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New England Region

Ken Hopf, Boston TRACON

It was the call no controller ever wants to receive. A panic-stricken voice from aboard an aircraft in trouble crackles over the frequency. The pilot is unconscious. And neither of the two passengers holds a pilot’s license.

But that was precisely the situation presented to Hopf as he worked the flight data Manchester position, which is also responsible for issuing instrument flight rules clearances and releases off of uncontrolled satellite airports. Just after 4 p.m., he received a call on the clearance delivery frequency from Jennifer Truman, aboard a single engine 1988 Piper Malibu that had just taken off from Laconia Airport in central New Hampshire.

Truman requested immediate assistance. The pilot, her father William, was incapacitated. Her mother, Diana, was tending to him.

Hopf located the aircraft on his radar scope and then put his 22 years of controller experience – along with his knowledge as a Certified Flight Instructor – to work.

“I tried to calm her down and determine her ability to fly the plane. She said that she had flown a Piper Cherokee before, but had never flown the Malibu,” Hopf stated. “I assigned her some headings to fly. Her ability to do so and maintain altitude demonstrated to me as a flight instructor she had the ability to fly the plane. She just needed help landing it.”

Hopf’s colleague at Boston TRACON, Bob Romano, said Hopf’s calm voice had an immediate effect on Truman and she was better able to focus on piloting the complex aircraft despite the traumatic circumstances. Hopf talked with Truman about the best place to land and she decided it should be Laconia because of her familiarity with the area and the runway.

Hopf spent the next 15 minutes working with Truman to prepare the plane for landing.

“Getting the landing gear down and speed control were the most important things,” he remarked. “She was very confident in her ability to fly headings and maintain altitude. I had to try to keep things simple; I didn’t want to get too technical and overwhelm her.”

“Then,” Hopf added, “her mother became incapacitated. I no longer felt I had the time to work with her on speed control. I just needed to get her to the airport. I asked her to open a vent or window because it sounded like carbon monoxide poisoning. I turned the plane on a base leg and started her descent explaining the use of the throttle to slow the plane down. We also talked about what to do when the plane lands; to use the brakes and stop the engine. She slowed the plane up and descended and leveled off without any problems. I felt very confident at this point that if we got her lined up with the runway, that she could land the plane.”

Truman then reported the airport within sight. “I was trying to listen to her voice to see if I detected any signs of it becoming slow,” Hopf commented. “I asked her to slow the plane some more and line it up with the runway.”

When Truman was on short final, Hopf asked her to tell him when she was on the ground. A few moments later, that transmission arrived as music to Hopf’s ears.

“At that point, she broke down. I mean, I could tell her emotions just totally took over,” Hopf said. On the frequency, the relief in Truman’s voice was palpable: “Thank you very much. There’s the fire department. Thank you very much.”

Concluded Hopf: “You think back of all the things that could have went wrong. I mean, this was a case where everything went right. Everything just was perfect.”

A transcript of this recording can be found HERE.

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