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Western Pacific Region

Pam Mitchell, Erwin Tobey, and David Tomczak, Phoenix ATCT

Tower controllers are trained to quickly spot anything that may affect the safe flow of aircraft on and around the airport surface, whether it’s debris on runways, an inbound aircraft with its landing gear up or a plane or airport vehicle mistakenly turning toward an active runway. But a police chase that ends up on airport taxiways? That’s probably not included in any Federal Aviation Administration handbook on what to expect in your field of vision from the tower.

But Phoenix controllers Pam Mitchell, Erwin Tobey, and David Tomczak, working a busy Thursday morning traffic push in June, suddenly found themselves with a front-row seat for a real-life episode of “Cops.” A police pursuit took an unexpected turn toward the airport and the driver being chased crashed his truck through a fence and drove onto the taxiways, racing past several aircraft. Immediately, Mitchell, the ground controller, handled the surface traffic, while local controller Tomczak worked the airborne traffic, as this unpredictable and dangerous situation developed moment by moment. Coordinating between ground and local was staff specialist Erwin Tobey. Departures were delayed immediately.

A taxiing America West flight was the first to notice something amiss with the normal routine and asked the tower, “What’s all the rotor, all the helicopters, out there for?” Mitchell replied, “Well, they’re chasing a bad guy. I’m not sure what he did.” Pilot: “On the ground or in the air?” Mitchell: “On the ground.”

For the next several minutes, Mitchell informed curious pilots of what was happening, helped them steer clear of the police activity near the airport fire station, and tried to keep the operation moving and calm. “Southwest, three-fifty-two use caution, there’s a vehicle off the left,” Mitchell said. “That’s the guy they’ve been chasing. Southwest 352 replied, “Holy cow, you gotta be kidding me.” Mitchell: “I am not kidding you.” Southwest 352: “Yeah, I see him go.” Mitchell: “Yeah, everybody on the taxiway just hold position please. Everybody on the taxiway hold position. Cactus eight-forty-one hold your position. Jetlink twenty-three-zero-nine, don’t move please, there’s a vehicle on the chase, moving right by you right now.”

Later, after the suspect was apprehended, the situation turned humorous. An unknown pilot told the tower, “Looks like a good jail term for that guy.” Mitchell replied, “He got onto taxiway echo without a clearance from me. He’s definitely going to jail.” The unknown pilot then answered, “Turn him over here to twenty-two-oh-six; I’ll shoot him.”

Phoenix television reporters who covered the event had praise for the NATCA controllers on the air. Said KNXV-TV: “It was a serious situation, but listening to the tapes, it sounds like the air traffic controllers were using humor to keep things calm. There’s concern, frustration, and even sarcasm involved. There’s two things to keep in mind: nobody was injured and air traffic controllers were able to maintain their cool during a serious situation.”

“This situation, which went on for about 15 minutes, illustrates the teamwork and professionalism of the controllers involved,” said Phoenix Tower NATCA Facility Representative Jerry Johnston. “Snap judgments as to the safe movement of aircraft on the ground and in the air were required as developments unfolded with the truck careening all over the airport. The police were trying to incapacitate the driver and/or the vehicle. All the while, these three controllers calmly worked through one of those days that you just can’t train for.”

Bob Marks, Western Pacific Region Vice President:

“As air traffic controllers, we are trained for the unusual. That includes aircraft emergencies, passenger medical problems, and the like. However, no training can prepare someone for an event like that which occurred at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport when a police pursuit suddenly burst onto the airport taxiways after a deranged driver crashed his vehicle through the security fence. While the driver of the vehicle dashed madly around the taxiing aircraft, our controllers remained calm and professional, with all three coordinating the response to this situation with one another. These three NATCA members demonstrated the mental toughness the flying public demands from us. They were cool under pressure, even facing demands that were completely unforeseen. In the middle of utter chaos, our three controllers maintained the careful choreography on the ground and in the sky while ensuring safety. Hardly anyone on the ground or in the air knew anything was amiss. The reason is because these controllers did their job under the most extraordinary of circumstances.”

A transcript of this recording can be found here.

Listen to the highlights of the event:

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