Nine amazing air traffic controllers … just doing their job
The National Air Traffic Controllers Association has an annual event to recognise the best “flight assist” of air traffic controllers in nine regions which cover the United States. The presentation was last month and their website includes highlights from the radio transcripts and offer an interesting look into the trials and tribulations of controllers. It’s also a nice reminder of the people on the ground who are completely invested the flights in their region and what they are doing to make air travel safer for everyone.
I’ve done a summary of each of the regional winners; however if you are interested, there’s a lot more detail on the 11th Annual Archie League Medal of Safety Awards web pages.
Parker Corts was working the southeast Alaska sector when he noticed a Comanche pilot having trouble navigating.
(Note: I’ve jumped each video ahead to the radio highlights, you’ll need to backtrack if you want to hear the full presentation.)
The pilot was inbound to Juneau and Corts cleared the pilot for the LYNNS intersection for the approach but he noticed that the pilot was having trouble navigating. The pilot couldn’t find intersection, so instead Corts gave the pilot vectors and altitudes to bring him in.
After issuing the aircraft a heading of 100, Corts noticed the pilot was not flying the heading, even though he had read back the clearance correctly. Instead, the pilot was flying a 010 heading and heading directly for higher terrain. At that point, Corts’ expertise and instincts as an air traffic controller and pilot kicked in. He knew something was not okay in the aircraft.
It’s not clear what was wrong and the pilot hadn’t said that anything was wrong. However, Corts found that the pilot wasn’t able to maintain headings or altitudes and couldn’t tune into the VOR. The pilot eventually stated that his equipment didn’t appear to be working properly. Corts asked another aircraft in the area to help relay his messages and helped the pilot to get visual. Once he was in better weather conditions, the pilot was able to fly to a nearby airport and make a visual approach.
Travis Arnold was working the Lincoln sector at R90 when he noticed an aircraft behaving erratically.
The weather was IFR with 800-foot ceilings and eight mile visibility, which warranted all arrivals into Lincoln be ILS. N4120S was being vectored for the ILS approach when Arnold noticed the pilot seemed to be struggling with the headings he was given.
Again, the pilot didn’t mention having any difficulties. Arnold thought the winds might be causing the discrepancy. He gave the pilot corrective headings but then near final and cleared for the ILS runway 18 approach, the pilot passed across the final approach course.
Arnold called out on the spot and issued another corrective heading to take the aircraft back towards the localiser. The pilot acknowledged the turn but it was clear something was wrong. Arnold asked the pilot if his gyro was working and the pilot admitted that he was getting crazy readings from his instruments. Arnold verified that the aircraft was straight and level and then tried again with no-gyro turns: telling the pilot exactly when to start and stop the standard rate turn rather than giving a heading other other instruction that relies on the instruments.
But then, the aircraft descended below the minimum vectoring altitude.
He issued a low altitude alert and instructed the pilot to climb to 3,000 feet. The pilot acknowledged. However, the aircraft continued to descend. Arnold issued another low altitude alert and again instructed the pilot to climb. He immediately instructed the pilot to stop his turn and climb to 4,000 feet. The pilot mentioned he had ground contact and was currently at 2,000 feet.
The pilot had not initially realised he was descending but once he was able to see the ground, he decided he needed to land it in the nearest field. Arnold reassured the pilot and convinced him to climb to 4,000 feet. Eventually above the clouds, the pilot was able to remedy the problem with his equipment and descend again for a safe landing at the airport.
Joe Rodewald was working Charlottesvill approach when he noticed two VFR aircraft on converging courses at the same altitude.
Rodewald immediately began broadcasting in the blind in hopes that one or both aircraft were monitoring his frequency.
He didn’t get an answer until the aircraft were two miles apart. One of the pilots was monitoring the frequency and told Rodewald he was looking. Rodewald continued with traffic information until the pilot saw the oncoming aircraft.
When the aircraft were two miles apart, the pilot of N811LJ, who was proactively monitoring the frequency, acknowledged and answered Rodewald’s calls. He responded, “looking.” Rodewald continued to make traffic calls.
Rodewald Traffic is now one mile apart converging.
N811LJ 1LJ has the traffic in sight, thanks for the call out.
When the pilot finally got the other traffic in sight, the two aircraft were less than a mile and indicated 100 feet apart.
It must have been a huge relief to Rodewald to make contact and be able to divert one of the converging aircraft before it got too close.
Great Lakes Region
Justin Krenke was working a satellite position in the TRACON when he asked a Beechcraft to descend to 3000 feet because of known icing in the area. He couldn’t ask the pilot to descend any further.
Adam Helm, a controller and pilot, passed through and overheard the situation. He immediately joined Krenke to help. The pilot could not descend further and needed to climb above the icing conditions. Mike Ostrander called Minneapolis Center to let them know that they were handling the aircraft as an emergency and that it needed to climb past 4,000 feet.
While Krenke climbed the aircraft to 6,000 and then 8,000 feet, Helm pulled weather reports to try to find an alternate airport.
He even called Minneapolis Center and Milwaukee TRACON to ask if they had any airports in their area with visual flight rule conditions. There were none.
The pilot began to descend and head towards GRB. Mindful of the icing and pilot-reported equipment malfunction, the controllers started to prepare for a possible emergency ASR approach to GRB. As time progressed, it became evident that the pilot was having an increasingly difficult time maintaining headings and altitude due to the icing. About 20 miles from GRB, the pilot declared an emergency and descended below the minimum vectoring altitude in an attempt to get under the icing conditions.
The controllers jumped into action and relayed possible obstructions to the pilot. They also found an alternate airport where the pilot could land, Oconto Airport (OCQ).
Just when it looked like the pilot could land, he reported that there were ploughs on the runway.
Controllers lost radar and communications with the aircraft and were notified that the aircraft had crash landed. They later heard that all crew and passengers were safe.
Air Traffic Controllers Kelly Eger and Sarah LaPOrte Ostrander were working next to each other at Boston ATCT in the evening rush. Eger was working the local west position and Ostrander was training someone on ground control.
JetBlue 405 was not going to make the departure sequencing time, so a new one was coordinated. Because of this, the JetBlue aircraft had to be taken out of the sequence of aircraft awaiting takeoff. Eger decided to move the aircraft across runway 22R at runway 15L. She told the pilot to turn onto runway 15L and hold short of runway 22R.
The pilot acknowledged and readback the instructions directly. Eger continued and cleared a United flight for take-off. The United aircraft was rolling at highspeed down the runway when Ostrander realised that the JetBlue aircraft was not holding short but instead was looking likely to cross runway 22R in front of the United flight which was at high speed.
The video above shows the relative locations of the aircraft. At 02:50 you can see the JetBlue heading for the intersection.
Ostrander alerted Eger, who saw the situation and called on JetBlue to stop immediately.
JetBlue stopped just before the ASDE-X alert went off in the control tower. Thanks to Eger and Ostrander’s teamwork and professionalism, United departed safely.
I can just imagine the heart-stopping moment when they saw JetBlue was still moving. Fast reactions by everyone saved the day.
Northwest Mountain Region
Mark Haechler was a trainee at Seattle Center working with Al Passero and Matt Dippé when a Cessna 172 Skyhawk got into trouble. It had flown to Boeing Field airport earlier that day on a VFR flight that he’d had to convert to IFR as he was unable to maintain VFR and flew into icing conditions.
On the way back, the pilot’s problems continued and he struggled with icing, downdrafts, terrain and deviating from his course.
Haechler:N48E, report leaving 8,800.
N3048E: Uh, we are actually still at 8,500, so we will inform you when we leave 8,800, 48E.
Haechler: N48E, I’m showing you, ah, actually in a descent. I did show you at 8,600. Now I show you out of 8,400.
N3048E: Yeah, I think we were getting some downdrafts there. We’re trying our best to get it up, 48E.
Haechler: N48E, I need you to expedite your climb to 10,000 for terrain.
The controllers declared an emergency. The aircraft could not climb, so Haechler turned him back towards lower terrain. Passero found a nearby approach but the aircraft wasn’t DME equipped and didn’t have the approach plate.
N3048E: Still getting some downdrafts, unable to climb. Can you give us some vectors around the terrain, please, 48E?
Haechler: N48E, uh, you are below my terrain and unable to climb, I am now declaring this an emergency. Turn right heading 0-2-0 for, uh, terrain.
Because the aircraft had become an emergency, the controllers decided to have the Skyhawk pilot fly the approach, while vectoring him to the final approach course. This would allow the controllers to step him down to the airport gradually while still monitoring his actions. Throughout this, the pilot repeatedly turned west and they would have to correct his course to get him back on track.
It must have been stressful but eventually, it worked. The Skyhawk broke out of the weather and was able to see the airport, where he made a safe visual landing.
Sarina Gumbert was working the Departure Radar West at Central Florida TRACON. A large conference had ended the day before and it was quiet. She had only one other aircraft when a Cessna Citation Mustang N7876C departed Orlando International Airport and entered her airspace.
The tower controller at MCO had assigned N7876C a 015 heading after departure, which he correctly read back. When the pilot of N7876C called DRW, he stated that he was turning right to 015. The read back was correct. The DRW position typically covers a range of about 45 to 50 miles of airspace. Looking at this much airspace, it is somewhat difficult to observe, in a split second, when an aircraft is not flying the correct heading, especially when a pilot says the heading you expect him or her to state
However, Gumbert immediately saw that the aircraft was off track. She issued a 360 heading and asked him what his assigned heading was. The Citation pilot read back 015. She asked the the pilot to turn left immediately and informed him of conflicting traffic. “It appears you are eastbound,” she told him. The Mustang was tracking 097 degrees and was aiming directly at JetBlue 94 who had just departed Runway 35L at Orlando International Airport.
After changing the pilot’s heading, there was no response from him. Gumbert continued to maintain her professionalism and calmly issued a traffic alert before again asking the pilot of N7876C his heading. Finally, he casually replied that his heading was 360. Gumbert then issued the Citation an immediate left turn to 270. Instead of questioning the pilot’s actions, she instantaneously attempted to mitigate the situation.
As the speaker says, that’s 45 seconds of blood-pumping action just right there.
Hugh McFarland at Houston received a call from a VFR pilot who was trapped above clouds, solid IFR weather. He’d been flying towards Houston for almost two hours without seeing a break in the weather.
McFarland’s job was to get the pilot down; however the weather was 8,000 feet thick and extended for hundreds of miles. There wasn’t an airport that the pilot could get to VFR within fuel range. So McFarland needed to get the pilot through the weather and to a runway. The best option was Houston Executive Airport (TME)
As a Beechcraft Baron aircraft owner and certified multi-engine instrument rated pilot himself, McFarland understood how critical it was that the pilot be able to land at TME. For 20 minutes, McFarland acted as the pilot’s navigation equipment and eyes through the weather. He prepared the pilot for the descent into TME, helped the pilot load up his GPS with the airport’s information, constantly reminded the pilot of his airspeed, bank angle in the turn, to stay calm, to breathe, to trim the aircraft, and to ensure the carburetor heat was on to prevent icing, among other things.
The pilot finally broke free of the clouds at 700 feet above sea level. McFarland lost radar contact but kept instructing the pilot until the aircraft had landed safely at Houston Executive Airport.
Western Pacific Region
Jesse Anderson was working at Brackett Field Air Traffic Control Tower in California when a Cessna Skyhawk requested ATIS information. Anderson had only two other aircraft, so he passed on the ATIS information rather than have the pilot switch frequencies.
The pilot had intended to go to Brackett Field but he took a wrong turn towards Cable Airport, an uncontrolled airport four miles northeast.
Anderson tried repeatedly to get the pilot to turn away from the busy airport but the pilot didn’t understand. He ended up in the downwind for Cable and in conflict with three aircraft. Anderson calmly gave traffic alerts and tried to get the pilot away from the danger.
Anderson observed N1120Z turn northbound and told him to turn east instead, away from the other aircraft. Once established on a course away from Cable, Anderson then told the Skyhawk pilot to turn right on a suggested heading of 260. Once he observed N1120Z turn east, he told the pilot to continue his right turn and finally got him flying west towards Brackett again.
Once the pilot was on track for the correct airport, he was heading directly into the sun and couldn’t see. Anderson talked the pilot down until he had the runway in sight.
N1120Z: 20Z, uh, up at 2,500, I missed the runway; I cannot see the runway because the sun is in my eyes.
Anderson: Cessna 20Z, continue westbound, you’re lined for Cable airport, just continue westbound, do you have the 210 freeway in sight?
N1120Z: I see this, runway 2-4, it says Cable, Cable runway?
Anderson: Cessna 20Z, affirmative, that’s Cable, just continue westbound, continue on that heading.
N1120Z: Continue heading, 20Z.
N1120Z: May I turn back on 2-6, Brackett, 20Z?
Anderson: Cessna 20Z, just continue that heading for Brackett, just go fly straight ahead on that current heading.
N1120Z: Oh I see I missed…oh I, thank you, thank you, thank you.
Now that he had Brackett’s runway in sight, he was able to land safely but, clearly stressed and upset, he then turned the wrong way off the runway. Anderson continued to guide the pilot until the aircraft was safely out of the way.
And the winner is…
Only one region is awarded the President’s award and I have to say, I’m glad I didn’t have to pick!
This year, the award went to Hugh McFarland of Houston TRACON in the Southwest region, for his help getting a VFR pilot down safely.
As a pilot, it’s easy to forget that the disembodied voices on the radio are real people who at heart want one thing: safe skies for everyone. That’s why I’m a big fan of the NATCA awards, highlighting the types of incidents that can come up in a day’s work as an air traffic controller.
Would there be any repercussions for the pilots in these circumstances?
I’m guessing probably not for the ones due to equipment failures but just wondering for the others…
How hard do you intend to come down on pilots who erred? For argument’s sake, let’s assume that no pilot intentionally will get him/herself in a situation where the safety of the aircraft is in jeopardy (yes, I know there are exceptions, fortunately so rare that we probably may discount them – or can we even say: it?).
Let us instead concentrate on the mostly unsung heroes who are getting their well-deserved moment in the spotlight.
And not only in the USA are cases where skill and intuition caused an air traffic controller to turn a situation from a near-accident into a safe arrival.
And yes, I admit that I have encountered cases of poor ATC and I am very critical of the insistence still of mixing English with the national language – in my considered opinion Paris ATC definitely has a much lower standard than e.g. London, Oslo, Copenhagen, Frankfurt, Dublin, Amsterdam to name some of the very good if not outstanding ATC centres.
But this must not distract from the outstanding job most ATC controllers do. I remember an ATC controller at Lagos, Nigeria who managed to keep track of arriving and departing aircraft without the benefit of radar. The installation had been bought but still was in storage when I flew a Lagos-based Learjet in the early ‘eighties.
In most African countries all traffic, road as well as air, is halted when the President travels.
One early morning when all departing flights were calling for their start-up one aircraft, after a few not acknowledged attempts, demanded immediate start-up clearance, adding “we have the President on board”.
The brave retort was: “He is the man we want to delay most, because he is responsible for the fact that our radar has been kept in boxes for a long time”. This controller, by his accent clearly a Nigerian, also always managed to clear our aircraft from FL 470 all the way down crossing through many lower levels without ever making a mistake.
I do not know the man’s name but for me he is the best of them all !
Martin, Rudy’s answer is good. To clarify, though, yes, the pilots may also face repercussions. Here’s an example in the UK: http://fearoflanding.com/accidents/3400-fine-for-airspace-infringement/