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

Alaskan Air Traffic Controllers Matthew Freidel and John Newcomb Help Guide Cessna Pilot Away From Trouble to Safe Landing

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Doug Church:  Hello and welcome to the NATCA Podcast. I’m Doug Church, Deputy Director of Public Affairs at the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

We continue with our series of conversations with our 2020 Archie League Medal of Safety Award Winners. Today, we introduce you to Matthew Freidel  of Anchorage Center and John Newcomb of Anchorage TRACON, as we examine a great flight assist from the Alaskan Region.

The weather conditions in Alaska are often poor but they’re highly changeable. This can lead to situations where a pilot can encounter difficulty especially if they’re not able to fly in instrument meteorological conditions. Alaskan controllers are keenly aware of this each time they plug in for a shift.

On this particular Sunday morning the VFR-rated pilot of a Cessna 172 encountered IMC conditions after departing Soldotna Airport headed to Birchwood Airport northeast of Anchorage. Making the situation worse, the initial transmissions from the aircraft were garbled. Here’s how that sounded.

(Garbled Audio)

I talked with Matthew and John about this save and here’s our conversation:

Doug Church:  Matthew, why don’t you kick us off with just a brief introduction of yourself?

Matthew Freidel:  All right. My name is Matthew Freidel. I am a South Area Controller at Anchorage Center in Anchorage, Alaska. It’s the first facility and only facility I’ve worked at with the FAA. I started my aviation career when I was 17 learning how to fly gliders; went to school at North Dakota University, and graduated there with an Air Traffic Control Degree, switched over midway from Commercial Pilot to Air Traffic Control because it seemed like a better fit for me.

Waited about three years to get hired by the FAA; it was 2008 when I graduated. And when I finally got picked up at Anchorage Center, it’s been a pretty good ride ever since with that one facility and I don’t intend to go anywhere else really.

Doug Church:  Outstanding; thank you. John, what about yourself?

John Newcomb:  Hey; this is John Newcomb. I’m an Approach Controller at Anchorage A11. Born and raised in Macon, Georgia. My father was a Center Controller in Atlanta. And that’s how I kind of got into all this. I got into the 235th Air National Guard Air Traffic Control Squadron in 2008. Successfully completed all the training involved with that. Went out on deployment to the desert in 2011 and got picked up with FAA in 2014. And I’ve been up here at Anchorage ever since ’14 and yeah; I love Alaska. I don’t ever want to leave.

Doug Church:  Excellent; thank you. So, let’s talk about this event and is it accurate to say it was the late morning Alaska time about 10:30 or so; is that correct?

Matthew Freidel:  It’s–probably have to look at the time stamp again, but it seemed like pretty early on a Sunday morning in my recollection.

Doug Church: Talking about an aircraft, November 758 Sierra Xray and this is one of those typical situations we have seen in the history of the Archie League Awards where you have a pilot who is not IFR-rated experiencing difficulty with weather while operating under IFR conditions. Let’s pick it up from there and Matthew, I believe you were the one who first had contact with him, correct?

Matthew Freidel:  That’s right. Yeah; I was working on Sector 5 early morning Sunday, that morning shift before the midnight shift to come later and so it can be a challenging environment to be totally keyed in, but pretty quiet on the sector.

And there was a garbled transmission that came out of one of the many frequencies we have. Alaska is huge. We have a considerable amount of air space and lots of frequencies, lots of limitations on our frequencies, a line of sight limitations–mountains everywhere. So garbled transmissions -are common.

But something about it felt strange and just compelled me to follow-up on the transmission. I couldn’t really understand what was going on for a couple of transmissions. It wasn’t until I had the help of a climbing Peninsula Airways flight that could hear the broadcast on their end that really clarified to me that okay this is someone I’m talking to. This isn’t bleed-over from another frequency or just static.

And at that point that changed kind of the whole dynamic of okay what am I going to do? What do I need to figure out here? From that point it became relatively obvious that this pilot was having some trouble, got him [squawked]. As soon as they popped up on radar and I could see what was happening, it looked like they were precariously headed towards mountainous terrain on the Northeastern Kenai Peninsula.

And I’ve got a pretty good idea of the air space, having flown around there and having been in Alaska for a while. So, I understand that the other direction is flat, tree, you know short spruce tree terrain with no mountains, so the obvious impulse there was to turn the other way.

And I think the pilot did a fantastic job of flying her airplane in a moment of distress because she took the [squawk code]; she took all the instructions. She kept the airplane wings level. She climbed when I asked her to climb, so she did a fantastic job of flying her airplane. And for her it was relatively straightforward once we got pointed in the right direction.

Doug Church:  John, so you were handed off the aircraft at what point in this event?

John Newcomb:  So, I am the Second Approach Controller to talk to 8 Xray Sierra. I was plugged in trying to get a brief started for the south radar position, and it was just taking a little–sometimes it takes a little bit too long to start the brief itself, because we’re sitting there talking about the situation and what’s going on.

And Adam, I believe it was Adam Herndon. He was working first and so he actually was the person who took the handoff from FR and spoke with Xray Sierra first. But I’m standing behind him plugged in. We’re both talking about the situation. He’s talking about you know I’m going to give you the sector and then I’m going to go over here and start coordinating with Tower. I think he called Merrill, Lake Hood, and Anchorage Tower just to see what the visibility was like while I sat down and got ready for the scope. And so, it was a little team effort right there.

And 8 Xray Sierra did a great job, like FR said; wings level, climbed, did not descend, and even I believe at one point during our conversation with 8 Xray Sierra, I told the pilot, you know you’re close to Anchorage International. Don’t worry about the Class Charlie. Just continue; your flight conditions should improve once you hit the shoreline in a few miles. And they were curious if they needed to switch over to Anchorage Tower approaching the Class Charlie and I said no; don’t worry about it. We’ve already coordinated everything.

And so, Adam did a good job with that–completed and trying to ask the other–the Ground Facilities at least where was good VMC conditions or if they could see any holes in the sky.

Doug Church:  So, the final destination was Anchorage Airport; is that right?

John Newcomb:  Birchwood, which is about what 23–24 miles to the north, northeast of International.

Doug Church:  Okay; where did the flight originate?

Matthew Freidel:  She took off from Soldotna Airport I presume. I’m not entirely sure, but she first popped up north, northwest of Soldotna and she had said that she was north of Soldotna, so I’m pretty sure that’s where she originated.

Doug Church:  And it was just her- the only person onboard the aircraft?

Matthew Freidel:  As far as I know; yeah.

John Newcomb:  I don’t remember talking to anybody else or anything like that.

Doug Church:  Did the quality of the transmission improve at all during the course of the communication or was it garbled all throughout?

Matthew Freidel:  Well the first ones were pretty rough but as she climbed up to a higher altitude the frequency becomes much better and after about I’d say four or five transmissions, from then on, I had no difficulty talking with her. And when I listened to the playback it sounded like communications were pretty good on Approach’s end too.

John Newcomb:  Yeah; we had no problems. It was five by five the entire time. Completely good communication; no garble or anything.

Doug Church:  Excellent. You had mentioned though at the outset when it was garbled, you had relied on another pilot’s assistance. You said it was a Peninsula flight?

Matthew Freidel:  That’s right, a Peninsula Airways climbing off Anchorage headed towards somewhere in the Alaska Peninsula, maybe Dutch Harbor, Cold Bay, something like that.

Doug Church:  Did you solicit input from other pilots for assistance or was it offered from the pilot of the Peninsula Airways flight?

Matthew Freidel:  No; I solicited but of course their replies were without hesitation and I sincerely appreciate that from not only the Peninsula Airways pilot, there was a Navajo pilot that was just coming up to Anchorage from the Homer area, and they were giving me reports on you know where there might be some decent VFR weather, so I could have an idea of what was going on. The weather in Soldotna and Kenai was pretty marginal. You know she was–I presume scud-running underneath that layer, which caused the difficulty. But yeah; the pilots responded you know immediately when I asked them to, but I did prompt them for that help. And I think that was just an instinctual reaction but of course, it’s really an almost 20-year education in aviation that developed that instinct in all my training along the way, so–. You know that was developed in me by many, many individuals over time.

Doug Church:  Have you encountered situations similar to this one over the course of your careers? That question is for both of you.

John Newcomb:  Yes, especially here in Alaska. This is not uncommon. Now depending on how long it takes though, I’ve seen situations where a pilot gets IMC for 30 seconds. They call up saying hey, we’re IMC now. We need some–we need some help. And they’re out of it within 15–20 seconds.

John Newcomb:  Other times, like this situation where prolonged and you’re getting pilots from other airplanes, ground facilities and like FR said, asking pilots who are climbing out this again or in level flight, you’re trying to assist in any way. But yeah; this is not uncommon up here.

Matthew Freidel:  Yeah; I agree with John. The–the weather conditions in Alaska are notorious; they’re bad often. But they are highly changeable and situations will pop up all the time. But we get quite a number of different situations intermittently–I wouldn’t say routinely but intermittently. You know we’ve heard mayday, mayday, mayday on the radio. We’ve got guys who get into trouble when they’re on long cross-country flights and there are just not that many places to land in Alaska when you’re doing that sort of thing. We get instrument pilots that have difficulty with approaches and other things. So, I would say that over the course of my career, I’ve been certified for just over six years now, fairly used to those occurrences happening.

Doug Church:  Well, you both did a great job and hats off to you both. What does it mean to both of you to be recognized in this way, you know for a flight assist that turned out obviously very, very successfully and safely?

Matthew Freidel:  I would say that personally I’m proud to be recognized. I work diligently to do the best that I can all the time and I take pride in doing my job to the best of my abilities. But I think more so, I’m proud that this represents all the saves that aren’t picked up or aren’t nominated because I know in my area, in my facility, we do a lot of this kind of stuff. And so, I’m really happy to be this year’s representative for both individual controllers that are–they’re truly outstanding.

John Newcomb:  Yeah; I really, really agree with Matt there. There’s, I know throughout the past six years we’ve both been CPC. It’s, you see something that happens once a week, once a month, and it’s just you’re done with that situation or someone else is done with that situation. Everything worked out great, and there’s a great team up here with all the facilities. It’s not just individuals.

I know I work across from Matt a lot, from Approaching Center; he helps me out a lot, I help him out a lot, and in situations like this that’s what you need. You need that teamwork. And it’s great to be able to be a representative of that teamwork.

Matthew Freidel:  Yeah; this save in particular, I’m sure many saves are like this but you know there were a couple other Controllers in the room with me, a CIC who is a fairly recently certified CPC, and then another CIC ended up helping him out. They did all the coordinating with Approach and of course, without them I can’t focus on the pilot without them telling Approach what’s going on. They can’t be in their right frame of mind to maintain the cool and calm they did the entire time that she was talking with them, and they know what they need to do because of that group effort. So, our facilities worked together tremendously well in this instance, and I’m proud of that, too.

Doug Church:  Well, thank you both. That’s very well stated, and the teamwork aspect is a common theme throughout these types of events and ensuring they have a safe outcome. So, thank you both for that and thank you for taking us through you know what occurred on this event. And I really appreciate your time.

Matthew Freidel:  You’re welcome.

John Newcomb:  Glad to be here.

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