16th Annual Archie League Medal of Safety Award Winners’ Spotlight: Northwest Mountain Region
Byron Andrews, Josh Fuller, Brian Hach, Ryan Jimenez, and Michael Sellman
As Seattle Center (ZSE) member Josh Fuller’s shift was ending on the Saturday afternoon before Thanksgiving in 2019, a supervisor from Area C walked through Area B urgently looking for anyone with pilot experience. A VFR-rated Cessna 182 Skylane pilot in far northern Idaho, Tim Bendickson, had departed Boundary County Airport (65S) on what was supposed to be a 40-minute flight to the southwest back to his home airport in Priest River, Idaho (1S6). Instead, he immediately encountered fog and severe icing conditions, typical for that time of year, ending up in Canadian airspace.
Bendickson, knowing he could not find his own way back to the airport, called ZSE. “I just almost hit another mountain, I don’t know where I am,” he said.
Fuller grabbed his headset, went to Area C, and told the supervisor he had limited pilot experience but not in a Cessna 182. He plugged in. “My stomach was in my throat,” he said, “because I did not have any idea what we were getting into. My first thoughts were, let’s just get him on a heading and keep his wings level.”
Fuller spent the next two hours working with fellow ZSE members Byron Andrews, Brian Hach, Ryan Jimenez, and Michael Sellman. (Pictured above – clockwise from top left: Brian Hach, Josh Fuller, Ryan Jimenez, Byron Andrews, and Michael Sellman) It was an unforgettable team effort that saved the life of Bendickson, who was facing an array of challenges including disorientation that often leads to disaster for pilots. He was also 2,000 feet below the minimum IFR altitude. At ZSE, with 12 seconds between updates on their radar scopes, Bendickson’s position changed dramatically with each sweep. “Any adjustments we make, we have to wait 12 seconds to see if those adjustments work out,” Fuller said.
“Being in the control room, everyone could feel the weight of the situation,” Sellman said.
Sellman was working the low altitude sectors adjacent to where the emergency was occurring. It was a busy football Saturday, with Washington State hosting Oregon State in Pullman, Wash. Sellman worked to free up frequency space on the emergency sector (sector 8) by instructing other controllers to put any aircraft going to low altitude on his frequency. He said the airspace Bendickson was in is worked with non-radar procedures most of the time. Additionally, he said, “our radio coverage is pretty bad,” except for part of a valley where fortunately Bendickson was when ZSE first started to hear him. But that coverage was spotty when he was over the mountains.
Andrews was training a new controller on high altitude that day. He stopped training and ran over to the low altitude D-side position to assist Sellman and coordinated with high altitude controllers, approach controllers, and flight data. Jimenez worked with Sellman to split up initial coordination duties. He also took key steps to alleviate controller workload and frequency congestion. “We had to keep that sector as sterile as possible, to minimize any chance of interference,” Jimenez said. “We needed to keep Josh’s life as easy as possible in that situation.”
Perhaps the most harrowing part of Bendickson’s zig-zagging path above the mountainous terrain occurred near Scotchman Peak (pictured right), near the Montana border. It rises to 7,040 feet above the town of Lake Pend Oreille, Idaho. Bendickson’s altitude, captured in three successive radar updates: 7,000, 7,100, and 6,900 feet.
“It’s crazy to think that if Tim had another body on board, or 50-60 pounds of baggage, or even eight more gallons of fuel that day, it would have negated the last bit of performance of the aircraft which was already deeply affected due to massive ice buildup once cresting Scotchman Peak,” said Hach, a 22-year veteran controller who is also a Skylane pilot. “In reality, the fact that he couldn’t see the terrain was probably best.”
It was clear at that point that Bendickson had no opportunity to go east, given the terrain and his ice-induced descent. Hach, who like Fuller was an Area B controller working in Area C for this emergency, said the plan at that point needed to be revised. “That is when I learned the sectional chart really quickly,” Hach said, “and we devised the best plan to get to the west.” That’s where lower terrain and a large valley held the probability of better visibility and no ice.
Next, Sellman, Andrews, and Jimenez all played a critical role in using a Washington Air National Guard KC-135 Stratotanker flight – Expo91 – inbound to Fairchild Air Force Base (SKA) in Spokane, Wash., to begin search and rescue instead of landing. The controllers used the flight to find VFR conditions and relay it to Bendickson.
Fuller told Bendickson, “November 2-2 Bravo, you’ve made it a long way so far, so thanks for hanging in there.” Bendickson replied, “Thank you so much!” The crisis was not over, but everyone involved started to have a much higher degree of confidence in a safe outcome. Expo91 reported that Bendickson, on his current heading, would break out of the clouds in 8-10 miles. Ninety minutes after his initial call to ZSE, he emotionally transmitted that he could see land. After ZSE shipped Bendickson to approach control for handling into Coeur d’Alene Airport (COE), east of Spokane, Wash., the relief was joyous and overwhelming.
“A couple of us unplugged and there was some applause in the room,” Fuller said. “It was kinda cool.”
“Thus far into my career, this was the craziest situation we’ve been involved with,” Jimenez said. “I just think it’s really remarkable that Josh and Brian were able to show up and plug into airspace that they are almost completely unfamiliar with. Everybody involved had one goal and we were singularly focused on that, trying to find Tim a place to land safely.”
At the 11th Annual Washington Air National Guard Awards banquet on Feb. 8, 2020, Col. Larry Gardner, 141st Air Refueling Wing (ARW) Commander, showcased what he called an act of heroism by the airmen from Team Fairchild. The crew of Expo91 included pilots Lt. Col. Mike Harris and Capt. Charles Roark from the 141st ARW and Senior Airman Kendall Bryant, a 92nd ARW boom operator.
Calling Seattle Center for help “saved my life,” said Bendickson, who has been flying for 10 years. “They were nurturing and just kept me calm and kept me focused on what my task at hand was. Everything boils down to what my instructor said which is, first and foremost, fly the airplane. That’s what I did.”
“This was an incredible thing to be a part of,” Fuller said. “These guys did one hell of an incredible job. Tim did a remarkable job just holding it together. He’s the one that actually fought for two hours while we coached.”
Listen as the five NATCA ZSE members involved in this dramatic, two-hour long event reconnect virtually with Idaho pilot Tim Bendickson – whom they first met in person at the facility after the event (before COVID-19) – and recount how it all happened. Click here to listen.
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