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David Murphy and Yasemin Parker, Champaign, Ill., ATCT and TRACON

“I would like to take this opportunity to say THANK YOU for saving my life yesterday!”

These were the opening words of an impassioned letter of gratefulness from St. Charles, Mo., pilot Willard W. Nickisch, signed on Sept. 14, 2006. The previous day, Murphy, veteran controller and CMI Facility Representative, and Parker, training on both of CMI’s radar sectors, worked to help Nickisch overcome extreme difficulty in flying his Seneca III and then vectored him to a safe, albeit unscheduled, landing at CMI.

Just as Parker called for a split of the combined radar sectors as traffic started to increase, she noticed the PA34 descending from its assigned altitude. She told Nickisch, who was returning to St. Louis from Michigan, to check his altitude when he reported, “I’m having a problem with my autopilot.” Parker asked Nickisch if he was declaring an emergency. He was.

Nickisch, who had inadvertently turned off his autopilot in a manner that left the aircraft in a full down trim position. He was struggling, and to Parker, seemed out of breath. “I thought he was literally having a heart attack,” she said. The plane pitched over and the pilot responded by pulling back the yoke. “It took both hands and my legs to straighten and maintain altitude after the initial rapid descent,” Nickisch said.

Parker told every other aircraft on the frequency to stand by as she handled the emergency in progress, and also stopped departures. Then, Parker turned over the aircraft to her split position, manned at that point by Murphy, who then worked Nickisch down on a single frequency while Parker dug in and cleaned up the rest of the airplanes that were standing by.

Murphy continued to get information from Nickisch about what was happening in his cockpit. When Murphy learned of the aircraft’s lack of instruments and Nickisch’s diminishing positional awareness, he immediately began setting up for a surveillance approach. Said Nickisch: “(Murphy) was knowledgeable about using the information he had, to tell me when to turn and when to stop the turn, along with allowing me to descend to the prescribed descent altitude.”

Murphy said, “I tried to keep him calm and assured him that he was doing just fine.” At 1.5-2 miles from the runway, Nickisch reported the runway in sight and lowered the landing gear. He was then cleared to land.

CMI controller Karl Jensen said the facility’s entire team provided good service, but added, “these two individuals made the hard decisions that ultimately were the difference between life and death.”

Parker’s trainer that day, Sheri Walsh, wrote glowingly of Parker’s performance in an official FAA report: “To sum this session up in a word… WOW!!!! You handled this operation like most (full performance level controllers).”

Wrote Nickisch, in closing his letter: “I am forever grateful to God (and the U.S. Government) for your being there. Please share my thanks and gratitude to the great people who helped me to live another day.”

A transcript of this recording can be found here.

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