Fairbanks Air Traffic Control Tower
On August 13, 2007, Fairbanks Tower certified professional controller John Brown was in a briefing when he was notified of an emergency taking place in the Terminal Radar Approach Control room. Without skipping a beat, Brown rushed to offer his assistance. As a 20-year veteran of the Federal Aviation Administration, Brown was able to put all of his years of experience to use as he attempted to assist the pilot in need.
It was supposed to be an ordinary flight south to Fairbanks International Airport for the pilot of the PA-12, a Piper Super Cruiser, but a sustained headwind of 40-plus knots turned the routine flight into an emergency situation. The strong headwinds drastically decreased the amount of distance the plane was able to travel, which eventually prevented the pilot from being able to make it to Fairbanks due to a shortage of fuel. Making matters worse, the visual flight rules (VFR) pilot was flying on top of a thick layer of clouds.
As Brown was advised of the situation, the aircraft was switched to his frequency. Brown asked the pilot if he was capable of IFR flight. The pilot confirmed he was, but that he was not VOR equipped or capable of an ILS approach. With that in mind, Brown began to work with controllers in the Anchorage Air Route Traffic Control Center to help the pilot with headings to Livengood, an uncontrolled airport located 44 miles northwest of Fairbanks. At precisely this point, the aircraft descended below Fairbanks’ radar and radio coverage, eliminating all forms of direct communication with the pilot.
Hearing the situation over the radio, another aircraft in the area, a Wrights Flyer Caravan (WRF0ME), offered to help the pilot in need. The pilot of the Caravan was able to communicate with the PA-12 and pass along information from Brown. The pilot radioed to the Caravan that he had descended through the clouds and was searching for a place to land. With the help of the controllers at Anchorage Center, Brown was able to determine the aircraft’s location and suggested that the pilot should consider landing on the Steese Highway. With Brown issuing headings to the controller at Anchorage Center, who would pass along the headings to the Caravan, who would then pass along the headings to the PA-12, the pilot was able to safely land the aircraft on a gravel surface road near the Steese Highway, north of Fairbanks.
Even though Brown was unable to communicate directly with the pilot or even see the exact location of the aircraft on his radar screen, he was able to take the information he learned from the Anchorage Center controller and, using his knowledge and awareness of the general area, devise a flight path for the pilot to help bolster the chances of a safe landing.
Sadly, controllers with many years of experience, like Brown, are a dying breed. At Fairbanks only two of the 13 certified controllers have more than 20 years of experience; only three have more than 15 years of experience; and the remaining have less than seven years.
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