More Amazing ATC: 2016 Archie League Awards (Part Two)

9 Sep 16 2 Comments

Last week we looked at the first five regions for the 2016 Archie League Award Honorees. This week, without further introduction, I’d like to share the final four regions which includes the winner of the President’s award.

Northwest Mountain Region

A Cessna departed Ranger Creek Airport, following the White River valley northwest to route to Boeing Field. Ranger Creek Airport’s elevation is 2,650 feet, located in the foothills north of Mount Rainier. The cloud ceiling was predicted at 5,000 feet for that day but in actuality it was much lower. As the pilot turned to follow the valley, he encountered a wall of clouds. He was a VFR pilot, which means he must stay visual and within sight of the ground. With high ground on either side of him, he had no choice but to fly into them. He contacted Seattle TRACON (S46) where controller Joshua Pate was covering the east sector, which borders Mount Rainier (14,411 feet) and the Cascade Mountain Range.

N740QR: I’m lost in the clouds in the mountains and a VFR pilot.
Pate: Verify your full call sign please.
N740QR: N704QR.
Pate: Cessna N740QR squawk 0-3-3-4.
N740QR: 0-3-3-4.
N740QR: Alright, help me.

The pilot was at 5,900 feet and in cloud. Pate loaded his emergency obstruction video map. The Cessna was less than five miles north of terrain rising to 6,400 feet and seven miles west of more terrain rising to above the aircraft’s altitude.

Once a pilot loses his visual references, the ability to use the instruments and understand the data is critical. The pilot will suffer illusions as to the attitude and pitch of his aircraft and, without specific training, it is close to impossible to maintain straight and level flight, let alone manoeuvre.

Researchers at the University of Illinois tested twenty VFR pilots on simulated instrument weather: every single one entered a graveyard spiral or similar upset. All of them lost control of the aircraft: the only difference was how long it took. The pilot that survived the longest flew through the instrument conditions for 480 seconds (eight minutes). The shortest was twenty seconds. The average time was 178 seconds.

The controller knew he needed to get the pilot straight and level quickly.

Pate: N0QR stop turn. Just fly straight now.
Pate: N0QR stop your turn and fly straight.
Pate: N0QR I am not receiving any response. Just stop your turn and fly straight.
N740QR: 4QR straight flight.

Pate issued non-gyro vectors to help to lead the pilot away from the high terrain but the pilot became disorientated and began circling unintentionally. Pate continued to keep the pilot calm and issued vectors for about six minutes — nearly twice the average life expectancy of a visual pilot entering cloud — leading him back into visual conditions.

Southern Region

Controller Donald Blatnik was training Kenneth Scheele at Central Florida TRACON. A single-engine low wing Cessna 400 called in, reporting problems with his engine. He requested direct routing to Space Coast Regional Airport (KTIX), the airport nearest to him, so that he could land there.

0BZ: Daytona, 0BZ, I got an issue with my engine right now, I’m not declaring an emergency or anything like that but I need to get direct to Kilo Tango India X-ray immediately for 0BZ.

The Cessna’s oil pressure was dropping rapidly. Blatnik took over to assist the pilot while directing other traffic out of the way. He gave the pilot traffic information and the distance to KTIX. The engine worsened and the pilot declared an emergency.

Blatnik: 0BZ traffic’s now two o’clock and two miles westbound four-thousand 500 a Cirrus, let me know if you pick him up.
0BZ: 0BZ is losing his engine – I need, I need the runway, 0BZ, declaring emergency.
Blatnik: 0BZ roger. Cleared visual approach, I’m just letting you know there’s traffic there. Cleared visual approach runway 2-7.

Scheele coordinated a descent path with the controller in charge of the lower airspace and with Tower at KTIX, arranging for all other traffic to be cleared out of the way. Meanwhile, Blatnik continued to support and update the pilot.

The engine gave up completely as the Cessna descended. The cabin filled with smoke. As Scheele had already coordinated with the other relevant controllers, Blatnik was able to clear the aircraft for a visual approach and landing.

Blatnik: N0BZ cleared to land any runway.
Blatnik: N0BZ cleared to land any runway, Space Coast Airport.
0BZ: 0BZ.

The pilot landed safely and stopped on the runway. He evacuated himself and his son from the aircraft immediately, having seen flames coming from the cowling. The fire increased and destroyed the aircraft.

N400BZ by the Space Coast Regional Airport Fire Department
N400BZ by the Space Coast Regional Airport Fire Department

The NTSB investigation is still ongoing.

The two controllers received the NATCA President’s Award for their handling of the emergency.

Southwest Region

A Piper Lance, a six-seater single-engine aircraft, had just taken off from Dallas/Love Field Airport (DAL) when it suffered a complete electrical failure. The controllers realised that something was wrong when the aircraft went off course and pilot failed to respond to calls. No transponder response appeared on radar.

The pilot dialled 911 from his personal phone to try to get a message to the Tower but the call was dropped. The emergency dispatcher phoned the airport tower immediately but all he could tell them was that a pilot experiencing an emergency was trying to call them and that he couldn’t land.

The pilot called 911 again and this time, the dispatcher was able to patch him straight through to the tower.

911 Dispatch: This is Stephanie with 9-1-1. I have the pilot that was having the electrical issues and couldn’t land. I have him on the line.
Martin: Please connect him.
911 Dispatch: OK. Just a moment.
N4432B: Hello?
Martin: Hey, can you hear me?
N4432B: Barely.

With only the mobile phone connection to the pilot, controller Wade H Martin IV was able to coordinate the pilot for a low approach fly-by past the tower. The pilot did not know if the landing gear was down. With the runway lights turned all the way up, he would be able to make visual contact with the airport and hopefully they would be able to establish whether the landing gear was down.

Controller Nick Valadez took over all frequencies in order to allow Martin to focus on the pilot. There were two aircraft waiting to depart and an airport operations vehicle on the tarmac. Valadez asked all three to watch the Piper flying over the runway to see if they could see the landing gear. All three reported that the landing gear was down, which Martin then relayed to the pilot. Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting vehicles were updated from Alert I (standby) to Alert II (difficult or crash landing expected).

The pilot planned a dead-stick landing with the engine off. Interesting note: the “stick” in dead-stick doesn’t refer to the flight controls but the wooden propeller, which without power is just a dead stick.

N4432B: Yeah. I am going to come back around. I will land with the engine off just in case the gear is not locked.
Martin:*** Not a problem. I’m going to roll the fire equipment now.*
**Martin to Valadez:
Roll ‘em.
N4432B: If the gear is locked, I’d like to get out and check it. If it’s good, I’ll taxi it back over to the FBO.

The aircraft touched down. The gear was locked into position and the pilot was able to stop the aircraft within the first 1,700 feet of the 7,752-foot runway.

Western Pacific Region

Three controllers on duty at Northern California TRACON when a Cessna 182 departed from Monterey Regional Airport. The pilot contacted the controller on position, Ryan Nines, to say that he was at 4,500 feet and experiencing a rough ride. He requested a turn back to Monterey. Suddenly, the aircraft’s altitude dropped to 1,800 feet.

Nines: N5188T, NorCal approach, are you alright there?
N5188T: Uh, no I’m getting…
Nines: N5188T try to level your wings, just level your wings. I’m getting a low altitude alert, check your altitude immediately. The minimum vectoring altitude in that area is two thousand, three hundred.

The aircraft was descending tail-first in a spiralling turn. Nines repeated again that the pilot needed to focus on getting his wings level. Other aircraft in the area heard the transmissions and an unknown pilot advised the Cessna to activate the autopilot if he had one, as this would help him keep the wings level.

The pilot activated the autopilot. However, the pilot was dealing with multiple equipment failures, which caused the autopilot to freeze all of his equipment, and meant that he couldn’t turn off the malfunctioning systems nor the alert sirens.

Nines: N5188T I still show you’re in a turn there, are you, are you in a turn? Just level your wings, I don’t want you turning there because last time that you did that you ended up going down pretty quickly.
N5188T: Okay I got turned around, I am level, but I’m now turned around, headed uh, 3…3-1-0. Should I turn around?
Nines: N5188T right now I just want you to fly any heading with level wings. I don’t want you to make any type of turns.
N5188T: Fly level wings, keep climbing.

Nines reassured the pilot that he did not need to turn during his climb and that he should just focus on maintaining his flight heading. The other two controllers (William L. Hoppe Jr and Luis Ramirez) checked the weather at the nearby airports, advising Nines to have to pilot climb to visual flight rules conditions and finding the best option for the pilot. Castle Airport (MER) had clear weather. Meanwhile, the pilot suffered two more upsets and loss of altitude: the video of the ATC transcript shows the routing that the controllers saw as the aircraft flew a 360 instead of following the heading. Nines needed his full focus to help the pilot through the unintentional turns and rolls of the aircraft, which he could only see on radar. The other two controllers focused on how to best get the aircraft out of trouble. Between them, the controllers were able to get pilot out of the cloud and heading towards an airport in visual conditions. Once Nines was confident that the pilot was able to continue on route and change frequencies, he had the pilot contact approach. The pilot then proceeded to Castle Airport and landed without further issue.

The teamwork between the three controllers ensured that the pilot and his passengers landed safely after nearly an hour of rough flight in cloud.


The NATCA 2016 Archie League Award Honorees web pages include video of the presentations and speeches by both the pilots and the controllers.

I hope you’ll agree that getting this inside view of Air Traffic Control is fascinating and inspiring. Full credit to NATCA for organising the awards every year along with the ATC audio so that we can hear the controllers at work. I wish that we saw similar recognition for controllers around the world!

Category: ATC,

2 Comments

    • I specifically looked for an incident report on the NTSB site for that one and there was nothing at all. It’s odd because there’s a reference in the NATCA description about his instrument issues but nothing else. I’d love to find out more.

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