Archie League Medal of Safety – President’s Award 2023
The 19th Annual Archie League Medal of Safety Awards ceremony took place in Las Vegas, Nevada on the 20th of September. The Archie League Medal is an annual event by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) in the US. This year, the awards presentations took place at the Communicating for Safety Conference and the videos from the event have recently been released.
The winner of the President’s Award went to the Southern Region: Chip Flores of Fort Pierce ATCT and Robert S. Morgan Jr of Palm Beach International Airport ATCT. I wrote about the incident last May, when it had just happened, as Passenger in Control but I wanted to revisit it now that the controllers have been recognised for their work that day. I enjoy these awards so much as it gives us a more personal look at what happened.
Air Traffic controllers Chip Flores and Robert Morgan were on duty at their respective posts on the 10th of May 2022 when a chilling call came in.
““I’ve got a serious situation here. My pilot has gone incoherent. I have no idea how to fly the airplane, but I’m maintaining 9,100 feet.”
The aircraft was a Cessna 208 Caravan registration N333LD, a high-wing turboprop with nine passengers seats and a fixed gear. That day, they were flying from Marsh Harbour Airport in the Bahamas to Palm Beach International in Florida. The pilot was accompanied by two passengers, one, Russ Franck, sitting in the right seat with a headset on. The other passenger was Darren Harrison.
The pilot told the passengers that he wasn’t feeling right and had a headache. Then, he collapsed onto the yoke.
The two men tried to move the unconscious pilot off of the controls but in the process, they accidentally disengaged the autopilot. The Cessna’s nose dipped and the aircraft went into a nosedive and a sharp turn. There was no time to lose. They managed to pull the pilot off of the controls and onto the floor.
Neither of the men had any flight experience. Darren Harrison quickly got the aircraft, presumably still in trim, out of the dive and level. They found another headset and Russ Franck showed Darren how to plug it in and where the push-to-talk button was. He told WPBF.com later that he had no idea if Darren had any flight simulator or gaming experience, but he seemed calm and cool. “I had to make a hard decision that Darren was going to be our best chance. And I was glad that I made that decision.”
Darren did not, in fact, have any simulator experience but he was fascinated by aviation and always watched the pilots at work. Apparently some of it stuck! He made a call to “Traffic”.
Darren: I’ve got a serious situation here. My pilot has gone incoherent. I have no idea how to fly the airplane, but I’m maintaining ninety-one hundred.
Fort Pierce controller Chip Flores responded immediately. He started by trying to establish the aircraft’s location. Darren wasn’t sure where they were but luckily, he could see the Florida coastline in front of him which narrowed it down quite a bit. Chip told him to level off at 5,000 feet and squawk 7700 while they worked to identify the location.
Chip: N3LD, can you say again what the situation is?
Darren: Pilot is incoherent.
Chip: Caravan 333LD, came in a little broken. What…What was the situation with the pilot?
Darren: He is incoherent. He’s out.
Chip: Caravan 333LD, roger. Try to hold the wings level and see if you can start descending for me. Push forward on the controls and descend at a very slow rate.
Darren: Yeah, I’m descending right now at five-fifty feet a minute, passing eighty-six forty.
Russ Franck, in the right seat, tried to help Harrison as best he could, while also tapping the pilot’s foot, to make sure that the pilot, a personal friend, knew they were still there with him.
But Darren was struggling to use the flight aids in the aircraft: every time he tried to turn something on, the aircraft started to roll. He asked for a heading. Chip told him to just keep the wings level and follow the coast. Either direction, didn’t matter.
Meanwhile, Palm Beach control identified the Cessna Caravan at about 20 nautical miles east of Boca Raton Airport.
Chip told Darren to change frequency to Palm Beach air traffic control. Darren’s interest in aviation was clearly helping him, but there were simple things neither of the men knew how to do, like changing frequencies. They were going to have to use emergency radios. Chip told Darren that a controller from Palm Beach would take over the frequency and help him to fly the aircraft.
The radar room at Palm Beach had a basic emergency radio that they could use to talk to the pilot. The lead air traffic controller quickly decided that controller Robert Morgan was the man for the job: he not only had twenty years experience as a controller but was also a certified flight instructor with 1,200 flight hours. Robert was on break, reading a book in the back, when he was told he was needed for an emergency. He rushed to the radar room to find that the pilot was incapacitated and the passengers were flying the plane.
“Oh boy,” he said. Then he sat down at the emergency radio.
Robert had never flown a Cessna Caravan before. Someone got Robert a print-out showing the controls but it didn’t match what Darren was seeing. This Cessna Caravan had a glass cockpit, with digital flight instrument displays on LDC screens rather than analog dials and gauges.
Darren initially said he’d land at Boca Raton but Robert quickly decided that he was better off flying a few more minutes to reach Palm Beach, with a longer runway and better facilities to deal with an emergency. The rest of the team at Palm Beach Tower worked to make sure there were no obstacles. The runway was closed and aircraft in the area were put into holding patterns and told to expect delays. They dispatched emergency responders and moved other vehicles and aircraft away from the runway. The air traffic manager found a more useful photo of the Cessna 208 ‘s glass cockpit for Robert. With the entire team working to support him, Robert was able to focus completely on Darren in the cockpit.
Robert guided him through the turns and how to extend the flaps once on a long and stable final approach. Once the Cessna was over the runway, he explained how to carefully keep the nose up until he felt the main gear touch down. Now it was up to Darren.
“Before I knew it, he was like, ‘I’m on the ground. How do I turn this thing off?” Robert spoke about the landing to local media. “I felt like I was going to cry then, because I had so much adrenaline built up.”
You can watch the video from the award presentation on YouTube.
In a second bit of good news, the aircraft resumed flying again a few months later and FlightAware shows that it’s still very active. There are a few comments to say that the pilot that day made a full recovery, although I couldn’t find a quoteable source.
But while looking for an update, I stumbled upon this comment on Kathryn’s Report. It is posted anonymously, so I cannot find the person who wrote it but I sure wish I could, because the response to this incident really made me laugh out loud.
NOTE: Sorry for not spotting this myself but Mendel has tracked down the “anonymous comment” to a piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer titled Top Gun by Lisa Scottoline. Ms Scottoline has a website (and a newsletter that you can sign up for) called Chick Wit.
Posted 22 May 2022
I like to think that I can do something if I put my mind to it.
But I learned the truth this week.
When I read this story about the passenger in a private airplane, who landed the plane himself after the pilot collapsed.
There are so many things I couldn’t have done I don’t even know where to begin.
Start with the fact that after the pilot passes out, the passenger radios for help.
My first reaction would be to panic, then scream.
My second reaction would be to scream, then panic.
This would be me: AAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHH NOOO PLEASE GOD!!!!!!!
But I would use profanity.
I kept it clean for your benefit.
And I’d run out of capitals.
I would use every capital.
Then I would run out of profanity.
No way am I reaching for the radio.
I couldn’t even begin to use that radio.
I’m still trying to figure out the dashboard in my car.
I never use my navigation system because it’s too complicated. I managed to set Home as a Favorite Location but plugged in the wrong house number and couldn’t change it, so my Home is my neighbor’s house.
Luckily, I know my house, so when the navigation system directs me to my neighbor’s house, I just drive next door all by myself.
What a big girl!
I even have trouble with the presets on Sirius XM. Sometimes they’re there, and sometimes they’re not. Sometimes they make me listen to Preview, which is an endless commercial for Sirius, to which I already subscribe.
I can’t explain any of this.
I don’t even try.
I just do without Classic Rewind.
Those are my kind of stakes.
Save-your-life-at-30,000 feet are not.
How much do I like Steely Dan?
Enough to press the Forward button 85 times?
I just sing Steely Dan.
I know all the words.
To return to point, according to the story, the passenger radioed the air traffic controller for help, and the air traffic controller told the passenger how to use the transponder so the aircraft could be found on radar.
Transponders are real?
The only thing I know about transponders is that Ashton Kutcher was looking for one in Dude, Where’s My Car?
I love that movie.
Is this, Dude, Where’s My Plane?
Reportedly the air traffic controller then told the passenger to descend 5,000 feet.
Can you imagine hearing that?
I don’t want to be 5,000 feet above anything.
I don’t even want to stand on a ladder.
I pay somebody to clean my gutters.
A footstool, I can handle.
I’m all over footstools.
Then the air traffic controller told the passenger, “Maintain wings level and just try to follow the coast, either north or southbound.”
How do you keep your wings level?
I can’t even walk across the room with a cup of tea and not spill some.
Truly, I do not allow myself to drink tea in my family room because the rug has so many tea stains.
At this point, I’d rather tell people it’s dog pee.
It’s less embarrassing.
And how about follow the coast for directions?
When I stop for directions, I never remember what they said.
“Follow the coastline,” I might remember.
But it’s one thing to follow a map, and another to follow a globe.
By the way, the report clarified that the passenger had no prior flight experience.
I can’t imagine being that cool without having prior flight experience.
My only prior flight experience is divorce.
I love all stories about flying.
And I watch from my chair.
On the ground.
I hope the author of this has since managed to get a cup of tea.