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2020 Archie League Award Winners’ Spotlight: New England Region Podcast Transcript

Hear Boston TRACON (A90) member Dave Chesley tell his story, and discuss his efforts to guide Cessna pilot Lihan Bao to a safe landing, in this episode of the NATCA Podcast, hosted by NATCA Deputy Director of Public Affairs Doug Church. Click here to listen.


(ATC Transmission)

Boston TRACON: Skyhawk 677 Delta Mike Boston.

Pilot:  Might be declaring an emergency.

Boston TRACON:  November Seven Delta Mike Boston Approach, say your intentions, and you’re radar contact a mile northeast of Martha’s Vineyard at one thousand, one hundred.

Boston TRACON:  November Seven Delta Mike Boston approach?

Pilot:  We hit something when we approach the runway.

Doug Church:  Those were the voices of Pilot Lihan Bao and Boston TRACON Air Traffic Controller and National Air Traffic Controllers Association Member Dave Chesley on a mid-summer late evening last year.

Hi everyone; this is Doug Church, Deputy Director of Public Affairs at NATCA and welcome to the NATCA Podcast.

I’m pleased to be able to tell you the story behind an amazing flight assist that earned Chesley the 2020 Archie League Medal of Safety Award for the New England Region.

At night and in the fog on a short final approach into Martha’s Vineyard, Lihan’s VOR Receiver on her Cessna 172 started to swing left to right; then stopped on the left. She saw a group of bright lights which distracted her. She turned left a bit to try to go back on course, but it didn’t work.

A few seconds later, she heard a noise that they hit something, and the aircraft started to lose directional control at around 400 feet.

She added full power right away and tried to bring the wings level. Then, she contacted Boston TRACON, and declared an emergency.

Dave, who also is an experienced pilot, immediately went to work to help her with clear and calm instructions. He could hear that Lihan’s voice was shaking, and he tried to calm her down. Dave guided her to Otis Air National Guard Base, which had a long runway, a 24-hour facility, and was in VFR conditions.

Lihan landed safely, later discovering that she hit a tree on her approach, seriously damaging the aircraft.

Here’s my conversation with Dave about this event:

Doug Church:  So, let’s start by having you Dave tell us about yourself. Tell us about your career, how many years in the Agency, and your background.

Dave Chesley:  Sure; I grew up in Maine. I was exposed to aviation as a kid. One of my grandfathers was a Gunner and Dive Bomber in World War II, so he certainly had some stories there. Another grandfather owned numerous small airplanes, which he flew sportsmen, hunters, and fishermen throughout the North Maine woods into remote locations and I had the opportunity to fly with him as a kid. Really enjoyed that.

After graduating high school, I didn’t really have any direction in what I wanted to do in life [Laughs] at that age, so I was hanging around home. I was working at the local airport and taking some classes, and then decided one day that you know this interest of aviation is something that I was going to pursue as a career.

So, I went off to college in New Hampshire and pursued a degree in Flight Operations; two years into that, took a liking to Air Traffic, and decided to switch majors into Air Traffic. And graduated two years later; worked around the area for a year or so after graduation for Flight School at a charter company doing scheduling.

And eventually the FAA called in 2012, March of 2012, and asked me if I could report to the Academy a month later. So, I did that–

Doug Church:  Oh, a lot of notice, huh? [Laughs]

Dave Chesley:  Yeah, yeah; about 30 days notice. So, I reported to the Academy in April of 2012, and then three months later, my first facility at Boston Center in New Hampshire which was kind of home for me at the time.

So, I spent five years at Boston Center and then made a transfer just up the street to Boston TRACON where I currently work. I have been there for three and a half years and worked there and currently serve on the Local Executive Board for NATCA, live in Southern New Hampshire with my beautiful wife, who is also a Controller. She works at Boston Logan. And we have a 13 month-old son.

Doug Church:  Fantastic. My wife and her family are all from Maine. Where in Maine exactly are you from?

Dave Chesley:  I grew up in Auburn, Maine. That’s about a half hour north of Portland.

Doug Church:  Well, that’s a great story. And so that helps explain my next question, which is your pilot experience and obviously growing up around it, and so what a wonderful experience you had. And do you still fly currently, and have you taken that love of aviation you know throughout your life?

Dave Chesley:  Yeah; like I said, I started my pursuit of a pilot’s license in college. My exposure and experience kind of started prior to that flying with my grandfather.

But like I said, I earned a few ratings in college. Pursued my commercial license shortly thereafter. Currently hold my commercial license. And my wife is a pilot as well. We just actually purchased an airplane, so we’ve been having fun with that. And it’s our newest addition to the family.

Doug Church:  Oh, what kind of plane?

Dave Chesley:  It’s a Murphy Moose; it’s a single-engine, experimental, home built, so it’s similar to I guess–. They refer to it as a Baby Beaver, so it’s kind of like a – it looks like a de Havilland Beaver, but it’s much smaller, so–.

Doug Church:  Okay; how exciting. This is great. Well, tell me about your airspace at A90 and how now getting into the story of what occurred in this event last year. What is your primary responsibility and kind of set the picture for us as the listener as to what you’re responsible for?

Dave Chesley:  So A90 is currently set up into two areas within the building. There’s a north area and south area. And essentially, if you drew a line through Boston horizontally, the south area works everything to the south of Boston, all the way down to Nantucket to include Martha’s Vineyard and about 20 miles west of that area.

The north area is Boston up towards Concord and Laconia, New Hampshire, northward that way.

I currently work in the south area and did so at the time of this incident. I was working the–I guess you’d refer to it as the Legacy Cape area, so Massachusetts and the islands there, Nantucket, and Martha’s Vineyard, included–was the airspace that I was working at the time.

Doug Church:  So, let’s set the stage for this particular flight and we’re talking about a Cessna 172, and it had taken off from Groton, Connecticut and was headed to Martha’s Vineyard, and this was late at night is that correct or like 10:00 p.m. Eastern Time?

Dave Chesley:  Yeah; that’s correct, yeah.

Doug Church:  Is it unusual for a lot of traffic of this nature, small general aviation at night even in the summertime when this happened?

Dave Chesley:  Yeah; the majority of our operations in that area of the airspace is the majority of general aviation activity. Late at night, there’s not as much activity obviously at the time of night. At that specific time there were only a few aircraft in the airspace.

Doug Church:  So, this particular aircraft, and she–the pilot, had one passenger onboard, I believe from listening to the audio transmission–from that initial transmission the urgency was pretty clear. The emergency was declared by her. Take us then through exactly what happened from that point, exactly what you were thinking when you first heard that, and then the initial steps to establishing communication with her which was not that easy. It seemed like there were several times when you had reached out to her and didn’t get a response. So, take us through the initial part of this event.

Dave Chesley:  Yeah; so, I had just come back from break. I was working–the majority of the south area combined up, we had six sectors combined up. This time of night, very few aircraft on frequency; I actually had the watch desk come out into the position as well. I was Controller in Charge and had the entire area, so I was really the only Controller in that portion of the TRACON at the time.

It was the last hour or so of my shift. I took over and at the time, 7 Delta Mike–it’s the tail number, was on a vector for the Island’s 24 in Martha’s Vineyard. The weather at Martha’s Vineyard that–that evening I remember was not good at all, low ceilings, fog, RVR values were low, and again it’s over the ocean at night.

Fairly normal approach overall; I monitored the aircraft down the final and it wasn’t until about a two-mile final that things changed. And I noticed in one radar return that the aircraft had made a 90-degree left turn. And I thought to myself at that time that (a) this is either a bad radar return or something could be wrong. And it was through the next couple radar returns that I noticed that something is not right here.

They weren’t flying the published missed approach procedure. They were kind of erratic turns and climbs and descents. So, as you mentioned, I reached out in the blind a couple times to the aircraft. Shortly thereafter, they checked on frequency, declaring emergency, and it was through subsequent transmissions that I learned that they had struck something and that they deemed that the aircraft was uncontrollable.

So, it’s certainly not the words you want to hear as a Controller that an aircraft being uncontrollable is kind of one of your worst nightmares.

And then, you know at that time, I realized everything kind of changed. You know I resorted back to thinking about you know being pilot and you kind of train for emergency scenarios that–never stop flying the airplane. So, then my focus kind of changed to getting the pilot in a position that they could focus on just flying the airplane and kind of maintaining straight and level altitude and getting to a safe altitude that we could then figure out our options.

Like I said, at the time Martha’s Vineyard weather was terrible that evening. I didn’t feel that going back and trying to attempt an approach there was the safest option. Again, low ceilings, fog, poor visibility, and nighttime over the ocean is–you know the cards were kind of stacked against us.

Fortunately, in this scenario, you know to the northeast about 15 miles or so, we had a Coast Guard Air Station, which is a Military airport there with intersecting runways of 8,000 feet and longer. So, it was a great alternative and fortunately, in this case, like I said she was able to get control of the aircraft eventually and in conversation with her, get her to her safe altitude and some headings to safely land at that airport.

Throughout the experience, I didn’t understand the severity of the damage to the aircraft. It wasn’t my concern at the time as to exactly the extent of the damage; more so concerned that they had engine power and the ability to control the airplane. In conversation afterward with the supervisor about the incident, he was collecting information and had a conversation with the pilot, he believed it could have just been a bird strike or something of that nature. And I was kind of skeptical of that. And really didn’t learn until the next day the extent of the damage.

You know I went home and attempted to sleep for a while, though [Laughs] it wasn’t a very restful sleep, you know. A lot of times–

Doug Church:  I can imagine.

Dave Chesley:  Yeah; a lot of times they say you know we’re fortunate in this industry that we don’t have to take our work home with us. And I would agree, 99-percent of the time, but I think it’s these instances that you do take home, that you do replay over and over in your head, wondering you know what if I had said this, what if I had done that, and how it could have affected the outcome.

And fortunately, you know very thankful that it turned out the way it did, and you know hats off certainly to the pilot for doing such a phenomenal job.

So, it was the next morning that I received a text message, like I said, and it had a picture of the damage to the aircraft. And I was absolutely just stunned to the amount of damage that–that the plane had–had taken and that they–the pilot was able to remain in control of it, and you know just have the focus and–to safely you know be able to fly it and get control of it, and remain calm, and land safely.

Doug Church:  Well, we’re talking about a two-foot dent for lack of a better word in the left wing, according to the pictures which we’ll share with our listeners via the written story that we’re going to do and put this on social media. And we still don’t exactly know what she hit. But to cause that kind of damage, it was certainly jarring to see the photos; you just had the same reaction.

And I know on the frequency you made a couple attempts to ascertain the extent of the damage, but then quickly got back to helping her fly the airplane when it really wasn’t clear that she was going to be able to give that determination of what exactly was wrong with the plane.

As you rightly said, turn the focus at that point to okay, straight and level flight, altitude, air speed, all the checklists in your head, is that correct?

Dave Chesley:  Yeah; that’s correct. And like you mentioned, the damage to that wing was very significant. From what I saw, it appeared that there were–there were pine needles. And I was told that a–somebody went out to the site the day after and could actually pick out the tree that was impacted. So, I think they concluded that she did hit a tree. And as you mentioned, there was about a two-foot dent, a portion of the wing was torn open, and all I could think of is you know a few feet one direction it could have changed the outcome of this–you know this event totally.

So, you know thankfully everything worked out the way it did. And like I’ve said numerous times, hats off to the pilot for doing such a phenomenal job in–in keeping–you know staying composed and in control of that airplane.

Doug Church:  So, does that then lead you to wonder how she got sort of off-course on her approach or obviously, had some altitude issues? Do you think it was more a spatial issue, because like you said, over water, nighttime–then anything else or was there anymore warning signs before she came on to declare the emergency?

Dave Chesley:  So, no, like I said, it was a fairly standard approach altogether. From what I’ve read, and in the reports, and heard secondhand through a supervisor that had a conversation with the pilot after the fact, she mentioned that on approach saw lights right about minimums and that’s when they made a turn off the approach course thinking it was a runway environment. And it ended up not being the runway environment. And then they went to initiate a go-around and at that point impacted the tree.

I was told that there is a building in the–nearby where she struck the tree that does have lights on it, and it’s a Forest Service building and there’s a road just adjacent to that with streetlights. That could have been mistaken for a runway. So, although, I don’t know that to be fact, I was told that she did see lights in that portion of the approach and believed it was the airport environment.

Doug Church:  Okay; well that makes sense now about how that occurred. What about everything–like you mentioned you were–this was toward the end of your shift. There weren’t a lot of Controllers still on position at that point. But what was happening around you and around your position as you’re talking with the pilot? Are there other things happening, other people helping to coordinate certain aspects of this event?

Dave Chesley:  Yeah; so, as I mentioned, I was the only Controller in the area at the time, but there was a couple supervisors within the operation in the north area. As soon as it happened, I yelled over and they immediately came over to help out. Rich Steele was one of the operational supervisors helping and at the time was a very big help in just helping out, you know keeping me calm, and also reassuring the pilot that they were doing a good job in getting me any information I needed–was doing coordination behind as well with the Tower and other facilities and getting the airport information and we were looking at weather at different airports and trying to figure out the best plan of action for the pilot.

So, yeah, I had help behind the scenes. A couple supervisors were in the building like I said helping. But initially I was just sitting there, the only one in the area, working from a handset. You know there were only a few aircraft on frequency. And as I said, it was the towards the end of my shift with about a half hour–45 minutes to go, and things winding down.

Doug Church:  So, it kind of stands to reason, you just got to be prepared every minute of every shift for anything that could happen, of course, right? [Laughs]

Dave Chesley:  Absolutely. You know it–it’s these events I think that you know we don’t train for these sorts of events in Air Traffic. You know things are fairly standard 99-percent of the time. You know turn left, turn right, climb, descend. But it’s events like this I think that you know we kind of have to take off that Controller hat and realize that we’re part of the team, you know. We kind of have to put ourselves in that airplane with the pilot and be there to give them the information they need.

I mean ultimately you know they’re flying the airplane and we’re just in a support role at that point in my opinion and getting them the info they need and trying to think one step ahead and anticipate the things they need.

And you know we don’t have a playbook for it. So, you’re kind of working on the fly and figuring out as you go. And you know fortunately in this scenario, everything worked out great.

(ATC Transmission)

Boston TRACON:  November Seven Delta Mike, the winds 240 at 4 and again runway 5, you are clear to land.


Pilot:  [Inaudible]


Boston TRACON:  November Seven Delta Mike you’re doing a great job. The Tower does have you in sight there and again, they do have equipment standing by for you.


Pilot:  Roger that November Seven Delta Mike.

Tower:  They’re approaching. [Inaudible]

Tower:  Final; she’s on the ground.

Tower:  Good job.

Doug Church:  In your decade of experience now being a Controller, have there been any other incidents that rivaled this one in terms of the nature of the emergency and the urgent situation and having to put your pilot skills to use to assist the pilot to get down safely?

Dave Chesley:  Not to this level; no. We experience emergencies fairly often, I think as Controllers. You know the standard would be a medical emergency or something of that nature or a loss of certain equipment. But no, not to this extreme. This certainly was the worst one that I’ve experienced you know, and a few others was equipment malfunctions or engine issues, or like I said, medical emergencies.

But this was certainly different. And I could tell you know just by the radar returns, like I mentioned initially, that I could tell something was wrong. And then having the pilot checking on–and just in the tone of voice and urgency she expressed that something was really, really wrong.

Doug Church:  Tell me about your feelings about being selected as an Archie League Medal of Safety Award winner for this event. What does that mean to you?

Dave Chesley:  Well, Doug, it’s nice to be acknowledged. I think it’s a great program that NATCA has done to acknowledge these sort of events and saves. For me personally, like I said, I really credit the pilot with the majority of the praise here. And I feel that–you know I might have helped out in some regard, but again, you know –I feel it was really her that did the majority of the work and remained you know calm and collective in order to remain in control of that airplane and get it safely on the ground.

I don’t know of many instances in which an aircraft, airborne strike something, and is deemed uncontrollable and still safely lands that aircraft. I don’t know of many situations that’s occurred. So again, in this specific scenario, you know hats off to the pilot is what I’d like to say, and she did a phenomenal job.

Doug Church:  Well, it’s very well-stated. Thank you so much. And thank you for taking the time to go through this very compelling event. And all of us extend our very warmest congratulations to you on this and continued best wishes and good health to you and your family.

Dave Chesley:  Thank you Doug; same for you.

Doug Church:  Thank you for joining us on this episode of the NATCA Podcast. I’m Doug Church; stay safe and take care.

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