"Flying Wild Alaska" Films Segment at ZAN
Thursday, April 05, 2012

NATCA members always have to act quickly and think even faster, but it’s not every day that a television show recognizes them for it. But thanks to a mix of great work, good timing and good connections, some members at Anchorage ARTCC will be a part of basic cable lore later this year.

Luke Hickerson (below, right) and John Ponts (below, left) are pilots for Era Alaska Airlines, a regional carrier serving large and small airports throughout The Last Frontier. Their work has been featured for the last two years as part of the Discovery Channel show “Flying Wild Alaska,” and they spoke at Communicating for Safety in Atlanta.

It was there that the pair caught up with Jennie Sandland, a ZAN controller. Sandland said the show’s pilots had been trying to do a feature on air traffic control for a while, and they exchanged contact information and went their separate ways.

Less than a month later, on February 26, the sun across northern Alaska was positioned in such a way that it interfered with air traffic frequencies in that part of the state. ZAN controllers that lost frequencies had to deliver clearances to several arriving and departing aircraft by relaying through another sector’s aircraft. It was a complicated operation that required cooperation by everyone involved.

The controllers managed to get through this problem, which lasted around 30 minutes, without any problems. But Hickerson was caught up in that event, and according to alternate regional vice president Steve Munroe, they thought it would be a perfect storyline for an episode.

“Everything in the air worked well, but the pilots didn’t know what was going on, so they called us that evening to find out what happened,” Munroe said. “After we explained the incident, they said they would like to talk about it for the show.”

Just three days later, Hickerson and an executive producer toured ZAN to decide what they wanted to do for the program. Sandland served as the go-between for the show and the NATCA members who tried their hand at television acting.

About a week later, on March 7, the show’s producers returned to film in the training simulator which mirrors the control room. Munroe said he offered the right to appear on the show first to the controllers involved, and one, Todda Yonge, accepted. Clint Lancaster, the ZAN facility representative, and controllers Mark Lacy and Larry Munoz also appeared.

“I researched the incident and helped prep the controllers and told them when to say lines and those kinds of things,” Sandland said. “There wasn’t a script or anything, so I had to explain to the controllers we had on camera what to say and when.”

Filming took the entire afternoon on March 7, and it was set up so that the radar targets appeared exactly the same as it did during the incident. Sandland said the controllers were eager and excited to do their part in the re-enactment, and didn’t really need much coaching.

“I mean, we’re all controllers, so if you’re having us re-enact an episode like this, it’s second nature,” she said. “We made up the script as we went along, but nobody had stage fright and everyone did really well and ad-libbed on cue.”

Munroe said the experience was great for all involved and he was happy that ZAN could get some national exposure. He said the producers have not told him which episode the incident will air in or when, but the third season is expected to begin sometime in the fall.

“It was really cool,” Munroe said. “Our controllers do great work all the time, every day, but when you’re working you really never expect to have experiences like this."