NORTHWEST MOUNTAIN REGION
Portland Terminal Radar Approach Control
Portland Air Traffic Control Tower
The pilot of the Beechcraft Bonanza found himself stuck above a thick cloud layer east of Portland, on the final moments of a lengthy flight from California. He had three passengers on board, no working transponder and very little fuel. Fortunately, however, he had Portland controllers Allan Blair and Brian Miller on the other end of his radio.
Miller, working the local controller position in the Portland control tower, took the call when the pilot reported his dangerous predicament and requested an emergency landing. Without the transponder, Miller used position reports and aircraft turns to identify the Beechcraft on the tower’s radar scope and determined it was near Sandy, Ore., far enough away from the airport to warrant control from the Portland TRACON.
On initial contact with Blair, the pilot requested an emergency descent through the clouds. Responding to Blair’s inquiry, the pilot reported an altitude of 4,000 feet.
Blair asked the pilot for his fuel status. The answer was ominous … 10 minutes left. Blair informed him he was directly over Troutdale Airport and that there were no visual flight rules weather reports within a 10 minute flight area. Blair then asked him if he and the aircraft could accept an instrument landing system approach. The answer was, again, ominous … the aircraft didn’t have the instruments necessary for instrument flight rules flight.
So Blair then issued the pilot several advisories. Portland Airport’s latest weather was a 400-foot ceiling and five miles visibility. The minimum safe altitude in the area was 2,000 feet. Blair also gave the pilot initial vectors to the airport.
Coordinating with the tower, Blair determined that runway 28L provided the pilot the best possibility of seeing the runway lights, which tower controllers turned on to full brightness, along with the approach lights. Blair then gave the pilot an update on the aircraft’s position and asked if he could see the airport. The pilot responded, “negative.”
Blair issued a minor heading correction and, after discovering the pilot had a GPS receiver on board, gave a vector for a GPS overlay approach to runway 28L, saying that he would talk him through it. But the pilot responded that it appeared his GPS had quit. Furthermore, he transmitted, “I think I’m out of fuel,” and said he was heading straight in.
On the ground, all departures and arrivals were held and the airport’s fire and rescue squads were readied.
Blair issued a heading directly at the closest runways, advising the pilot he was one mile east of the airport, lined up with runway 28L, and followed it up with several position reports. Since no altitude readout was available, Blair again asked the pilot for his altitude. The answer: 3,100 feet; too high to land on runway 28L.
Blair recommended the pilot circle north over the airfield since it appeared he was about to fly over it. He asked for the number of people on board. Answer: Three. By this time, the aircraft had descended to 2,000 feet. The pilot then reported his heading and asked if there was any runway left, meaning he had overflown the entire runway.
Then, Blair advised the pilot he had lost positive radar identification, but using the last heading and speed of the aircraft, Blair told the pilot he was probably a mile and a half south of the airport and should turn north to approach runway 3.
After issuing another heading and requesting the aircraft’s altitude, Blair received the last transmission from the pilot: “Five hundred.” But Blair’s last instruction positioned the aircraft over the runway 3 approach end and allowed the pilot to see the runway edge lights.
Several anxious seconds later, Blair received the joyous news from the tower: Safe landing!
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