Great Lakes Region
Terre Haute Air Traffic Control Tower
“This was without a doubt, an actual emergency. Our lives were in his hands.”
These were the words written by Ryun Black, the pilot of a Beech Bonanza that experienced an emergency on the night of Jan. 3, 2007, and was safely directed towards Pontiac (Mich.) Airport by Detroit TRACON controller Patrick Eberhart. “I want this controller to know that I will never forget what he did for us that night,” wrote Black.
The incident began when Eberhart noticed that the BE35 was off course on its initial approach into PTK. Eberhart coordinated with the Pontiac Tower to have the aircraft abandon the approach and he would vector him back around for another try.
Just as Black abandoned the approach, he radioed, “We’re critically low on fuel.” Eberhart heard the emergency call and immediately came on the frequency. Eberhart then confirmed with Black that he was declaring an emergency, and set about to vector Black towards PTK.
Black also informed Eberhart that his instruments were not working properly and that he would need vectors to the airport.
Eberhart slowly began to clear his radio frequency so he could focus all of his attention on the aircraft in distress.
Eberhart informed Black he would be issuing vectors to a surveillance radar approach to PTK, a procedure controllers in the Detroit TRACON have not used in over 10 years. But due to his experience as a controller and knowledge of the area, Eberhart felt he could safely vector the aircraft towards the runway.
As he was issuing the vectors, Eberhart noticed the pilot was not properly flying the assigned headings, which he attributed to the instrument outage on the aircraft. Because of this, Eberhart began to issue no-gyro vectors to the final, another skill that has not been used in the TRACON for over 10 years. In no-gyro vectors, the controller essentially tells the pilot when to start and stop a turn.
“[The controller] made it very simple by giving us start turn, stop turn vectors and eventually gave us an altitude that got us below the clouds with the runway in front of us – brightly lit,” Black reported in his letter.
Thirteen minutes after the initial emergency call was issued, Black was able to successfully land the aircraft at PTK.
“I am grateful for (Eberhart’s) swift action,” wrote Black. “He could tell from my voice that it was of vital importance to be expeditious and accurate.”
“Pat relied on a procedure that we haven’t used in over 10 years to get the aircraft on the ground,” stated Detroit TRACON NATCA Facility Representative Jeff Blow. “This is something only an experienced controller would know how to do.”
By relying on his experience and knowledge of the area, Eberhart was able to safely vector an aircraft critically low on fuel to a safe, uneventful landing at PTK; just another day at the office.
Terre Haute Air Traffic Control Tower
On the afternoon of Saturday, December 15, 2007, James Kmetz was working local control inside the Hulman Regional Airport Tower in Terre Haute, Ind. The Illinois-based pilot of a Cessna 182 – Ronald Wick – called and asked for clearance to descend to 2,400 feet due to icing in the area. Kmetz cleared the pilot to 2,400 and advised him of the worsening weather conditions with a recommendation to consider landing immediately.
Kmetz, a 23-year veteran controller, was forced to switch to a back-up radio to communicate with the pilot and began to vector him towards the ILS approach to Runway 5 at Hulman. While Kmetz was working to get him established on the localizer, the pilot began to descend without approval, dropping to 1,100 feet in an area where the safe Minimum Vectoring Altitude (MVA) was 2,200 feet. Kmetz urged the pilot to climb but Wick could not.
Kmetz began identifying obstacles that might be in the aircraft’s general vicinity. “Just to give you an idea of what’s around that area,” Kmetz said. “There’s a hospital up to the north of that area, and right ahead of you there may be some higher towers near the top of the hospital.” Kmetz also warned that “navigation is your responsibility here or climb and maintain 2,200.”
Kmetz continued to warn the pilot of the towers, indicating he did not know the exact heights. Just then, Wick acknowledged spotting one atop the hospital.
Kmetz continued to direct the pilot towards the airport, using landmarks on the ground, including a mall, gas stations, a McDonald’s restaurant, and multiple intersections.
Finally, the pilot spotted the runway and was cleared to land on Runway 5. The minute the aircraft touched down the pilot radioed, “We’ve got some problems here.”
Upon landing, the pilot lost control of the aircraft and the propeller struck the runway. Kmetz immediately sent crash and fire rescue equipment to the scene. Public Safety Officer G.D. Barnett, who had been listening to the radio communication between Kmetz and the pilot, responded to the emergency call and later wrote in a report of the incident the following: “The plane had a good amount of ice on it. The front vents were clogged, and all leading edges had rime ice on them. Needless to say, the 182 was not equipped for icing conditions.
“I believe that if it was not for Controller Kmetz’ actions and knowledge of the areas, those people would have died somewhere over the south end of Terre Haute, Indiana.”
Louis Becker, the Line Service Technician who also responded to the emergency call, wrote: “Damages (to the plane) included a crushed nose gear and wheel fairing, along with a propeller strike. As estimation, the aircraft had accumulated approximately 75lbs of rime and clear ice. I consider the couple lucky to an extreme and I commend the air traffic controller for saving their lives.”
Upon exiting the aircraft, the pilot’s wife reported she thought they were “goners.” Only Kmetz’s expertise and knowledge of the area, including landmarks, prevented a tragedy from taking place.
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