Three Cheers for Air Traffic Controllers

13 Mar 09 2 Comments

This month, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association in the U.S. announced their winners for the fifth annual Archie League Award.

Archie League Medal of Safety Awards

The ability to think quickly and remain calm under pressure while maintaining a situational awareness are all unique qualities that air traffic controllers possess. Without their willingness to jump right in to resolve complex situations, offer a reassuring voice to those on the frequency and coordinate their efforts with other controllers, this group of dedicated professionals wouldn’t be as successful as they are today at maintaining the safety of the National Airspace System.

The great thing is that NATCA put up details and audio recordings for the event which led to the regional winners. I’d recommend having a read through all of them but the write-up that particularly caught my eye told the story of the dual winners for the Western Pacific Region.

On Nov. 2, 2008, the pilot of N40NL found herself in such a situation as rime ice accumulated on the windshield of her aircraft. The pilot checked on to frequency reporting the weather problem, as well as a loss of airspeed indicator. It was up to NCT controllers Tom Gallagher and Neil Irvin to take over as the middle men between the pilot’s uncertainty and the danger unfolding.

If you listen to the audio, you can hear the stress in the pilot’s voice but then the conversation takes an unexpected turn: the pilot says she isn’t sure if the plane has pitot heat. Lucikly an air traffic controller familiar with the type was in the next room and was able to step her through finding the pitot and getting the plane safe.

IRVIN: Yeah, that metal Bonanza, you should have pitot heat and also … you might also want to make sure, I know it’s fuel injected, but you should be able to have some heat source to … in case your pitot heat’s iced over.
PILOT: Roger. I agree with you. I’m just not finding it.
IRVIN: OK. Do you have a flashlight?
PILOT: I think I just found it. I just turned it on

Maybe it’s because I was trained where the weather is variable – I can imagine California pilots get used to temperate weather – but I was surprised to hear that she hadn’t dealt with the pitot heat. I was taught to put on the heat as soon as I was in doubt. Got icing? Pitot heat on. Airspeed dropping? Pitot heat on. Low temperatures? Might want to put on that pitot heat. There is only one circumstance that I can think of where using pitot heat to solve a problem is absolutely the wrong thing to do:

AOPA Online: Driven to distraction

Leaving the pitot tube cover on is more subtle. The little flag just flaps quietly under the wing. A commercial pilot student rejected the takeoff in a Cessna 150 and went off the end of the runway into some bushes. There was no major damage and when asked what happened, the pilot claimed that he had no airspeed and was afraid the aircraft would stall on liftoff. His instructor had failed to demonstrate that the aircraft will fly just fine with no indicated airspeed — it’s the real thing you need to stay aloft. By the way, turning on the pitot heat to burn off the cover is not recommended as the residue usually works its way back into the tube and will require far more technical support upon landing. It also doesn’t resolve the initial problem.

Generally, however, pitot heat can do no harm – it’s amazing to me that a pilot in icing conditions hadn’t instinctively put the pitot heat on and in fact the Bonanza pilot was flying over mountains without being sure if she had pitot heat at all or where the switch might be. She stated that she couldn’t see through the window but didn’t think to put the heat on until advised by Irvin. On the other hand, when asked what type of ice she was experiencing, she responded with “rime” without hesitation, and she was right!

This makes me wonder if perhaps she was suffering from hypoxia, which would explain the confusion. There is no mention of whether the plane has oxygen but at the start she mentions coming down from 16,000 feet so presumably she must have had access to some form of oxygen. Still, I can’t quite imagine flying at those heights over mountains and not being hyper-aware of strategies for dealing with ice.

My favourite part of the transcript is once the pilot has the situation under control.

PILOT: Well, my wings have cleared off now and my, I’ve got my lights on inside the cabin and it’s warm and I can see. So I just assume continue on if it’s alright.

ATC would like her to land at Mather, 9 miles to her left, both to check out the plane and sit out the rest of the storm. The pilot, however, wants to continue to her destination as that’s where her car is. Irvin tells her that it is her choice but then takes advantage of a pause in the conversation to inform her of what she is going to do:

IRVIN: And November, Four-zero November Lima, [Mather] have the runway lights turned up quite a bit for you. The airport should be to your right front still about three to four miles. You’re showing 90 knots on the ground.
PILOT: Roger. I see the runway. They do have the lights on.
IRVIN: OK. Four-zero November Lima. You are cleared visual approach Runway 22 left, the left side. If you want the right side, we’ll get you over to tower here shortly and you can request that.

Note she had not at any point agreed that she should land at Mather! I think Irvin’s handling of this is absolutely brilliant.

It’s become almost traditional for pilots to complain about the controllers in the tower making life difficult. I didn’t know about the Archie League Medal of Safety Awards before this year but I’ll be looking out for them in the future!

Category: Flying,


  • Yes! I thought exactly the same as you about the Bonanza pilot. She “didn’t think it *had* pitot heat or alternate air??” Huh? That may be a good guess about hypoxia. My other favorite was a very definitely hypoxic crew at FL390. The pilot sounded drunk! “Cannot control airspeed. Cannot control heading. Cannot control altitude. Other than that, every-thing A-OK”

  • Hypoxia: it does make more sense than being out solo for a mountain flight and not knowing fairly basic issues.

    I shouldn’t, but I laughed aloud at the thought of everything else being A-OK :)

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