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Jesse Fisher, Miami ATCT

The scenario had all the makings of a disaster. It was dark. Traffic volume was heavy and complex. The local control positions inside Miami Tower were combined. The radio frequency was congested. The weather was marginal. Visibility was poor. And the airport’s Airport Movement Area Safety System was in limited mode, meaning it was not providing controllers with aural or visual alarms to signal potential runway incidents.

Controllers in the tower were using Runways 26 Right (26R) and 27 for arrivals, using staggered instrument approaches, and departing on Runways 26 Left (26L) and 27. Rain obscured both the movement area and final approach courses. Veteran tower Controller Jesse Fisher was working the Local Control North (LCN) position, combined with the Local Control South position.

A Lockheed L329 Jetstar was on approach to Runway 26R. The pilot checked in with Fisher on the LCN frequency and Fisher cleared him to land on Runway 26R. The pilot acknowledged the clearance and subsequently reported that the runway was in sight.

Meanwhile. American Airlines Flight 2104, a Boeing 737, was taxied into position and holding on Runway 26L, awaiting takeoff clearance, due to in-trail separation with traffic departing Runway 27, and traffic crossing the runway. Additionally, American Airlines Flight 1917, a Boeing 757, which had just arrived on Runway 26R, was instructed to cross Runway 26L and was advised that traffic (American 2104) was holding in position.

As Fisher scanned the movement area and the final approach courses, he saw the Jetstar on short final approach, at approximately 200 feet off the ground, lined up with the wrong runway – 26L instead of 26R – with American 2104 holding in position and American 1917 crossing the runway downfield.

Fisher immediately instructed the Jetstar to execute a go-around and the pilot complied. He appeared to overfly American 2104 by approximately 100 feet and American 1917 by about 400 feet.

Upon hearing and seeing what was happening, the pilot of American 1917 keyed the radio microphone and uttered an expletive. Shortly thereafter, an unidentified aircraft waiting in line for departure off Runway 26L keyed the mike and said, “Good job, tower!” Another unidentified aircraft waiting in line for departure then transmitted, “Nice save, tower!” When American 2104 was cleared for takeoff, the pilot’s reply was, “Hey, a huge thanks from us.”

Fisher’s quick instruction to the Jetstar pilot was even more important considering that Runway 26L has no displaced threshold, meaning the distance between where American 2104 was holding in position and the point where the Jetstar would have touched down is indiscernible.

“One of the key elements that make Jesse’s actions so outstanding is the fact that Runway 26R and 26L are in such close proximity, with only 800 feet between the center lines,” Miami Tower NATCA Facility Representative Jim Marinitti said.

“Additionally, when you factor in that the tower is located on the opposite side of the airport from the west final approach courses – over two miles away – and that the arrival aircraft appeared to be on the correct final until very close to the airport, it makes it that much more remarkable that Jesse was able to identify this pilot error and take action in time to prevent a catastrophe at night with limited visibility.”

Fisher has worked at Miami Tower since 1991. Adds Marinitti: “It is not a cliché to say that an untold number of passengers arrived home safely on this day due to, but completely unaware of, Jesse’s outstanding situational awareness and heroics on the job. Jesse’s valiant performance truly exemplifies what makes our aviation system the safest in – and the envy of – the world.”

Andy Cantwell, Southern Region Vice President:

“I have personally known Jesse for 15 years and have always considered him to be the consummate professional. On March 18, Jesse once again demonstrated his professionalism and expertise. His attention to detail and quick reactions prevented a foreign general aviation aircraft from landing on a runway that was occupied by a B737 awaiting a takeoff clearance and a B757 crossing the runway downfield. On that night, Jesse was working combined Local Control positions during a period of heavy traffic and marginal weather conditions. The centerlines of Runways 26 left and right are separated by only 800 feet. The runway threshold is approximately two miles away from the tower and it is difficult to determine if arriving aircraft are lined up for the correct runway during daylight and good weather conditions. Fortunately, Jesse did notice that the arriving aircraft was lined up with the wrong runway and quickly issued instructions that prevented a major disaster. In addition to darkness and poor weather conditions, the Airport Movement Area Safety System (AMASS), was operating in limited mode and did not provide any aural or visual alarms of the impending disaster Having worked at MIA for over 24 years, I am intimately aware of just how remarkable Jesse’s actions were on that night. The fact that several pilots commented on the situation means they were also aware that Jesse averted a deadly situation. Jesse believes he was simply doing his job. He did his job perfectly on that night.”

A transcript of this recording can be found HERE.

Listen to the highlights of the event:


Barry Thompson, Louisville-Standiford Tower/TRACON

As every radar controller knows, an emergency situation with a flight in trouble is as close as your next radio transmission. On Dec. 1, Controller Barry Thompson, working in the Terminal Radar Approach Control room at Louisville Standiford Tower, found himself as the lifeline for a lost and very panicked pilot of a small plane.

TRACON Supervisor Keith Buckner received a call from a fixed base operator at Clark County Airport, located in southern Indiana, across the Ohio River from Louisville. The FBO had received a distress call from one of its pilots, Charles Moore, who was flying a Cessna 150. The FBO asked for assistance from Louisville Approach. Buckner gave the FBO the frequency of the TRACON’s final control position, which was manned by Thompson. Soon, the call came in from Moore, whose call sign was N45563. Communication was established and Thompson immediately went to work to gather information and pinpoint Moore’s location.

Thompson first asked Moore whether his altitude was 700 feet. There was no answer. So Thompson tried again. And again. This would emerge as a frustrating part of this emergency event, the inability of the pilot to consistently and effectively communicate with Thompson, either due to technical difficulties or the challenges faced by Moore in his panicked state as he tried to find his way. As Thompson tried to confirm Moore’s altitude, he next heard a chilling transmission:

“I need some help, man. I’m afraid. Help me.”

Thompson tried to reach Moore to get him to repeat what he said and calm him down. Instead, Moore made a garbled transmission that Thompson sought to have him clarify, only to be met by more silence. Fortunately, a United Parcel Service pilot, listening on the same frequency, understood Moore and relayed to Thompson that the Cessna pilot needed a heading and was looking for some help.

Thompson then began the process – about 15 minutes long – of trying to help Moore find his way to Clark County Airport. Thompson’s voice was a calming effect, staying cool and steady. By this point, Buckner had coordinated to get all other aircraft off of Thompson’s frequency so that he could focus his attention and energies solely on Moore’s situation. It wasn’t just directional problems that Moore was battling. Moore said that he came close to stalling his Cessna.

Thompson asked Moore if he was at 900 feet, as shown by radar. He was. Thompson then asked Moore to try and climb to 2,000 feet.

A few minutes later, Moore had descended back down to about 1,200 feet. Thompson asked if he could climb up a bit, but Moore said he was afraid to stall, so he stayed at that altitude. Thompson then asked Moore if he preferred to land at Bowman Field, in Louisville, or Clark County Airport. Replied Moore: “Clark County. I want to get back home.”

Thompson assured Moore with his words and his information. “They’re going to turn the lights up all the way for you. The airport is at your 12 o’clock and a half a mile.”

Finally, Moore saw the airport and landed safely. Once on the ground, he was deeply appreciative to Thompson and the facility for saving him, saying, “I appreciate the help. Have a good holiday.”

“Sir, you too,” came the reply from Thompson.

Said Louisville Tower NATCA Facility Representative Jeff Gilde: “Barry’s professionalism in this very tense situation was above and beyond the call of duty. He saved this pilot’s life.”

Andy Cantwell, Southern Region Vice President:

“I am thrilled and honored to salute Barry Thompson as our region’s co-winner of this year’s Archie League Medal of Safety. I cannot think of a more deserving candidate. This honor is a wonderful tribute to a highly skilled and talented veteran controller and also a dedicated NATCA member. Barry is a charter member of NATCA. Before moving to Louisville, he worked at Mobile, Ala., Tower and served as the facility’s secretary, treasurer and also vice president from 1993 to 1995. At Louisville Standiford Tower, Barry served as the local’s vice president from 2000 to 2002. Barry’s performance on Dec. 1 was outstanding in every way. Very few situations are as challenging for a controller as a lost pilot. And this individual was in a state of panic, to say the least. He was scared and needed help fast. Barry threw this man a lifeline and saved the day by keeping his cool, exhibiting professionalism and patience as the transmissions came back garbled and staggered at times and providing life-saving guidance for the pilot to find his way back home to the safety of his airport.”

A transcript of this recording can be found HERE.

Audio Recording

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