Anchorage Air Route Traffic Control Center
When the pilot of a Cessna 172 Skyhawk inadvertently flew into Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) conditions – he was not IFR-qualified – and found himself lost in the poor weather, three calm, alert and dedicated air traffic controllers from Anchorage Center came to the rescue and put their skills to work. They were aided significantly by a pilot who showed a remarkable willingness to participate and provided the controllers with detailed reports that gave them literally a birds’ eye view of the emergency situation until its safe conclusion.
Controller Mike Moravec was working at the center’s sector R6 position when a phone call came in from the Kenai flight service station. They reported that they were assisting the pilot of the Cessna, who was in trouble in the clouds and needed immediate assistance. Immediately, Moravec started to gather information. The Cessna was on a DF steer at 7,900 feet, somewhere in the vicinity of Cantwell, Alaska (located between Anchorage and Fairbanks). A DF steer, which means direction-finding guidance, is a heading which, if followed, will lead the aircraft to a predetermined point, such as the radio direction-finding station or an airport. DF guidance is given to aircraft in distress or to other aircraft that request the service.
Moravec asked for assistance. Bret Brown had just finished working sector nine and immediately plugged in to sector R6 to assist. Realizing that this would be a situation that required their total attention, the sector R5 controller, Tom Eisenmayer, took control of other traffic in sector R6 while getting them off the R6 frequency. Moravec kept Anchorage Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) aware of the situation and had them put the aircraft bound for sector R6 on other sectors’ frequencies. This made it easier for them to focus on the emergency.
When the Cessna called Anchorage Center, Brown took control of the situation by getting the position, altitude, heading, fuel and other information. Brown kept the pilot calm and aware of the plan to get him to Visual Flight Rules (VFR) weather conditions. He also learned that the pilot’s wife, who was on board, could aid in some cockpit duties, thus freeing up the pilot to maintain concentration on straight and level flight. Meanwhile, there was another aircraft that was on an IFR flight plan in the area and Brown requested his assistance. The pilot of this aircraft, Jeff Helmericks, was instrumental in finding VFR weather and provided many reports on conditions. He delayed in the area until the Cessna descended into the VFR area and then followed him to the Willow, Alaska, airport, which is located between Cantwell and Anchorage. Helmericks relayed his eyewitness report of the safe landing of the Cessna to sector R6.
It was the culmination of a remarkable team effort. Brown contributed outstanding work in gathering information, keeping the pilot pointed in the right direction and keeping the situation calm and under control. His pilot knowledge and local familiarity of the area allowed a successful outcome to the situation. Moravec came through with a skillful effort in coordinating information and managing the traffic in the sector. Eisenmayer took on additional traffic duties and kept things running smoothly for sector R6. And of course, Helmericks was in the right place at the right time to help ensure a safe outcome.
"I've known all three of these men for many years. These highly seasoned controllers worked together in a complicated situation, using their years of experience to talk a lost pilot to the ground and ensure a successful outcome. Alaska’s terrain is often remote and unforgiving, thus increasing the importance of controller skills in providing a pilot with expeditious service and the ability to succinctly describe available options. Their years of experience and knowledge came to play as they kept the pilot calm while simultaneously taking on more traffic and ensuring things continued to go smoothly in their sector. I am proud to represent these members and they are most deserving of this truly special honor. They exemplify everything that makes me proud to be an air traffic controller and I wish them the best."
- Rick Thompson, Alaskan Regional Vice President
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