Super Bowl Sunday Stirs Memories for Texas Pilot and Center Controllers

Cessna pilot recalls a harrowing aircraft electrical failure in the clouds at night.

Cessna Cardinal
A Cessna Cardinal similar to Dr. Edenhoffer’s aircraft.Wikimedia Commons

Peter Edenhoffer doesn’t remember which teams were playing in last year’s Super Bowl. A year later, Sunday, February 5, 2017, is still pretty much a blur, because that Super Bowl Sunday was the night Edenhoffer was flying his Cessna Cardinal alone back to his home airport, Cox Field near Paris Texas (PRX) from San Antonio when he experienced a harrowing event.

A pilot for 14 years, part of that with an instrument rating, Edenhoffer knew the PRX weather was down and decided to shoot the RNAV Runway 35 approach. Charlie Porter, the Fort Worth center controller on duty that night, remembered clearing the fixed-gear Cardinal for the procedure, expecting to later learn the aircraft was either on the ground safely, or was still airborne flying a missed approach.

A few minutes later, while Porter was briefing his relief controller Phil Enis, neither men were too surprised when they saw the Cardinal’s transponder reappear on their screen. When the Cardinal’s Mode C signal indicated the airplane was climbing above the missed approach altitude, though, at one point reaching 6,500 feet, both controllers realized something was wrong. Then the Cardinal’s transponder switched to 7700 and everyone in that ATC sector knew the Cardinal pilot was in trouble.

Fort Worth Center tried several times to reestablish contact with the aircraft, but none of its radio calls proved successful. Then the Cardinal’s transponder went dead. The two experienced controllers rightly assumed the aircraft had experienced some kind of electrical failure, but without communication, they had no idea what else the pilot might be dealing with.

Edenhoffer told Flying that as it turned out, the electrical problem he experienced was tied to the landing light. At the final approach fix inbound, he switched on the light and all the rest of the aircraft electrics immediately died. With no way to navigate, he knew a missed approach was the only option, but trying to climb with the flaps down meant it took quite a while before the aircraft popped out of the clouds around 5,000 feet into a moonless night. Luckily, the electric power came back intermittently, but weakly, just enough though to inch up the flaps.

Fort Worth Center
Fort Worth Center controllers meet Dr. Edenhoffer. (Left to right) Hugh Hunton, Thomas Herd, pilot Peter Edenhoffer, Phil Enis, Charlie Porter, Bryan Beck.National Air Traffic Controllers Association

Without electrical power, Edenhoffer had no fuel gauges although he was pretty certain he had plenty of gas onboard. “But in this kind of situation, you start questioning everything,” he said. “I did remember from my training to fly the airplane, fly the plane. I kept seeing headlines in my head about how bad an accident I’d had,” but he kept it together. He decided to head southwest toward where he thought better weather might be waiting, in the general direction of Greenville, Texas, about 50 miles away.

Of course, Edenhoffer had no idea whether anyone knew he was out there above the clouds with no lights. But controllers Porter and Enis back at Fort Worth Center were well aware of the Cardinal’s position. They just hadn’t figured out how to communicate with Edenhoffer yet. Enis said, “We were fortunate that we reacquired him before he lost his transponder.” As Enis continued to broadcast on his frequency to try and contact the Cessna, controller Russell Smith at the radar screen next to Enis began broadcasting on the Coast Guard frequency trying to reach emergency aircraft, as well as to ask other aircraft to attempt contact. Nothing worked.

The ATC team, now including supervisor Bryan Beck and controllers Russell Smith and Hugh Hunton, began brainstorming possibilities. Beck discovered the Cardinal was registered to an individual in Paris, but was unable to locate any helpful contact information. Charlie Porter suggested Googling the pilot’s name, which brought them to a hospital switchboard where they learned Edenhoffer, a local neurologist’s cell phone number. But a call to the phone in Edenhoffer’s pocket went straight to voicemail. The ATC team knew they were just about out of options.

But then, Phil Enis suggested texting the doctor’s cell, and it worked. That’s how they learned Edenhoffer was headed toward Commerce, Texas, looking for a break in the clouds. Edenhoffer remembered his mind racing as he wondered, “Where am I going to land if the engine quits? If there is a road down there somewhere, how will I ever see it?” Then he noticed something else unexpected on his phone. “I was getting a GPS signal,” so I had a better idea of where I was.

Edenhoffer remembered seeing the lights of Commerce bubbling beneath the cloud deck underneath his airplane. But without any radios, he also knew he’d never be able to activate the airport’s runway lighting. Along the way, Edenhoffer was texting with his son who was still waiting for him to land at the Paris airport and explained the situation. “Then I wondered if I might see the airport at Commerce if I descended through the clouds, but then decided against it.” The Cardinal continued flying southwest.

The next airport along the way was Greenville Majors. Center controllers coordinated with airport management in Greenville and a nearby American Airlines flight to get the runway lights turned up high. “ATC told me via texts that the bases were higher near Greenville, but I still had to get through the clouds. Approaching Greenville, “I noticed the clouds were getting thinner. I found a crack in the clouds, but it wasn’t very big. I knew I wasn’t really supposed to just dive down through that kind of hole, but I figured I only had one shot and I took it. I broke out of the clouds, but was still descending pretty fast so I knew I needed to be gentle with the airplane. After circling the Greenville airport to slow down, I probably landed halfway down the runway. But at least I was down in one piece.”

Center Radar Controllers
Radar position in an ATC enroute center.National Air Traffic Controllers Association

He remembers a fairly smooth landing before turning off at the end and shutting down the engine. “After an hour of all that noise in my head, all the thinking, the silence was just surreal. It was totally quiet. I was just waiting at the end of the runway thinking that people were going to be there, but of course they weren’t right away. Ground personnel did pull up eventually and asked if I was OK. That’s when I started shaking.”

The next day, Edenhoffer remembers looking in the fuel tanks and realizing he had 20 gallons left, “but of course I didn’t know that while I was airborne. I was pretty lucky.” In a funny moment that night, Edenhoffer recalled the final radio transmission he heard from the center that night, “something about the Super Bowl going into overtime.”

Later that evening, Fort Worth controller Michael Turner answered a call from Edenhoffer. The clearly shaken pilot told Turner that until the text message from Fort Worth Center came through on his cell phone, he didn’t know if anyone knew he was in distress.

On January 10 2018, Dr. Peter Edenhoffer met the Fort Worth ATC team that helped save his life. Controller Hugh Hunton said, “It was really neat to sit around the table with him and share stories of that evening with perspectives from both sides of the microphone. Meeting the guy on the other side of the microphone, that you helped out of a bind, almost never happens. Peter was truly appreciative of our efforts that evening and we were even more appreciative that Peter's piloting skills and resourcefulness – he navigated above and in the clouds, in pitch black, with a failed electrical system using his cell phone’s automotive GPS mapping system – helped him end his flight with a successful outcome.”

Dr. Edenhoffer said, “It was really great to go full circle and meet the guys that actually helped save my life. Hearing what happened on their side was like watching a movie from another camera. Lots of adrenalin was flowing that night on both sides.”

(Read Dr. Edenhoffer's thank you letter to the controllers here.)