 11, 2016, in the Denver radar facility that handles approaching and departing traffic for the region, and took a call from a Cessna Skyhawk, which began as a routine (if somewhat unintelligible) request for VFR flight following from the student's home base, Centennial Airport in Denver.

The student pilot was difficult to understand, but that might not have been the only reason for Grijalva’s double-take, a note of surprise in his voice recorded for posterity along with the radar track provided by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. Grijalva on March 22 was among 19 air traffic controllers around the country honored with the Archie League Medal of Safety, the highest honor given to ATC personnel who help pilots avoid disaster.

“I’m seeing clouds out front and behind me. Um, am I supposed to fly into them?” the Cessna pilot inquired.

“Sorry, can you say that again please?” Grijalva responded.

The Skyhawk was south of Centennial Airport, where the student had embarked on a route with the mountains of Colorado’s Front Range rising to the west, peaks that are 10,000 feet higher than the Great Plains from which these mountains rise. The student pilot reported clouds ahead, and behind.

“Should I fly under them?” the student pilot wanted to know.

Flying into clouds is among the most dangerous things a pilot without instrument training can do. Loss of visual cues is typically followed, about three minutes later, by loss of aircraft control for those unfortunate enough to make this particular mistake, a fact that Grijalva, as a certificated pilot, knew well. He calmly explained the limitations of radar, that he could not use his display to “see” the clouds closing in around the Skyhawk. He enlisted the help of another pilot flying in the area to get a better sense of cloud coverage and where to guide the student pilot.

Grijalva understood the student’s navigation and situational awareness were breaking down, and guided him step by step. He suggested basic maneuvers and pointed out a road the student could use to help find the way home. Once the student was safely clear of clouds and close to returning to Centennial, confidence seemed to return in the cockpit and the student mentioned Pueblo, the original destination, in an otherwise unreadable remark.

“Are you sure you want to do that?” Grijalva responded. “It seems like we had a lot of trouble getting you around those clouds, are you … are you sure you want to just double check, maybe wait another try? Centennial is there, 11 o’clock and six miles if you want to just wait it out a bit.”

The student saw the wisdom in the suggestion, and landed. Grijalva soon contacted the flight instructor and briefed the CFI on what had happened, and the CFI reported the student would be retrained before continuing the program.  

“A disoriented pilot presents a challenging situation for any controller, especially when the pilot is inexperienced,” said NATCA Regional Vice President Doug Pincock, his remarks included in the program for the March 22 awards ceremony. “I am extremely proud to have such a skilled and dedicated professional representing the Northwest Mountain Region.”

NATCA is not alone honoring controllers whose assistance made a difference: The AOPA Air Safety Institute honored eight controllers around the country with Flight Assist Commendations at the same March 22 ceremony.

Jim Moore

Jim Moore

Editor-Web Jim Moore joined AOPA in 2011 and is an instrument-rated private pilot, as well as a certificated remote pilot, who enjoys competition aerobatics and flying drones.
Topics: Safety and Education, Air Safety Institute, Student

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