Transcript: Podcast With ZKC NATCA Member Jordan Haldeman, 2020 Archie League Award Winner
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. I’m excited to bring you our newest story from the 2020 winners of NATCA’s Archie League Medal of Safety Awards. Today we focus on NATCA members Sarah Owens and Jordan Haldeman of Kansas City Center.
At Kansas City Center, Air Traffic Controllers on position have a list available to them of fellow Controllers at work who are also Pilots. If needed, those Controllers can be brought to the area to assist a Pilot in distress, including things like reviewing emergency checklists.
The Pilot of a Piper PA 28 was flying in Instrument Flight Rules in February 2020. His instruments were giving him problems and he needed help. The Controller on the other end of the microphone happened to be the perfect person for the situation. It was Sarah Owens.
Now in her 20th year at ZKC, Owens has been flying for the last 14 years. She flies jets, has worked for charter companies, and flown around the country, and is also a flight instructor. She’s an Air Force Veteran, a member of NATCA’s Air Safety Investigations Committee, and has represented NATCA in numerous Pilot Controller Meetings including at the Annual EAA Air Venture Oshkosh.
Working her D-Side position was Jordan Haldeman, who has been at Kansas City Center for three years after more than a decade of experience at other facilities and the US Navy. Sarah and Jordan helped this Pilot keep his altitude up after his missed approach into Topeka, Kansas. They got him headed toward an airport with better weather conditions in Harrisonville, Missouri, about 80 miles away to the east, southeast.
Here’s a piece of audio recording from the event that features Sarah’s work:
Controller: November 32551, a low altitude alert; check your altitude immediately. Climb and maintain 3,000.
Pilot: I’ve lost my [inaudible] 32551.
Controller: All right; November 32551, just fly your present heading. Fly your present heading and just try to climb and maintain 3,000.
Pilot: All right; maintain present heading. I’m indicating 2,100 right now.
Controller: November 551, climb and maintain 4,000; just climb.
Pilot: Climbing to maintain 4,000, 551.
Controller: 551, were you on top of before you went in for the approach?
Pilot: Yeah; 551.
Controller: 551, were you on top earlier? Do you know what the cloud tops are?
Pilot: Yeah; just below 4,000.
Controller: All right; November 552 just climb. Climb until you get on top and let me know when you’re on top.
Pilot: Climbing 551.
Doug Church: I recently had the chance to talk with Jordan Haldeman about this event. Here’s our conversation.
Doug Church: You’ve been in the Agency for–this is your sixth year; is that correct?
Jordan Haldeman: That’s correct; yeah.
Doug Church: All at Kansas City Center?
Jordan Haldeman: No; I started in Baton Rouge, Louisiana at an up/down facility and certified there, Tower and Approach Control, and then put in paperwork to transfer back to Kansas City, which is where I’m from, and was really interested in the end-route environment.
Doug Church: The month of February is when this event occurred, right before the COVID19 pandemic hit. So, you’re dealing at the time with pre-COVID traffic levels.
Jordan Haldeman: The VFR traffic for our low altitude vector in our specific area at Kansas City Center is pretty high-volume just because we surround the Kansas City Approach Control in entirety.
Doug Church: Can you kind of set the scene for us as far as the sectors involved where you were working, where Sarah was working, the traffic load that you would have had at the time when this all kind of started to take shape as a save event?
Jordan Haldeman: Yeah; no problem. So, the low altitude sectors for the trails area encompass four sectors and each one of the four surrounds the Kansas City Approach Control. The area or the sector that the event took place in is a fairly populated area where we get a lot of Military traffic and a lot of VFR work, just because it’s right outside of the Kansas City Approach Control airspace, and we have two towered contract facilities that get a lot of practice approaches.
So, we refer to Mondays in our area and probably across the NAS as Military Mondays, just because there’s a lot of Military flying that happens on those days. So, our low altitudes get pretty hectic between the AR refueling and all the practice approach requests into those towered airports.
Doug Church: So, in relation to the general aviation aircraft that became the focus of your attention really quickly here, we’re talking about November 32551, which is a Piper PA 28, you mentioned Monday as being very busy for Military; that time of year where we know weather is always a concern, how much general aviation traffic do you normally see in the month of February and was it unusual that this particular aircraft was where it was when it was?
Jordan Haldeman: I wouldn’t say that anything was unusual about the aircraft obviously until you know they weren’t able to maintain their altitude. But as far as the month and the day, I mean if it’s a nice day outside, we’re going to get a lot of VFRs that come out and fly. And it just adds to the workload.
The tools to predict traffic that we use do not account for VFR popup flights, so those sectors can spool up fairly rapidly and become busy without a lot of anticipation.
Doug Church: And this particular aircraft was trying to land in what we’ve been told was IFR conditions at Forbes Field in Topeka. Is that correct?
Jordan Haldeman: That’s right.
Doug Church: So, it started out as a normal approach and then quickly became a missed approach after the first ILS attempt and then trying to be vectored back around for another ILS. Can you kind of pick it up from there and work in, certainly, Sarah was the one talking to the Pilot; when was the first indication then that something was amiss? Was it after the first missed approach and the reason for perhaps why that approach was missed?
Jordan Haldeman: Right; I’m not sure of the specifics of exactly what happened with the missed approach whether the aircraft went missed due to weather conditions. I don’t believe that was the case. And as they executed the missed approach and started heading out, they started to dip below our minimum IFR altitude and that’s when things started to definitely draw more attention to the aircraft. And in the end-route environment there’s two positions for each sector, the R-Side or the Radar Controller, and then the D-Side, and so I quickly sat down as the D-Side to assist in any coordination that might need to occur. And that helps her be able to focus more on what’s going on, on the scope, and so that I can start pulling up airports that are near that aircraft if he needs to divert for an emergency landing somewhere else, weather conditions at fields that might be VFR or more favorable VFR conditions. I don’t think it was a hard IFR day from what I recall. So, you know he might have been able to go to the south 20 miles and find an airport that’s VFR conditions, and then start coordinating with the supervisor and passing all the pertinent information there.
Doug Church: Just reading the description here. So, she’s noticing that he’s descending and issued him a low-altitude alert; instructed the Pilot to climb and maintain 3,000 feet. The Pilot was at 2,000 feet at the time and said static system failure. Do you know what that referred to exactly?
Jordan Haldeman: I’m not a Pilot [Laughs] and Sarah is, and Sarah is a very experienced Pilot at that. And so, she had that totally under control. She flies jets. She has worked for charter companies and flown around the country. She’s an Instructor Pilot. So, she knows the checklists for those aircraft like the back of her hand.
So, as far as the Pilot being in distress, Sarah was the person that you would want on the other end. And in the Center, we have a list of Controllers that are Pilots for situations just like that, so that if I were to be sitting there working the R-Side position and I have an aircraft in distress, we can actually pull up a list of people that are there at work that day that are Pilots and bring them to the area and they can help you know brainstorm ideas of maybe things that the Pilot is not thinking of.
So, she had that all under control with the Pilot and helping him run those checklists. And my mindset was more focused on making sure that everything else was being taken care of as far as coordination with the Approach Control, coordination with the local Towers, and then evaluating weather conditions and field conditions at all surrounding airports in the event that he were to divert to one of those airports.
Doug Church: Have you, yourself, had to use that list before in any kind of a similar type situation as this one?
Jordan Haldeman: I have not. I have not been at the Center; this is my third year at the Center, so I’ve not used that list. But it would definitely be something that would help out in a situation like this.
Doug Church: So, this is about the time that–that the Pilot tells Sarah he’s picking up ice. She’s checking the fuel status and you’re the one, as you mentioned, starting to really look very closely at what his options are and what it could look like as far as some VFR weather and some VFR options.
Take me through then your interaction with the situation and how long of a time are we talking about here because I mean ultimately, he makes his way from an attempted landing at Topeka to an approach and successful landing down at Lawrence Smith Memorial Airport south of Lees Summit, south of Kansas City, just over the border into Missouri. So that’s a several dozen miles of course of a distance.
Jordan Haldeman: Right.
Doug Church: Talk about the time element here and how much work has to get done in the short period of time that you’re responsible for.
Jordan Haldeman: It can happen fairly quickly. Once the aircraft was like back level and I think you know when you listen to the tape, you’ll hear Sarah really emphasizing that fact of you know keep the wings level and climb. And once the aircraft is under control, then there–a little pressure comes off of that and then it’s more of like okay, we need to find the airport that’s close enough and that’s when we found the Harrisonville, Missouri Airport which is where they ended up going down to. And landing was VFR conditions and did not have any issues to get them down there.
And the Cherokee that is a couple minute flight you know, probably 10 or 15 minutes to get them down there, and that’s just coordination. You’re going to coordinate with all the surrounding Towers of Class Delta Airspace that they might fly through and the Approach Control Airspace to make sure that everybody is keeping an eye on him as he gets down to that airport.
Doug Church: So, once like you mentioned, once the pressure becomes less knowing that his wings are level and he’s able to do the things that he needs to do to keep it flying straight and nice, that mindset must be a relief to you to know that the situation has gone from almost like a patient, critical to stable in a way, right. So, then you can operate a little bit more freely of mind at all or same mindset?
Jordan Haldeman: I think there’s always the attention to detail and making sure that you’re not missing things, and just like anything in our job, the more you work something the better you get at it. And unfortunately, emergencies are just part of our world. And the more emergencies that you work the more comfortable you get working under that condition, and the more comfortable you are working those the more factors you can think about.
So, when aircraft do enter icing conditions or other factors, you start to be able to think through that and think about options that maybe the Pilot is not thinking about and offer those solutions to them. So, once that pressure kind of comes off and you know that the aircraft is now level and he’s maintaining his altitude, there’s still the attention of watching them very closely to make sure that he’s having issues with the aircraft, he wants to land as soon as possible. We’re going to make sure that happens. We’re going to stay–you know pay special attention to that aircraft, but you still got to do your job and move on and work all the other airplanes that you’re talking to.
Doug Church: Take us through to the end here. So, how do you know that he’s on the ground safely? Do you get word from the Approach Control? Is there a way that you can see it to a certain extent, where radar extends to?
Jordan Haldeman: To a certain extent we have pretty decent radar coverage. The Harrisonville Airport is in the Kansas City Approach Control shelf. it’s in their south shelf that they own, so they have better radar coverage in there. We can basically see them down to the ground. With that airport being VFR and him flying you know 15 or 20 minutes over to the Harrisonville Airport from his position in Topeka, that was I think long enough for him to get everything under control with the aircraft. So, there wasn’t a ton of concern that he was having any other type of malfunction that was going to prevent him from having a safe landing once he arrived to that Airport.
Doug Church: Okay; and like you mentioned, this is your third year at–in the Center environment and now having a situation like this about a year ago under your belt, talk about the maturation process, the experience level that you acquire at a facility like Kansas City Center. What are all the other things that happen that really add to your arsenal of experience? How do different experiences like this sort of shape how you approach the next shift, the next day?
Jordan Haldeman: Yeah; that’s a great question. I think–I think just time in the seat is really the experience that you build over time. And sitting there and talking to Pilots and seeing different situations day in and day out, some of it does become routine, but you still see new things each day, and you still see new stuff that happens, and Pilots that have new requests that you’ve never really heard of or thought about.
And you know prior to the Agency, I was in the Navy and I worked at a contract facility, so I had nine years of experience prior to even joining the Agency. And you know there were situations that I had at a slow Contract Tower with aircraft in distress and you know dealing with–dealing with VFR Tower conditions where you have no radar and you’re just talking to the Pilot and you can’t even see where they’re at.
And so, I mean I think dealing with situations in the past, all culminate to giving you the most tools in the toolbox to help deal with situations when they start to deteriorate.
Doug Church: What Contract Tower were you at?
Jordan Haldeman: I was at Topeka Regional Airport.
Doug Church: Oh okay; okay, excellent.
Doug Church: So that would–that’s where you worked before Baton Rouge?
Jordan Haldeman: Right; yeah.
Jordan Haldeman: I started–Navy Controller in Corpus Christi and I was there for four years and then I worked at the Topeka Forbes Contract Tower, which is now a NATCA Tower, and–
Doug Church: I was going to mention that. It’s in the family now.
Jordan Haldeman: –yeah, and I was there for five years. And then I got picked up and went to Baton Rouge and then came to the Center.
Doug Church: What about the award itself? I mean have you and Sarah talked about it? What does this mean for you to be selected in this fashion with something that has become quite prestigious among NATCA and across the aviation world these last 16 years? What does that mean to you?
Jordan Haldeman: I think it’s a great award. We’re both I think very appreciative of it. I don’t want to speak for Sarah, but you know it’s on one hand you feel like well, I was just doing my job, but on the other hand you feel like appreciative that somebody recognized that you went above and beyond.
Doug Church: That’s great; thank you. I’ll let the last question just sort of be open-ended. Is there anything that I didn’t ask about the event that we need to let our members and the public know took place that I didn’t cover?
Jordan Haldeman: I don’t think so. You know the Pilot I think did a great job communicating with us. I think there’s times where you just don’t know what’s going on in the cockpit, and so, you kind of hold back and you don’t–you don’t pester them and you know bother them if they’re running checklists and they’re trying to get the aircraft under control because at the end of the day there’s very little that we can do on the other end of that microphone to help that Pilot in that moment. It really is going to be on them to get that aircraft back under control.
But the things you can do is what Sarah was doing, and what–and helping them walk them through the checklist and having a Pilot on the other end of that is really the best thing that could have happened.
Yeah; Sarah definitely deserves the majority if not all the credit for that one. She did a great job and was able to assist that Pilot in ways that not many Controllers could have.
Doug Church: Excellent. Thanks again.
Doug Church: Thanks so much for joining us in this episode of the NATCA Podcast. I’m Doug Church and I wish you good health and a good day. Take care.