New England Region
Burlington (Vt.) Air Traffic Control Tower
“I’m going to be alright. Thank God.”
Those were the words spoken by the pilot of a Cessna Skylane as he was just about to touch down at Plattsburgh International Airport on the evening of October 8, 2007. The pilot had spent the previous two hours navigating the overcast skies over New York with the help of veteran air traffic controller Steve Walsh. When the pilot finally felt solid ground again he let his emotions show for the first time all evening.
The adventure began when Walsh, working in the Burlington, Vt. TRACON, received the initial call: “I have a problem. I’m VFR trapped on top of this overcast at 6,800 feet.”
The visual flight rules pilot found himself stuck on top of the clouds when the weather worsened. In trouble and realizing he could not safely descend through the clouds on his own, the pilot radioed Walsh.
Walsh immediately asked the pilot if he was instrument equipped and rated, to which the pilot responded, “Instrument equipped; 50% towards instrument rating.”
Thus, in order for the pilot to land safely, Walsh either had to find a hole in the clouds for the pilot to descend through or would have to be the pilot’s eyes, carefully guiding him through the clouds towards an airport; keeping him safely away from obstacles and other aircraft.
At the moment of the initial call, the aircraft was 57 miles south of Burlington, where the pilot was hoping to land. The cloud cover over Burlington International Airport was 400 feet.
Walsh immediately went into action, calling other aircraft in the area to ask for weather reports and keeping an eye on the weather reports at all the other local airports, in order to determine which airport would be the best option for this pilot.
With three hours of fuel on board, Walsh knew the pilot had several options, including Burlington, Plattsburgh, Albany, and Ticonderoga Airports.
At one point the pilot began a descent through a break in the clouds towards a lake he thought was Lake Champlain, only to find out he was actually headed toward Schroon Lake, a lake surrounded by mountains. Walsh encouraged the pilot to ascend to rejoin the pattern towards Burlington.
As the weather reports continued to roll in, Walsh indicated to the pilot that he believed Plattsburgh would be the best option, as the cloud cover was at 900 feet rather than the 400 feet at the favored Burlington Airport. The pilot agreed and Walsh issued headings to turn the pilot towards Plattsburg.
Once the aircraft was 15 miles from the airport, Walsh instructed the pilot to begin his descent into the clouds. According to Walsh, there were several eerie silences as he temporarily lost radio communication with the pilot as he descended. Thankfully, radio contact was never completely lost.
Approximately two hours after the initial call, the pilot was able to land safely in Plattsburgh, much to his and Walsh’s relief.
This save is another example of how an air traffic controller with local knowledge of the area can prove to be invaluable to a pilot in distress. This pilot was in need of reassurance that a local controller was going to get him safely through the clouds, which is exactly what Steve Walsh was able to do that evening.
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