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‘Something just wasn’t right’

Air traffic controllers honored for their assistance to pilots in trouble

Fort Worth Center controller Kerri Fingerson cleared the flight for another approach on a rainy April afternoon in Oklahoma, but something was not quite right.
NATCA Executive Vice President Andrew LeBovidge, AOPA Air Safety Institute Flight Assist honoree Ryan Hampton, ASI Senior Vice President Richard McSpadden, honorees Chelsea Arias and Dylan McLoughlin, and NATCA President Rich Santa.
From left, National Air Traffic Controllers Association Executive Vice President Andrew LeBovidge, AOPA Air Safety Institute Flight Assist Commendation honoree Ryan Hampton, AOPA Air Safety Institute Senior Vice President Richard McSpadden, Air Safety Institute Flight Assist Commendation honorees Chelsea Arias and Dylan McLoughlin, and NATCA President Rich Santa. Photo courtesy of NATCA.

Fingerson recalled in an account of the incident on April 23, 2021, posted by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, that deteriorating weather prompted her to call other airport towers for a weather update after clearing a Cessna 172 on the miss for a second approach to Clinton Regional Airport. She said her “Spidey sense” told her “something just wasn’t right.”

The Cessna deviated from the published missed approach and got her full attention, turning early and contacting departure 1,200 feet short of the expected altitude for that call.

“I knew at that point that he knew he was in trouble even though he really hadn’t admitted it verbally yet,” Fingerson said.

Fellow controller Megan Baird returned from break without having yet been assigned a duty station and sensed Fingerson had trouble on her hands, so Baird sat down alongside and plugged in her headset. The two divided the work of calling around for weather reports and identifying an airport with higher ceilings that was still in range of the Cessna’s rapidly dwindling fuel. They arranged for a restricted area to be deactivated to shorten the route, and kept the pilot updated on weather.

“They didn’t seem overly nervous, every word they said to the pilot was necessary and exactly technically correct...They didn’t just do everything right, they also did nothing wrong.”—NATCA President Rich Santa
A report from another pilot who had just landed at a closer airport with better weather changed the equation, and the Skyhawk pilot diverted to a safe landing with 14 minutes of fuel remaining.

Their teamwork and technical proficiency earned Fingerson and Baird particular distinction among the many controllers honored at the NATCA Communicating for Safety conference in Las Vegas, which featured the presentation of Archie League Medal of Safety Awards to controllers from various regions.

The President’s Award, which is chosen by NATCA President Rich Santa as the best flight assist of the year, was presented to Fingerson and Baird.

“[This event] stands out even among the previous presidential award winners. Not because it was particularly dramatic or the scale of the crisis. It stands out because the controllers’ work was outstanding from a technical standpoint,” said Santa. “Among all the nominated tapes that we reviewed this year, all who have listened to this tape were immediately struck by how well the controllers involved performed their job. They didn’t seem overly nervous, every word they said to the pilot was necessary and exactly technically correct...They didn’t just do everything right, they also did nothing wrong. I am pleased that we can give this save and the controllers involved the additional recognition that it deserves.”

A general aviation pilot battling high winds and icing; a Mitsubishi MU–2 pilot experiencing hypoxia; a military training aircraft with engine trouble—all of these time-critical emergencies ended positively with the help of air traffic controllers who were honored at the conference highlighted by presentations of NATCA’s Archie League Medal of Safety, awarded annually to individual controllers or teams of controllers for one “remarkable and extraordinary” save from each air route traffic control center region. Named for the first air traffic controller, the award began in 2004, and nominations and voting are carried out by NATCA members. The Archie League honorees were not alone. The AOPA Air Safety Institute Flight Assist Commendations, which recognize controllers for exceptional service, situational awareness, and teamwork in assisting GA pilots in dire circumstances, were presented by Air Safety Institute Senior Vice President Richard McSpadden, who addressed the NATCA conference.

“We came up with this award because we know if you could measure the accidents that don’t happen, you’d make a tremendous impact on safety,” said McSpadden. “If you could measure the accidents that don’t happen because of a calm, confident, supportive controller on the other end of the line, I’m sure we’d have a wall over here filled with pilots’ names.”

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Alyssa J. Miller

Alicia Herron

Publications Content Producer
Publications Content Producer Alicia Herron joined AOPA in 2018. She is a multiengine-rated commercial pilot with advanced ground and instrument flight instructor certificates. She is based in Los Angeles and enjoys tailwheel flying best.

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