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Al Hurst and Ron Chappell, Southern California TRACON

It was just another typically busy morning traffic rush at Southern California TRACON. The weather was clear. Air traffic controllers worked diligently to separate a heavy stream of aircraft in the area surrounding Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). Nothing was out of the ordinary until two dedicated controllers – regular co-workers and teammates for over a decade – recognized a potential collision and took immediate action to avert disaster.

Ron Chappell was working the arrivals on final approach to Runway 25 at LAX. To his left sat Al Hurst, who controlled the arrivals on final to Runway 24 and had responsibility for traffic coming in from the east. That included SkyWest Airlines Flight 6100 (SKW6100), which had just taken off from Ontario International Airport for the short, 40-mile hop over to LAX and climbed to its prescribed altitude of 4,000 feet.

Chappell saw signs of trouble first. He was already busy maintaining separation for numerous flights when he observed something that just didn’t look right. Unidentified Visual Flight Rules (VFR) traffic was in conflict with SKW6100, located just 100 feet below SkyWest’s altitude. Chappell was certain the flights were on a collision course if controllers didn’t take immediate action to warn the pilots of the impending danger. He immediately notified Hurst, who had control of the affected sector.

“Hey Al, are you okay with that SKW6100 (4,000 feet) and that VFR at 3,900 (feet)?” he asked with urgency. Hurst was working on an Instrument Landing System (ILS) turn-on at the time, a complicated procedure requiring him to provide a pilot with detailed verbal instructions. With his hands full juggling the ILS turn-on and other traffic, the potential SkyWest conflict occurred in an instant.

Hurst heard Chappell’s warning and realized the gravity of the situation. “I knew exactly who Ron was talking about,” Hurst said. He immediately instructed the SkyWest pilot to climb if the VFR flight was not in sight. Right after issuing the instruction, the conflict alert sounded on Hurst’s radar scope, which warns him of a potential problem. Hurst felt good that he discovered the conflict before the equipment. It was, he remarked, a validation that, “I’m on this. I see the traffic no matter how busy we are.”

But SKW6100 had only climbed to 4,100 feet and the VFR aircraft was less than a mile away. Hurst issued another traffic alert to the SkyWest pilot with instructions to climb. The aircraft ascended rapidly as it safely passed the VFR plane off to its left side below.

The pilot, after acknowledging to Hurst that he did indeed see the traffic after the second alert, personally thanked Hurst for his attentiveness and the enormity of his actions. “We may have collided had you not said something,” he said on the frequency. “He (the other plane) was exactly at our altitude and crossed right through our path.”

Hurst, in all his years of experience, never recalls hearing a pilot say something like that. “That made me feel real good,” he said. “I told Ron about it afterward and he said, ‘Well, you climbed him, bro, not me; good call.’ But Ron was the one who caught the conflict and got the ball rolling to bring it to my attention. I wrote Ron up for a commendation and thanked him for doing that.”

The event lasted only for a moment but, if not for the professionalism and teamwork of these two controllers, the consequences could have lasted a lifetime. “Ron and Al worked as a cohesive unit and used their considerable skills to save lives,” remarked fellow Southern California TRACON controller Ron Geyer. “Their ability to maintain composure and make quick decisions in a stressful situation helped avert a potential catastrophe.”

A transcript of this recording can be found HERE.

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