Heroes Behind the Heroes

Easter Sunday had begun as just another holiday to spend relaxing. Connecticut was finally beginning to show consistent signs that spring would actually occur. With the encouragement of more pleasant weather, Kari Sorenson started the Model A. He and his girlfriend, Ashley, climbed into the antique car and went for a drive. Neither one of them would contemplate the irony that they were about to experience. Upon their return home, Kari would become involved with a life and death struggle. The life and death struggle would require technology that moved eight decades beyond the Model A.

When Kari's BlackBerry rang, the caller ID indicated that Dan Favio was calling. Dan had spent two years as an air traffic controller at the Danbury, Connecticut, tower up until his transfer to Naples, Florida, a year and a half earlier. He had transferred again and had begun working at the Fort Myers Tracon/Tower facility within the last month. Dan and Kari had become friends over the years through the typical network of local pilots.

Normally, a phone call between the two men was just a casual exchange. But on this occasion, Dan wasted no time with the usual pleasantries. Dan got right to the point. He was assisting a fellow air traffic controller with an emergency on board a King Air 200. The only qualified pilot of the King Air had collapsed and died in the middle of an en route climb. Doug White, the private pilot rated passenger/owner of the airplane, was attempting to regain control from his position in the right seat. Mr. White had not utilized his license in a number of years. He had no experience operating multiengine airplanes. He had no experience operating turboprop equipment.

Mr. White and his family had departed Marco Island, Florida, after attending his brother's funeral. Miami Center had transferred control of the aircraft to the Fort Myers Tracon facility in an attempt to return the airplane to the closest available airport with the longest runway.

Why is this event being discussed in the airline-oriented Jumpseat column? For one reason. The incident is a tremendous example of cockpit resource management (CRM). It is the same cockpit resource management skills that brought US Airways Flight 1549 to a successful landing on the Hudson River. Professional flight crews utilize these skills every day for incidents that never make it to a CNN broadcast. Unique to this particular circumstance, CRM was being initiated outside the cockpit.

A lot of out-of-the-box thinking occurred. It started with air traffic controller Dan Favio. When the emergency presented itself, he was recruited by fellow controllers because he was more familiar with airplane operations ... but his experience was limited. And he was still not fully qualified to work the radar console in Tracon.

Brian Norton, however, was a 19-year veteran of air traffic control. He also had flying experience. Brian's work shift was over and he literally had one foot out the door. He was ushered back onto a radar console that was not being utilized. Dan was at his side.

The first expert that came to Dan's mind was his friend, Kari Sorenson. Although Dan was already thinking ahead about other candidates if Kari didn't answer his phone, he kept his fingers crossed. Kari had worked as a CFI, an A&P, a corporate pilot, a chief pilot and a training program manager. He had jet experience, but more importantly, he had flown King Air 90s and 200s. In addition, Kari was no stranger to the fix-it world. His knack for having the ability to repair almost anything, even from a remote location, made him the perfect choice.

During a portion of our interview at Sun 'n Fun, Kari's mother claimed that at age seven he was able to resurrect a broken toaster. In October, I was witness to a repair on a DC-3 that would have made Mr. Douglas proud.

Typically, Kari paced during a phone conversation. But when Dan conveyed the facts of the emergency, Kari stopped in his tracks. After a brief pause, he sprung into action. His mind raced. He had thousands of hours in King Airs, but that was 15 years and a few jobs ago. He had to retrieve his old manuals. Before rushing through the house, he directed Ashley to turn on the computer. He needed to enter registration numbers into a website that would help him in determining whether the airplane had a Collins or a King avionics package installed.

When Miami Center handed off Mr. White to a discrete Fort Myers frequency, one of the pilot's first queries to the Fort Myers Tracon was, "Whatcha' want me to do with her?" Air traffic control had become Mr. White's only lifeline. The composed voice of Brian Norton became the catalyst that helped calm the nerves of one frightened private pilot.

And who could blame Mr. White for being frightened? Not only was he flying in uncharted territory, but he was accomplishing the task from the right seat. Notwithstanding the fact that his family was on board. Notwithstanding the fact that he was having difficulty keeping the unfortunate deceased pilot off the controls.

With the atmosphere on board the King Air now less tense, information was better received. A good portion of Mr. White's initial anxiety and struggle appeared to be his fear of operating two engines. His variable airspeed control was a direct correlation to this anxiety. At times during the descent, the airspeed varied as much as 100 knots. Mr. White was requesting power settings. Knowing that power settings from the performance charts would be useless because of all the variables, Kari solved the problem with one simple statement to Dan: "Tell him to fly it like a single-engine airplane."

Fuel flow gauges weren't discussed. Torque gauges weren't discussed. The objective was to position the power levers so as to achieve a given airspeed. The success of the philosophy would be determined when Mr. White leveled at the assigned initial approach altitude. Kari suggested an airspeed of 160 knots. At that speed, gear and flaps could be lowered without damage.

It must have worked. At level-off altitude, the radar target indicated a fluctuation of no more than plus or minus 10 knots. Mr. White was teaching himself to fly the airplane.

Personally, my thoughts would have turned to engaging the autopilot, as would many airline pilots. I questioned Kari as to why it hadn't been considered. In fact, it had. When Mr. White was asked if he was familiar with the heading slew bug, his answer was negative. From the tone of the transmissions, it seemed more prudent to focus on helping the man fly the airplane, something he understood, rather than risk confusion in learning a new system.

Prior to the initial approach, some of the discussion between Kari, Dan and Brian involved the appropriate time to select flaps and lower the gear. Too early would risk a low and slow situation. Too late could create an unstable glidepath that would not allow Mr. White enough time to make adjustments while he acclimated to the new configuration.

At some point prior to initiating the final approach, Mr. White elected to lower the gear on his own initiative. This was okay, but it caused a secondary problem that was disconcerting. The master caution light illuminated. A number of items could trigger the warning. Kari believed it was most likely a configuration issue. The gear was down without approach flaps. It didn't matter. The airplane seemed to be operating normally. Kari advised ignoring the caution light. Troubleshooting would be counterproductive.

Flaps were eventually lowered near a 10-mile final. Mr. White was instructed to maintain 120 knots, but no lower than 110 knots. When he inquired as to where to position the power levers on touchdown, Kari decided to once again keep it simple. No beta. No reverse. Just move the levers to the stops. The Fort Myers runway was long enough.

Only about 20 minutes had passed since Kari had put the cell phone to his ear. It wasn't until he heard Dan calling, "500 feet ... 400 ... 300," that Kari realized just how close the King Air was to landing. He had been so focused on remotely operating the airplane, altitude was never a consideration. His heart skipped a beat when Dan exclaimed, "Touchdown! I'll call you back!"

Despite being directly involved with the emergency, Dan had no visual contact with the result of his efforts. He had to run outside the Tracon building to confirm that indeed the King Air had landed safely. It was many anxious minutes later that Dan called Kari to tell him that his expertise contributed to a successful outcome. Interestingly enough, it was Dan's last call on that cell phone. The phone suffered a sudden death later in the day.

Not only was the landing successful, but it was accomplished within the first 2,000 feet of runway with no damage. The airplane was flown out the next day. Kari remarked on how easy it was to scuff a tire even as an experienced King Air pilot. Nothing of the sort occurred.

** Corporate pilot Kari Sorenson & Air Traffic Controller Dan Favio**

In casual conversation, I learned more background information about Dan and Kari that no resume would ever mention. The background defines the character of these men. Kari's father was a corporate pilot. Kari lost his dad at the age of 14. His dad died in a Lockheed JetStar crash that ended about a mile from the runway in White Plains, New York. His mother remarried a demonstration pilot for Dassault Falcon. Once again, fate had tragic plans. Kari's stepfather was to ferry a new jet home from France. He picked the wrong day to go. He left New York on TWA Flight 800.

Not only did Kari follow in the corporate pilot footsteps, he was a volunteer EMT for 10 years. He assisted at Ground Zero after the 9/11 attacks. He remained at the site until he realized that the rescue effort had turned into a recovery effort.

Dan Favio's career prior to air traffic control was with the U.S. Navy. Although he eventually became a military controller, Dan performed a service for this country that he is unable to make public. Suffice it to say, he is owed more than a debt of gratitude.

Dan and Kari performed an act of unselfishness that saved lives. They thought beyond the books and the manuals. Their professionalism was coordinated into an impromptu orchestration of collective skills. Because of their efforts, all three men were presented with the FAA Award of Excellence. Kari broke the rulebooks. The certificate is rarely awarded to someone outside the ranks.

As you may have guessed, Kari and Dan define modesty. Their attitude can best be summarized by Kari's statement to his mom. "I guess I did my good deed for Easter Sunday."

Perhaps that statement can also define a true hero behind a hero. I'd like to think so.