NATCA President at House Aviation Subcommittee Hearing
National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) President Paul Rinaldi on February 13, 2019 testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I), Subcommittee on Aviation, that the recent 35-day government shutdown was terribly harmful because it eroded the layers of critical elements necessary to support and maintain the safety of the National Airspace System (NAS).
Bill Jacobs and Bruce Snoddy, Southern California TRACON
On the evening of Nov. 16, 2007, in the Southern California TRACON, controllers Bruce Snoddy and Bill Jacobs were busy working traffic into the Carlsbad Palomar Airport when they received a call on their frequency from a pilot asking for help. At first, the controllers were unable to determine the location of the aircraft, but after the pilot was able to squawk 7700, the controllers located it 20 miles northeast of Tijuana, Mexico. Snoddy immediately issued the lost pilot altitudes and headings to point her in the correct direction.
As Snoddy and Jacobs continued to work all the other traffic on their frequency, it became apparent that the lost pilot needed more attention. Jacobs decided to split off the frequency and open up a second one, where he would remain for the next hour, working to get the pilot safely to Gillespie Field.
Jacobs was able to vector the pilot directly towards Gillespie, but she could not locate the airport amongst all the other lights in the vicinity. Jacobs tried to help, saying, “the airport is just off your left side,” and “when you turn to the left, the airport is just behind you to the left.” This continued as the pilot circled the area, attempting to locate the runway lights.
The student pilot, who had already mentioned that her instructor was going to be upset with her for getting lost, started to apologize for not seeing the airport, “I don’t see the airport. I’m really sorry.”
After flying directly over the airport and being vectored back around for another attempt, Jacobs pointed out other landing aircraft in the vicinity in an effort to get the pilot to follow these aircraft towards the runway. But the pilot had trouble distinguishing the traffic heading towards Gillespie with other traffic in the air.
The pilot grew increasingly more upset as the time passed. Jacobs remained calm, encouraging the pilot to take her time and just fly the aircraft.
Finally, she spotted the runway. Jacobs asked if she was able to switch frequencies to talk with the tower, but she indicated she could not see anything in the cockpit, because it had gotten dark. The pilot remained on Jacobs’ frequency as she approached the runway for landing.
Unfortunately, her first attempt at landing was unsuccessful, so she went around for a second time. Jacobs then instructed her to, “Be calm, take you time, fly the airplane, and let me know when you get turned back around for the runway.”
After a few moments of silence the pilot was heard saying, “I finally landed this aircraft. Thank goodness.”
But the pilot was overcome with emotion and unable to taxi her aircraft. Jacobs attempted to help her off the runway, but she could not locate her parking area. Jacobs then encouraged her to pull off the runway onto a taxiway as he radioed the tower for help. Soon after, a truck appeared and was able to help the pilot taxi her aircraft. A potentially disastrous situation ended calmly and safely.
On April 10, 2007, Oklahoma City air traffic controller Paul Hiel was working the NE Radar position in the OKC TRACON when he heard several microphone key-ups on his frequency, but no voice modulation.
After hearing the key-ups a few times, Hiel acknowledged the noises and asked if there was an aircraft out there attempting to contact OKC Approach. When the mic keyed-up in response and with the day's weather (low ceilings between 400-800 feet) Hiel responded, “If you need IFR services, click your mic twice.”
The unknown aircraft clicked the mic twice.
With that knowledge, Hiel asked the pilot to squawk 0303 in order to identify him on the radar. With his position known, Hiel set out to determine where the pilot wanted to land and to confirm he was requesting IFR services.
“Unknown aircraft, if you’re going to Will Rogers [International Airport], click your mic twice.”
“Unknown aircraft, are you just over flying or are you stuck on top? Unknown aircraft, if you’re stuck on top, click your mic twice.”
“Unknown aircraft, are you wanting to land somewhere in the Oklahoma City area?”
“Unknown aircraft, about the only place left is Norman [Westheimer Airport]. If you want to go to Norman, click your mic twice.”
“Unknown aircraft, I just want to verify that you do want IFR into Norman. Click your mic twice.”
Over the next 15 minutes, Hiel provided weather information for Norman, issued an IFR clearance to Norman, coordinated with other personnel in the radar room to vector the unknown aircraft to the ILS final approach course, and secured a landing clearance from the Norman ATCT – all without ever actually conversing with the pilot.
Once the unknown aircraft was established on the localizer and had been cleared to land, Hiel turned the aircraft over to the Norman tower for landing.
After the aircraft was safely on the ground, the pilot was able to contact Oklahoma City Approach and relay what had happened. The pilot, after departing Ada, Okla. (ADH), proceeded to climb his Beechcraft Bonanza 36 through a hole in the overcast skies, only to find himself stuck on top. Unable to descend on his own and realizing his radio was malfunctioning, the pilot turned his aircraft towards Oklahoma City hoping for the best.
“Fortunately for the pilot and his passenger, Paul Hiel was there to provide assistance,” said former NATCA Local OKC Facility Representative Jeff Cox. “Due to Paul’s dedication to safety and service to the flying public, his quick thinking and experience helped avert a very dangerous and possibly disastrous situation.”
Each and every day, in the skies over South Florida, Miami Center controllers guide hundreds of aircraft safely through the airspace and towards their final destinations.
Along with the aircraft that are being worked by the controllers, there are other aircraft in the sky that are authorized to fly according to visual flight rules (VFR). These aircraft typically do not file a flight plan and are responsible for maintaining visible separation between themselves, the ground, and the other aircraft.
Controllers in the towers and centers have a radar target for the VFR aircraft on their radar screens, enabling them to see where the aircraft is, but the controllers are not in communication with the pilots. It is the responsibility of the controllers to monitor these targets and make sure the aircraft they are communicating with are aware of any VFR targets in their vicinity.
Miami Center controller David Rivero was working a busy sector in the afternoon of Dec. 7, 2006, when he noticed a VFR target in close proximity to an aircraft, N247AT, which he was in contact with. N247AT was traveling at 3,000 feet, heading towards Punta Gorda, Fla. Rivero radioed the pilot of N247AT, notifying him of the VFR traffic.
“7AT, VFR target twelve o’clock, two miles eastbound, shows 3,400 feet. He’s sort of fast moving. He’s probably going to go off your left side out there.”
The pilot of 7AT acknowledged the traffic.
Approximately 60 seconds later, Rivero noticed the VFR target had reversed course and was headed straight towards 7AT.
“7AT, that traffic turned back there. He’s at 3,000 feet and he’s just off your left wing. Do you see him?”
The pilot responded in the affirmative, that he had the traffic in sight and that he was going to climb above him. Rivero authorized the pilot to maneuver to avoid the target and then return to 3,000 feet once the traffic was cleared.
With the traffic cleared, the pilot radioed back to Rivero, “Ok, I’m heading back down. Thanks for that. I would’ve hit him.”
“I would’ve hit him.”
Strong, scary words straight out of the mouth of the pilot, but thanks to the careful observation of an experienced controller they were only words. Without this careful examination of the radar scope by Rivero, it is quite possible the two aircraft would have collided in mid-air, a sure catastrophe.
Controllers across the country face situations similar to this every day and due to their hard work, dedication and extraordinary ability to foresee any possible conflicts, the airspace above the United States remains the safest in the world.
“Northwest 1273 thank you. Radar services terminated. You can contact Bozeman Tower at 118.2.”
“Ok, over to the tower at 118.2. Goodnight, Northwest 1273.”
With that very simple communication, Salt Lake Center air traffic controller Lee Wheeler transferred the radar services of Northwest 1273, an Airbus 320 inbound to Bozeman, Mont., from Minneapolis, to the tower at the Bozeman Airport (BZN) for landing.
Wheeler was also working a SkyWest jet into Bozeman and both aircraft had been holding for approximately 30 minutes due to weather. Once the weather cleared, Wheeler issued the approach clearance to NWA1273 and transferred radar services to the Bozeman tower.
Approaches into BZN are typically non-radar, due to the high terrain in the area that blocks the radar from picking up the aircraft’s signal. Without a signal, controllers are blind to the aircraft’s location. This was the case on February 19, 2007, as Wheeler did not have visual radar contact with NWA1273.
As the pilot of SKW4058 was waiting for his approach clearance into BZN, he indicated the weather had improved and he would be able to do a visual approach. However, without radar contact with NWA1273, Wheeler could not send SKW4058 into BZN, until he had verification from the tower at BZN as to NWA1273’s location.
Wheeler contacted Bozeman Tower, asking for the location of NWA1273. The BZN controller responded that he had the SkyWest in sight but not the Northwest.
At that point, Wheeler received a freak hit on his radar, indicating NWA1273 was really far off course. Wheeler then radioed BZN again stating, “I think that Northwest is confused on the approach. He is 35.5 miles northwest of the airport.”
Wheeler then asked the BZN controller to contact NWA1273, upon which the pilot responded by telling the controller to “standby one second.”
Upon hearing this, Wheeler immediately cancelled the approach clearance for NWA1273 and told the tower controller to tell the pilot to climb and maintain 11,000 feet immediately for terrain and that he had a low altitude alert.
Wheeler also reported the same message himself on the guard radio frequency in case the pilot was monitoring that frequency.
The BZN controller was successful in contacting the pilot and put the pilot back onto Wheeler’s frequency. Wheeler responded, “NW1273, Salt Lake Center has you radar contact. Low altitude alert. Climb and maintain 11,000 immediately. The terrain in your area is 10,800.”
Once the pilot reached 11,000 feet, Wheeler questioned the pilot as to what happened. “NWA1273, I don’t know where we messed up there sir, but you’re 36 miles from the airport, well beyond the parameters of the published profile on the approach.”
All the pilot said in response was “NW1273, roger.”
The pilot had found a very dangerous place. But Wheeler’s actions that night prevented a possible major accident involving a passenger jet. His persistence and attention to detail enabled him to locate the aircraft and make sure the aircraft remained at a safe altitude until he was safely on the ground in Bozeman.