Archie League’s ATC Safety Medal Awarded to Two Indianapolis Controllers

Pilot who encountered icing conditions directed to a safe landing at a nearby airport.

All too often, pilots think air traffic controllers are just voices in their headset handing out instructions designed to keep them separated from other nearby aircraft—and also to annoy them, some pilots might add. But when pilots fly themselves into danger, or find themselves in charge of a malfunctioning airplane, grabbing the mic and calling ATC for help makes them realize what a lifeline these people on the ground are.

Each year, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) combs through the dozens of incidents that occur across the US to decide which controllers will be awarded the coveted Archie League Medal of Safety named after the first US air traffic controller. Award winners are chosen by region from around the US. This story relates to the help two Indianapolis Center Controllers (ZID), Brittany Jones and Bob Obma (Obma was featured in a Flying story last year) gave the pilot of a Cessna 172 who encountered icing conditions over northeast Kentucky. The pair were working ZID’s Area 2 airspace sector.

On March 21, 2020, ZID was operating with three sectors shut down as the result of a number of positive COVID-19 tests. That translated into fewer controllers being responsible for more airplanes. A NATCA news release said, “Traffic levels were still high. The closure of much of ZID’s airspace forced controllers to work on the fly and join together to come up with plans and make them work. There were re-routes around closed airspace, aircraft in Area 2 that are usually not worked in that lower altitude airspace (23,000 feet and below), and other situations that were not planned for.”

The 172 pilot departed Prestonsburg, Kentucky, headed for Lexington and was already talking to Obma when he began to encounter icing. Mountainous terrain prevented Obma from descending the aircraft below 3,100 feet, which wasn’t enough to melt the ice. “As an experienced pilot himself, Obma knew what Tyner was experiencing in trying to fly the aircraft. Obma declared an emergency for him before starting work to vector him around higher terrain and setting him up for an approach at an alternate airport in Morehead, Kentucky. Jones joined Obma as his D-side (data) controller. A second generation controller, Jones knew enough from her six years at ZID to be prepared to offer Obma as much help as he needed as the situation progressed. Obma later remarked that, ‘Her sitting down was the game changer in that situation.’ Jones knew, ‘Not only is the pilot’s workload huge at this point, but Bob’s workload is dramatically increasing at this point as well.’”

Both controllers realized it was imperative for the aircraft to land as soon as possible. While the entire incident lasted only about 10 to 15 minutes, Jones said “it felt like forever.” She knew that Morehead-Rowan County Airport was right next to Lexington ATCT (KLEX) approach control airspace. “She called them for information including wind and weather conditions to determine the best approach for the pilot to fly into the non-controlled airport. She amended the flight plan with the new destination and pulled up the approach plate for Obma to read to the pilot.” Jones gave her ATC supervisor the phone number for the Morehead airport manager to be sure the runway lights were turned up to full intensity to provide the best chance for the pilot to see it. “… we were just waiting for him [the pilot] to get the airport in sight and let us know he was safe,” Jones said. “We were just holding our breath, thinking, ‘come on.’”

Finally, the pilot “called the ZID Area 2 supervisor, Aaron Stone, after he successfully landed to express his gratitude. Stone said he could hear loud crashing noises in the background. The pilot told him with a chuckle, that was the sound of the ice falling from his aircraft onto the apron.” Jones later said, “to come in and be helping to basically save someone’s life and be sure they get on the ground safely in these adverse weather conditions, yeah I would say it was definitely one of the most memorable days.” This effort marks the third award-winning flight assist for ZID controllers in the past three years.

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