Saved by the Controller

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In January I wrote about some of the horror stories, such as when a controller watched an airplane flying into extreme weather or actually gave a heading towards high terrain at night without trying to warn the pilot. While the pilots in these situations certainly contributed to their own demise, it is hard to believe that a controller would not even push a transmit button to try to save them.

At the other end of the scale there are many controllers who have gone far beyond the normal call of duty to keep a pilot out of trouble. For many years their feats have not been recognized, but for the past four years the controllers responsible for the best saves in each geographic region of the country have been given the Archie League Medal of Safety Award. The award is named after the first air traffic controller and is presented at the National Air Traffic Controllers Association safety conference.

One of the recipients this year is Paul Hiel, who is a controller at the Oklahoma City Tracon. A year ago he was on duty when he heard several microphone clicks on his frequency. That was it -- no voice, no background noise, just some clicks. It would have been easy to just ignore the clicks, but Hiel pushed his transmit button and asked in the blind if there was an aircraft trying to contact approach. Sure enough, he heard more clicks.

The weather was below VFR minimums, with ceilings between 400 and 800 feet, so Hiel said, "if you need IFR services, click your mic twice." He heard two clicks. Hiel then instructed the pilot to squawk 0303 for radar identification. Soon the aircraft was radar identified and its position was known. Hiel continued with a series of questions to find out where the pilot wanted to land, each question answered with clicks. Once Hiel discovered the pilot wanted to land at Norman, Oklahoma, he issued an IFR clearance, provided weather information and coordinated with other controllers to arrange for vectors to an ILS approach into Norman.

It turned out that the radio in a Beech Bonanza 36 had malfunctioned while the pilot was on top of the overcast, leaving the pilot unable to transmit anything but clicks. Without the creative response by Hiel, the pilot would have had no other good options for the safe termination of the flight. To read the other amazing stories of the controllers who have received the Archie League Medal of Safety Award, go to natca.org/mediacenter. In many cases it was only the calm voice of the controller that enabled a panicked pilot to hold things together long enough to make it back on the ground safely.

Just as important as the exciting saves are all the little ways that controllers help pilots each day. Once I was flying along the side of a restricted area as I descended towards my destination. As usual I was on flight following, and suddenly the controller called to advise a left turn due to restricted airspace ahead. I had that momentary sense of confusion when things just don't add up. I was flying parallel to the restricted airspace, so how could I be about to enter it? As I looked more closely at the chart I saw a small bump where the restricted area jutted out into my flight path.

That controller had no duty or requirement to warn me about my error. I was on flight following, so any attention he paid to me was strictly voluntary depending on how busy he was controlling other aircraft on IFR clearances in this congested area. Or I suppose an individual with a more sadistic bent might have waited until I flew into the airspace and then given me a violation. For every controller that is somehow able to sit there and watch a pilot fly into harm's way without lifting a finger, there are many other controllers who are willing and ready to do whatever it takes to save a pilot, creatively dealing with situations that aren't even in the book. The danger is that it is easy for us to get complacent and let our guard down, relying on a controller to warn us of weather, terrain or other threats. It is important for us to do our part.

The pilot's responsibility starts with careful and complete preflight planning resulting in detailed knowledge of all weather conditions and other information that might affect the flight. The crew of the Learjet I wrote about in January that impacted terrain east of San Diego obviously had not planned carefully enough to avoid the terrain on their own. As a charter jet crew, they were used to flying IFR in the flight levels, not rooting around in the weeds like the little airplanes do. Combined with the fatigue and complacency of a middle of the night departure on a deadhead leg after a long day, they did not maintain their situational awareness of the terrain in the area because they were focused on avoiding controlled airspace in the other direction.

Once the flight is underway, it is the pilot's responsibility to stay on top of conditions, particularly when the weather is changing rapidly. Even though Scott Crossfield was well aware of the possibility of severe weather along his route of flight, for some reason he had not checked the weather after he took off and did not have Nexrad available in the cockpit. By the time he became aware of the violent weather ahead, it was too late.

A pilot should never abrogate his responsibility to plan and monitor flight conditions because he expects controllers to keep an eye on him. On the other hand, it is nice to know that when a mechanical failure occurs or we mess up and get ourselves into a difficult situation, there are very talented and conscientious controllers who will do everything within their power to keep us alive and get us on the ground safely. It is about time that these controllers are recognized for the part they play in helping our national aerospace system function safely and efficiently.