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Chris Thigpen, Kansas City Air Route Traffic Control Center

President’s Award Winner for the Most Outstanding Fight Assist of 2006

To a distressed pilot, the calm reassurance of an air traffic controller’s voice is their lifeline to safety. Even experienced pilots encounter trouble and must rely on controllers to guide them home. On Oct. 10, 2006, Charles Schultz, piloting his Beech Bonanza (N1801V), found himself in this situation and turned to Kansas City Center (ZKC) controller Chris Thigpen for guidance.

Schultz was headed from Scott City, Kan. (TQK), to Hays, Kan. (HYS), when another ZKC controller, John Bloomingdale, noticed the Bonanza making erratic turns. He radioed Schultz to ask his heading and when it did not match what the radar indicated, Bloomingdale assigned Schultz a different heading. But Bloomingdale knew the Bonanza was in trouble.

Bloomingdale declared an emergency and turned to Thigpen, who was working the next position, for help. Bloomingdale knew that Thigpen, a private pilot, would be able to assist Schultz. This decision proved correct, as Thigpen would spend the next 30 minutes guiding the Bonanza to safety.

Thigpen sat down next to Bloomingdale and, according to ZKC Facility Representative Scott Hanley, “it was as if Thigy was a paramedic walking up to a train wreck. He was assessing everything, listening to John [Bloomingdale], watching N1801V, listening to the supervisor, and checking weather at Great Bend, Kan. (GBD), HYS, and Russell, Kan. (RSL) all in a matter of seconds. Then Thigy took charge.”

Thigpen cleared all other aircraft from the frequency and focused on the Bonanza. He realized Schultz was suffering from spatial disorientation and knew that he needed to level his wings, watch the artificial horizon, and keep his eyes inside the aircraft. After 10 minutes of working with Schultz to level the plane and stay on a correct heading, Thigpen took the extra step of establishing a personal relationship with the pilot.

Thigpen: N1801V, what’s your name?

N1801V: Charles Schultz.

Thigpen: Hey Charles, my name is Chris. We are going to point you out toward Great Bend, Kan.

N1801V: That’s great.

From that point on, Thigpen referred to N1801V as Charles. Thigpen even asked him if there was anyone he could contact for him to let them know he would be landing in Great Bend instead of Hays.

With Schultz experiencing spatial disorientation, his instruments were useless. Thigpen took away his instruments, gave him no-gyro vectors all the way and kept repeating for Schultz to keep his eyes inside the plane. As the Bonanza approached Great Bend, Thigpen had a fellow controller radio another aircraft in the area to turn the lights on at Great Bend, so Schultz would be able to locate the airport. “Thigy essentially flew the airplane, completed the checklists and ensured the airport was lit for Charles,” added Hanley.

Finally, after thirty minutes of vectoring, the airport was in sight. Schultz landed the plane safely and then called ZKC to personally thank Thigpen. “I really needed you tonight and you really came through,” he told Thigpen.

Because of Thigpen’s calm and reassuring voice, Charles Schultz was able to make it home safely that night.

A transcript of this recording can be found HERE.

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