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Transcript: 2020 Southern Region Archie League Award-Winning Save Event Podcast Interview

Pensacola TRACON (P31) NATCA Member Marcus Troyer Works With Coast Guard Pilot Brian Hedges to Save a Life

Listen to the podcast here.

SkyHawk 75831: Pensacola Approach SkyHawk 75831.

P31: SkyHawk 831 Pensacola Approach. 

SkyHawk 75831:  Yeah 831, I have you 5-5; I need some help. I need a Life Flight helicopter dispatched to my location. We’ve got an aircraft down. The pilot appears to be still alive.

Doug Church: Hello and welcome to the NATCA podcast. I’m Doug Church, NATCA Deputy Director of Public Affairs. The audio you heard there is from Freddie McCall. He’s the owner of a Cessna 172 SkyHawk, piloted by Scott Jeffrey Nee.

Nee had crashed into the sandy bank of the Escambia River in a remote area of Jay, Florida, north of Pensacola, near the Alabama border. He was seriously injured. The call had gone to look for him and he needed help from Air Traffic Control.

It was like most any other ordinary summer afternoon in Pensacola, with a lot of weather, when Marcus Troyer plugged in for his shift at Pensacola TRACON, shortly after 12:30 p.m. local time.

In the skies to the west, the United States Coast Guard, Lieutenant Commander Brian Hedges was the pilot and aircraft commander on an ordinary training mission in a newly converted MH65 ECHO helicopter.

But a short time later, Troyer and Hedges were joined in a search and rescue effort that was anything but ordinary and showcased the essential nature of their respective professions.

Thanks to their efforts, the life of the pilot was saved. Marcus was chosen as NATCA’s 2020 Archie League Medal of Safety Award Winner for the Southern Region.

Here’s my interview with Marcus and Lieutenant Commander Hedges.

Doug Church: I want to begin by having you both introduce yourselves. We can start with–with Marcus.

Marcus Troyer: All right Doug, thank you. Like I said, Marcus Troyer; I’ve been in the agency since 2007. I actually graduated from Community College of Beaver County. I had spent my whole career, so far at Pensacola Approach or Pensacola TRACON. While I was there, I did numerous jobs. One of them, most importantly, being a controller. I also did a lot of the quality control work at Pensacola which actually helped in this event that we’re going to discuss.

In May of this year, I actually transferred to George Bush Intercontinental, so I’m waiting to transfer to Houston there. I have a wife. She’s a nurse right now. She’s getting ready to graduate as a nurse practitioner. And then I have two boys, a 14 year-old boy and a 5 year-old boy.

Doug Church:  Fantastic. Thank you. And Brian, your–your title is Lieutenant Commander, is that correct?

Brian Hedges:  That’s right, Doug; yes, sir. Yeah; just a–I was a–I was just the aircraft commander, happened to be the aircraft commander that day on the case. But so, it was just pure luck in the search and rescue world that we like to say it’s just pure luck that it happened that–to our crew, but it was a–certainly good case. I look forward to talking about it.

Two thousand six, from there I went right to Flight School in Pensacola, so I know Pensacola pretty well. I met my wife there and then in 2008, we went to Atlantic City, New Jersey and I was there for five years, flying search and rescue, Homeland Security, law enforcement missions up there, just off the Atlantic–the Atlantic–Atlantic City coast there, and then came down to Mobile in–2012 we were there. And been there–actually been in Mobile since 2012 doing some different jobs, but this–this particular–the job that I’m doing now is–we’re actually the MH65 helicopter is getting–going through a service life extension program, and basically outfitted with a glass cockpit, avionics, just to get it through for the next 15 years, and then it’ll probably see its–see its end of the timeline in the MH65. It’s about a 35 year-old helicopter, so that’s what I was doing.

We were actually out on a routine–we were testing and evaluating some RNAV approach capabilities in our aircraft, and then we can get into what happened after that. But yeah; just it was certainly–it was luck that we were out flying that day and it was an awesome–awesome missions, so–.

Doug Church:  All right; so, let’s set the scene for–for our listeners here. We’re talking about a town called Jay, Florida, J-a-y, northeast of Pensacola. Is that correct?

Marcus Troyer:  Yes; that’s correct. And it’s actually about 15 miles north of North Whiting Field which is the Navy’s primary flight training. This particular day, it was just like any other day at Pensacola. We had a lot of weather. It was pretty slow traffic-wise. I came into work that day at I believe 12:30. And I went to relieve a good buddy of mine, Miles, that was actually–they were training on that sector. And right as basically I’m plugging in, the owner of the aircraft as I understand had called in and said hey, we’re missing an aircraft. And that’s basically when it begun.

You know the biggest issue with this situation was, we weren’t talking to the aircraft at the time when they did crash. And so, what had happened was they had called and said hey, is anybody talking to this guy? We went back. We did like a Falcon replay to try to see if we actually tagged him up or anything. We did not. So that complicated the situation.

As I mentioned earlier, I did a lot of Article 17 on the quality control side. We had actually held a meeting a couple years ago with Search and Rescue, all the local entities and so I was kind of well-rehearsed on the search and rescue aspect and how complicated things could be.

During this session, the owner of the aircraft actually went out looking for his pilot and his airplane, as I understand, and that was about the time when I was plugging in. They–he had actually located where that pilot was. The issue was, there was some level five thunderstorms between Pensacola and where this actually occurred in Jay, Florida. Jay is just a real remote area. There’s not much up there.

Where he actually crashed was on a riverbank. You know they could–they could locate–the owner of the aircraft could locate the pilot, where he was, and he thought that he was still moving at the time. But he–he expressed; you know it was a pretty bad situation.

I used all my knowledge that I’ve ever had at Pensacola. I tried to get Navy helicopters to respond. Most of them couldn’t do it because of fuel or because of their command issues and restraints. We actually had Life Flight that was on the ground at Pensacola about maybe 30 miles to the southwest but due to the weather and they had just flew a mission–they were in a mandatory cool-down period, so they weren’t able to respond. The team, which was a supervisor, everybody who was at work that day was trying to help out, but it was back and forth communication.

My understanding is the Fire Department had to take like a little john boat down the river to try to get to where they were. So, meanwhile, while the supervisor on duty and some of the controllers were trying to coordinate with Search and Rescue, they actually–I called up just because I knew Mobile had Coast Guard helicopters. At the time I did not know that they didn’t fly search and rescue missions out of Mobile. They’re strictly basically a pilot-training or aircraft-testing, etcetera, but I called up Mobile Approach Control and just simply asked the controller, are you talking to any Coast Guard helicopters because I knew that was the closest place that I would ever see Coast Guard helicopters.

And then I learned that most of the search and rescue comes out of New Orleans for this area.

Brian and his crew were actually up in the air at that time and what Brian will tell you is you know they were actually doing like a test mission. And I simply just asked the controller if he had any Coast Guard just switch them to me. And about five minutes later, the Coast Guard had actually contacted me on my frequency. And I explained the situation and I knew there was some severe weather, but I felt I would be able to vector them you know as close as I could to the spot, and get them in communication with anybody that may make contact with them on the ground.

Brian and his crew, when they came over, and I told them exactly what was going on, they were more than willing to actually respond but they had no paramedic onboard or any tools basically to do a search and rescue. But I explained the situation, that it was on the riverbank, and I felt like if anybody was going to be able to–to do a rescue and get this pilot out of there, it would be the Coast Guard.

So, it went on for about you know 25 minutes or so of vectoring them and getting them as close as I could directly to the location that we thought the aircraft was.

Doug Church:  And you had weather as well and–and they couldn’t take a direct line I’m guessing, right?

Marcus Troyer: They were able to take a–they basically–I got them on the north side of the weather at the time, and like I said, it was a solid line of weather, just level five. It was a pretty ugly situation that most you know pilots wouldn’t even want to consider flying through. However, you know as we know, the Coast Guard basically–that’s what they do when they respond and they’re able with the aircraft to actually go through some nasty stuff and still remain safe.

So, I got them basically to the–to the aircraft location and by that time there was a paramedic I believe that had made it there by a jon boat. And so, I was able to put the communication to Brian and his crew and they switched location and Brian, I’ll let him kind of talk about you know what they were going through and the challenges they faced. I know they actually landed on a riverbank and there’s some pictures of that that you may see.

But I’ll let Brian talk about basically what he experienced when he landed on the ground there.

Brian Hedges:  We had actually just taken off, completed–completed our level up checks and we were testing some RNAV functionality, mainly vertical nav, v-nav approaches in the MH65 Echo. And that’s what we–that was the whole goal of that flight for that day and it was only three of us onboard. It was myself, Lieutenant Commander Bob [Lokar] who is actually–he was a prior Marine, Marine SAGE 53 pilot, and then Petty Officer James [Yakki], who–very experienced flight mechanic in the back, extremely sharp on our coms and sensors-equipment on the aircraft. So, we were you know–we certainly had a very good crew, but we didn’t have the rescue swimmer onboard. It’s not you know routine if we’re not going out to train, doing hoisting or rescue swimmer work; we won’t take a rescue swimmer.

So theoretically, we weren’t SAR capable as we like to call ourselves, and as Marcus was explaining, you know most people don’t realize, but our Unit in Mobile is one of–probably the biggest Aviation–Coast Guard Aviation Training or Aviation Air Station in the–in the country. But it’s–it’s fully training. All we do is train new pilots, proficiency training for pilots every year. We have simulators onboard at our Unit, and for the most part, we’re not a–we don’t stand operational duties, search and rescue duties.

The only–we have a couple CH144 planes that do that, but they’re like long-range search and rescue. The helicopters, we really don’t unless we have a big hurricane like we have right now. We’ll–we’ll stop training and then transition over to a search and rescue aircraft.

But anyway, that–that day we were just completing level up checks and Mobile Approach, it was vectoring us for an RNAV Approach and they were like hey, would you be able to assist with a possible downed aircraft over in Pensacola TRACON AOR? And you known we–our aircraft at the time was a–it’s–it was a testing and evaluation aircraft, so we would probably be the absolute last resort to go. But I actually radioed into our Operations Center, and I said hey, is there anybody else out flying? And–and I kind of knew there wasn’t just based upon our flight schedule for the day. There was another aircraft that was getting ready to–to startup and on our ramp over there, but I didn’t want to delay anything, so I just say hey, you know we’re going to go over. And we didn’t know at the time what it was. We just said a possible–a possible downed aircraft. So, we were like well, we can go. You know initially our crew was like we can go over and just see if we can find them or something just to assist in any way possible.

So, I said yeah, we’ll go–we’ll go help out. And they gave us the vector. I basically head due-east and then contact Pensacola Approach on–on you know whatever frequency it was. And then we continued to go east, climbed up a little bit, tried to contact Pensacola Approach. We knew we were a little further away. We were still over like Mobile Downtown Airport. And climbed up a little bit more. The irony of this is this is actually the first, I would say, search and rescue case in an MH65 Echo aircraft, whenever–it was the first–the first case we ever had. And so, it was kind of unique. You know we didn’t–we didn’t plan it that way, but it ended up being that way and–and our aircraft has all new glass cockpit, brand new weather radar, which actually helped us that day. And we had never tested it out and utilized it in full functionality. But as we contacted Pensacola Approach, and I talked to Marcus on the radio, the weather picture that he was painting was exactly what we were seeing in our aircraft. So, it was–it was fantastic that we were able to–you know he was painting that good picture for us and what we were seeing was aligning exactly with what–what he was telling us.

So, it worked out pretty well. And like he said, he gave us a vector to head to the–to head to the actual location of the downed aircraft. And initially, we heard–you know we heard him say I think there’s a couple Navy helicopters in the area and at first, I’ll be honest with you–I’ll be honest with you, not that it’s any different, but our crew first thought it was an actual downed Navy training helicopter. And that–that kind of raised our eyebrows a little bit because we had all trained at Whiting Field there. So, that was what we first thought.

And then as we got closer and we got more information, we realized it was a downed civilian Cessna and where it was and there was you know emergency aircraft on-scene. So, we were like well, well maybe we might actually have to land and help out, you know. So, as we got closer, that picture was painted for us, and Marcus did a great job with that.

And we literally got on-scene. We looked at the–we looked at the weather en-route. We got on-scene, did one lap, and we landed right away on the riverbank. Marcus had everything set up for us as far as you know another aircraft that was on-scene there that we could talk to. And they were painting the picture of–of what they were seeing below. The EMT on-scene and we–we actually just landed right on that–the riverbank.

A lot of the rivers down here are all you know freshwater rivers, but they’re–they’re sand you know. And so, we knew that we couldn’t put all of our power down, so–because we would actually sink in that sand, you know. We’re not–we’re not that big of a helicopter. We’re–I think we’re about 9,000 pounds at the time, because we had–had a full tank of gas. But still, I think you can kind of tell in the pictures, our–our tires got about halfway in that sand. And we actually–our co-pilot actually held about 50-percent power the whole time just so we didn’t put our power all the way down and we would just sink into that sand.

So, we were on–we were on-scene there on-deck for about I would say five–five to seven minutes. Our–our flight mechanic got out and he–he went and assisted and the EMTs already had the–the survivor prepared and ready to go and–and we actually put him–put him in the aircraft, the survivor, and then knowing you know search and rescue and doing–doing a little bit back in the day, we–you know we were like we’ve got to take an EMT with us. So, we–we actually at the time, we took the–the EMT that–that was on-scene, they came with us to–to the hospital in Pensacola.

So, I would say when we got on-scene and like Marcus is–is saying, there was some severe weather to the south of us. And we got there, and we saw the aircraft. I was pretty surprised that there was any–any chance of a survivor being in that situation. So, it was kind of remarkable that–that–that actually happened.

Doug Church:  And there was just one person onboard the aircraft, the pilot?

Brian Hedges:  Just one; yes, sir, yeah.

Doug Church:  Okay and do you know the level of the–of the injuries, the severity of them, like–that you can explain?

Brian Hedges:  I don’t know off the top of my head. Marcus might know a little bit more. I know, you know the individual was in severe shock. You know you could actually hear in the back over–I mean over the helicopter and our helmets and everything, you could hear the individual yelling a lot. His blood pressure I think was very low when they got on-scene. That’s what the EMT was telling us because she–she was actually relaying a bunch of information to us.

And–and in our world, you know we–we kind of–it’s an unwritten rule, you don’t want to look in the back of the helicopter. You know you just kind of keep your head forward and–and–and because it–you know it could change the situation you know a little bit more and make you–you know you might make decisions that you never thought you would make if you–if you know the severity of what’s going on.

So, with that being said, I think he went–the individual went through a couple surgeries at–at the hospital. I believe–you know he survived. But it was–I–I can tell you that you know–I’ve been on–I’ve flown on–I’m not a–I don’t have a lot of search and rescue experience, I’ve had a bunch of cases, but it was–it was–it was pretty–it was a tough situation for that individual to be in. I will say that.

Doug Church:  So just to go back to one thing you mentioned at the outset. So–so you were-obviously, you said you–because you were in–in training mode, you weren’t equipped with what you would normally have if this was a true search and rescue mission. But then–then you–you mentioned that this particular helicopter you’re in was-was brand new and had new technology, good weather, glass cockpit; did that sort of offset the fact that you–you didn’t have the other equipment onboard to be a search and rescue copter? And in hindsight was it sort of a blessing you had a–a modern piece of machinery there to be able to assist?

Brian Hedges:  It–it was. I mean for us to be fully search and rescue capable we have to have a rescue swimmer onboard who is a trained EMT. And we–that day we didn’t have a rescue swimmer. That was the big factor. So, you know, they’re an EMT and they can assist, you know. But in this case, you know we hadn’t–we–we–our aircraft had been through all kinds of operational and developmental testing and evaluation, but we were just in the final stages of–of finishing up and getting it prepared to be fully operational.

And we had tested the radar. We had tested all the glass cockpit functionality, flight plan stuff, but it–it actually–we really put it to test that day. So, it was–it was actually a really good dry run for us, you know not a dry run–an actual case–and so it was–it was certainly, certainly good.

But like–like I said though you know we–as we got closer the coms with–with Marcus weren’t that good initially but then we–as we got closer and we talked to him, I mean you know that’s one thing I will say is it was just his–his demeanor, everything on the radio was fantastic and painted a perfect picture of what we–where we needed to go, what we needed to do, who was on-scene. So, like I said, when we got there, we didn’t have to–you know usually we have to orbit a little bit just to figure out what’s going on and who is on-scene. I mean we didn’t have to waste any time at all. We did one–one orbit, came in, and landed, and sat there on-deck for five to seven minutes.

We lost comms at that point with Marcus because we we were so low. But as we–as we took off and climbed back up through about 1,000-feet we started to pick up coms again. And right off the bat, you know we–he–he had a path for us to get down to Pensacola to drop the survivor off at the hospital. So, he had actually you know transitioned us. He–en-route, he–he you know vectored us around a couple storms and then he actually gave the frequency over, I believe it was–I forget; Marcus you might remember, but the–it was a Life Flight helicopter that had finally taken off I guess and was-was airborne and they–they passed some information. We don’t–you know we don’t really land at hospitals a whole–whole lot in Mobile, so we–there was some information. I knew where the hospital was just from flying in that–in that area, but didn’t know that you can’t–you know you can’t shut down or you can’t stay running and–and drop the survivor off. Like, you actually have to shut the–the helicopter down.

So, just they passed–he gave the–you know the frequency to us and to–to go through some of that information and that was fantastic, so–.

Marcus Troyer:  That was one of the most rewarding things in my career was basically once I was able to get Brian to Sacred Heart Hospital which is basically the closest hospital to the actual airport, we do have three major hospitals, you know all within 10 to 15 minutes of the airport, but it’s a one-in, one-out operation into Sacred Heart.

So, what we had done was, we were coordinating with the Life Flight pilot that was actually in their cool-down period and I knew Brian, you know most–most of these Coast Guard and Navy pilots, they at one point go through North Whiting/South Whiting to do their–their primary flight training. So, I assumed that he probably was familiar with the hospital. They actually train on that while they’re going through training. But I knew it was going to be a unique situation. He had never landed there.

So, what I was able to do was to actually put Brian in communication with the Life Flight pilot to just basically walk him through his landing, anything special that he needed to know, and at that point then after I–I completed that it was time to be relieved. And the adrenaline was flowing, but it was a–a real rewarding situation. And I had actually switched the coms over to the Tower at that point so they could assist in any way that they could.

And I actually got in my car on break because like I said, it’s two minutes from the airport. And all as I wanted to do was to–to maybe reach out to Brian to thank him for his help. But with this situation going on, nobody ever lands at the hospital other than the Life Flight. So, [Audio Skips]–Coast Guard helicopter, they had the police and everybody, I was actually able to–to video it, just because you know like I said, the adrenaline was–was rushing. But after they took off and got back to Mobile, I believe it was Brian or maybe somebody from the Command, they actually called the TRACON and I got to talk to Brian. And we’ve kind of stayed in communication off and on ever since this event, and talk about aviation or Brian, I think actually briefed the–the whole Command several months ago about the situation. And his Commander sent a thank you letter, but–

Marcus Troyer:  There are things that I would like to say to anybody that’s watching is you know show your appreciation to your–your fellow brother and sister controllers. And you know we all say, well that’s just you know part of our job. But any time somebody goes through it, the adrenaline is rushing. You don’t know; people handle things a little bit different. But talk to them after; you know our management counterparts aren’t always the first ones to talk and–and check on you. But keep your brothers and sister controllers in mind. Talk to them. Give them some praise.

And this particular scenario, a fellow controller is the one who put it all together. Dan [Audio Skips]–you really–it would have just gone unnoticed. So, I’m thankful that Dan took his time and effort and put this all together.

Doug Church:  That really speaks to the essential nature of the profession itself and the community of aviation professionals that you both are a part of that the teamwork involved is just so strong and it has to be something where you trust everybody on your team implicitly, right? Is that correct?

Marcus Troyer:  That is correct.

Brian Hedges:  Yeah; I’ll say you know we–before I came to Mobile I was in–I was in Washington, DC or I was in New Jersey, but we also every–every month and a half we would go down for 18 days and stand at the National Capitol Region. We would stand an air defense mission there basically intercepting all the small general aviation aircraft coming into the SFRA up there.

And we had–we–we stood our watch at Reagan National [Audio Skips], and we actually had a very good working relationship with Tower and TRACON up there. And we actually would fly them around a lot. And we’d go up to Tower and I think they had–you know we’d go up and see their–they have a simulator in the Tower up there. And I mean it was–usually weekly we were making trips up to Tower and they were coming down, I mean they were flying with us, so it’s–. I’ll say it’s always been you know–to see the other side of–of the radio so to say, you know it’s always good to see that. And I’ve always had an appreciation from early in my flying career on–on what you guys do and that it certainly–you know in this–on this mission and on this case that certainly came to fruition, too.

Doug Church:  That’s just a phenomenal story from start to finish. So, thank you both for recounting it with such detail. It definitely put me as the–the lay person outside the profession, to be able to really relate to this very, very well, and understand what all went into it.  So, thank you for the description there.

Is there anything else that–that either of you want to add that we didn’t cover?

Marcus Troyer:  I think that’s pretty much it on my part, Doug. I did want to mention, so as an air traffic controller we have CISM for critical incident stress management, I believe is what CISM actually stands for. So, even though this event had a great outcome, it was–like I said, it was an adrenaline rush. I wasn’t sure what type of shape the pilot was in, and like I said, everybody handles things a little bit different.

For me, I was fine. The adrenaline was pumping, but in the back of my mind, I just wanted to you know like I said, say thanks to the Coast Guard, but also I wondered–and I still wonder to this day, you know the shape of what the pilot is–is actually in. We never heard directly from the pilot other than that they did survive.

The very next day I returned back to work. Everything was normal. And actually, I had an incident the very next day that you know kind of shook me up. Nothing that was my fault, but the reason why I bring up CISM is because I actually utilized CISM the very next day.

So, as a reminder to all the brother and sister controllers out there, you know that’s a great resource and I highly recommend it. They were able to give [Audio Skips]–some tools and–and things that I needed in that specific situation. So, don’t be afraid to reach out to them is–is one of the biggest things that I would say.

Doug Church:  Fantastic advice; thank you for pointing that out. And thank you for sharing that. Brian, any–any last words from you?

Brian Hedges:  No, Doug, I think I–I mean I’ve–I’ve passed everything. And like I said, you know the–honestly, I mean the–the–the case was because of–of Marcus and–and–and everything that we had going into it, the case I mean–I wouldn’t say that it was easy, but–but it certainly it–everything that–all the information that was being passed made it much easier for us. And–and it ended up being you know with the–the individual surviving on the–on the backend, it–it ended up–it was certainly rewarding.

And like I said, we don’t do that every day, so it was kind of a nice change of pace for us. It’s like you know we train and we–we test, and we do all this stuff, and this is why we do it. So, and I really like–just like–like I just passed, you know we–I’ve always had a good working relationship with Air Traffic Control and you know from–from the pilot’s perspective, some pilots out there get frustrated. But then you’ve got to understand what’s going on, on the other side of the radio, too. So, it’s not always you know we’re–we’re stressed, everybody else is stressed, but I think it’s always good to understand what’s going on.

So, I would say if any pilots out there, you know seek out the local TRACON, the  local Tower. I’m sure you guys are always more than willing to–to–to help out and show individuals, give them tours, and show them what you guys do. So, it’s–it’s good to have a good working relationship together. We’re all one team here, so–and this–that’s a perfect example of what happened on this case.

Doug Church:  That’s very, very well-stated and it’s certainly one of the–the great things among many when this pandemic is over is we’ll be able to resume those kinds of things again and those direct relationships we have with the pilot community and tours and so forth. Definitely looking forward to getting back to that–that type of a situation where and when it’s safe to do so, again, so thank you.

So, thank you both for taking the time this–this morning to talk about this and we really appreciate it on every level.

Marcus Troyer:  All right; thank you Doug.

Doug Church:  Stay safe.

Marcus Troyer:  And nice to meet you and Brian thanks for joining us buddy.

Brian Hedges:  Oh, it’s my pleasure. You guys have a great weekend. Thank you, Doug.

Doug Church:  All right; take care.

Brian Hedges:  See you Marcus.

Marcus Troyer:  Take care; bye-bye.