Two Accidents at the Same Time

16 Oct 20 9 Comments

The American National Air Traffic Controllers Association has an annual event to recognise the best “flight assist” of air traffic controllers in each of the nine regions which cover the United States. The winners in 2019 involved a number of weather-related emergencies. This one is particularly interesting because the controller not only handled an emergency with skill and patience, he handled two at the same time.

This video is edited to offer the highlights from the two events but gives a good idea of what happened.

The weather in Houston that day was bad and with low cloud, making visual flight impossible. A Cessna 172 pilot (N1221U) became disoriented and was flying in tight circles as it descended in the cloud. A controller offered radar vectors to get the aircraft level and ready for an RNAV approach into Ellington Airport. Then the controller asked the pilot to switch frequencies to Houston TRACON.

Michael Schawinsky had just sat down for his shift when he received the handoff off the Cessna 172. It soon became clear that the pilot was still in distress, unable to fly headings and maintain altitude. Schawinsky saw the airspeed drop to 50 knots and warned the pilot, concerned that the pilot was becoming overloaded.

It soon became clear that the pilot wasn’t able to join the final approach course for Ellington in IFR (non-visual) conditions. Schawinsky then declared an emergency on behalf of the pilot and they agreed that the pilot should fly to Scholes International Airport in Galveston, the nearest airport where he might be able to fly a visual approach. He contacted Galveston to ensure that the airport was ready for him.

Schawinsky had just given the Cessna pilot an initial heading to divert to Galveston when another aircraft declared an emergency. A Cessna 172 (N733ZZ) had been flying practice approaches in the area when a fire ignited in the cabin. Schawinsky quickly passed on the details of the nearest airport and asked if the aircraft was able to maintain altitude.

The pilot then confirmed that he did not have a fire, but that it seemed to be an issue with a fire extinguisher. He had intended to land at La Porte Municipal Airport but with the rough weather, they agreed that he should also divert to Galveston.

Schawinksky verified the weather at Galveston and then offered vector headings to both aircraft. He helped the first pilot by keeping him above the clouds until the 172 was lined up with the approach, which meant that the pilot did not have to do any turns in IFR conditions.

NATCA awarded Schawinsky the Archie League Award for the Southwest Region, saying that although they had some examples of controllers who won multiple times in their region, it was the first time that they had seen one controller handling two separate emergencies in the same airspace at the same time.

The winner for the Central Region was also an interesting case.

A Cessna 340 (N2744Y) flying into Indianapolis was at FL230 (flight level 23,000) trying to deviate around bad weather in the area. A controller offered him vectors to try to route around the worst of the weather but found that the pilot was still heading straight for the line of thunderstorms. He asked for support from Andy Crabtree, the Controller-in-Charge, who put on a headset to see what was happening. “When I first plugged in, I couldn’t tell if the pilot of N2744Y was slightly confused or just busy navigating through the convective weather.” A pilot himself, Crabtree had done High Altitude Training and wondered about hypoxia.

He told the controller to ask the pilot what his cabin pressure was. The pilot slurred back “fine” instead of something like “an altitude like 8,000 feet”, a dead giveaway that he was hypoxic. The controller told the pilot to put on his oxygen masked and asked him repeatedly to descend.

“The controller working the aircraft and I were both relieved when the aircraft started descending after multiple control instructions to descend. I knew the pilot was going to be all right once he took the frequency change to the next controller and was asking why he had to descend.”

You can read about all of the 2019 winners at the NATCA website.

Category: ATC,


  • A quick response as I am tied up with other things, but especially the way Schawinsky handled the two C172s in distress was exemplary.
    The second case, a C340, is less easy to make sense of. I have flown the C340, which is essentially a Cessna 310 with a larger cabin. It is also pressurized. FL 230 is well within the normal operational altitude range and a cabin pressure of 8000 feet should not incapacitate a healthy human being. I have operated the non-pressurized Cessna 310 routinely at higher cruising levels, up to FL 110 and stayed there for hours without any ill effects.
    Once, on a flight from Berlin to Moscow (well before the break-up of the Soviet Union) we had a Russian navigator / radio operator who suddenly commanded us: “You must now climb to altitude faif tousant meters (five thousand metres which is equivalent to 15000 feet)”. When we protested, as our C310 was not pressurized nor did we have oxygen bottles, he insisted: “You now climb to faif tousant meters or you will see MIG – very close!”. So we complied, no choice. Although he reeked of vodka, garlic and cigarette smoke, nobody suffered from hypoxia – not that I am aware of. Not even our navigator.
    So for a pilot, supposedly with a valid aviation medical certificate, to get to the state where he gets hypoxia to the point that he is virtually incapacitated does not make sense. Not with a cabin altitude of 8000 ft.
    I just wonder if the cabin pressurization was functioning properly.

    • I understood that the cabin had a leak and was not at that pressure altitude.

      The Archies are always interesting; if Sylvia didn’t report on them, I’d miss them!

  • I viewed the clips. Yes, the controllers did excellent work. They assessed the situations as they developed and their assessments were spot-on.
    They acted calmly and professionally and I have no doubt that their competent handling saved lives.
    Well done!
    It is nice to have the disaster scenarios interspersed with stories that ended well, thank you Sylvia!

  • Harrow,
    Where did you find that? You are nearly verbatim quoting from a small booklet, issued at the occasion of the jubilee of one of my previous employers and good friend, the late Mr. Tony Ritman.
    Only, you substituted “beard” with “singing”.
    You did not work for Sterdisposables by any chance? Your name does not sound familiar.

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