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

Randy Wilkins and Chris Clavin, Fort Worth Center

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Controller:  Yeah; number 23258, I see you. You’re about 20 West Muskogee, say altitude.

Pilot:  3,500 feet; I’m trying to climb out of these clouds. I got in them and got turned around, traffic turned back, and I’m having a hard time keeping–.

Controller:  Number 23258 Roger.

Controller:  I don’t have any traffic in the area. If you’re able to just maintain a heading and slowly climb, you should be okay. At 3,500 you’re–you’re above the MIA, so if you’re able to just kind of get your wings level and slowly climb, we can get you pointed in the right direction.

Doug Church:  Those were the voices of Fort Worth Center Air Traffic Controller Randy Wilkins and the Pilot of a Cessna 150 trapped in the clouds above East Central Oklahoma. Hi everyone and welcome to the NATCA Podcast. I’m your host Doug Church and I’m the Deputy Director of Public Affairs at the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. Today we have the story of a remarkable flight assist in the Southwest Region. It’s one of two winning events from the region in our 2020 Archie League Medal of Safety Award Program. The winners will be honored on August 11th at the NATCA Convention in Houston.

Randy Wilkins has worked enough general aviation traffic in his 13 years at Fort Worth Center to know that while he and his colleagues aim to provide the best support they can and the most information possible to pilots who encounter difficulty, ultimately, it’s up to the pilot to finish off a safe landing. But Wilkins is passionate about training and developing his base of knowledge in as many different ways as he can to be prepared for challenging situations. That includes researching air safety investigations in his spare time, looking at how past NATCA Archie League Medal of Safety Award-winning Controllers handled situations, watching You Tube instructional videos of VFR pilots encountering IFR conditions, and learning about the dangers of pilot vertigo in instrument meteorological conditions.

That was the situation that this Cessna 150 pilot faced in Wilkins’ airspace as he flew in solid IFR conditions near the boundary of Kansas City Center airspace between Oklahoma City approach and Tulsa approach.

He was lost, definitely under stress, and sought help through the Guard Radio Frequency. He ended up talking to a Southwest Airlines pilot who was trying to figure out where he was. Soon he was talking to Randy, who along with fellow Fort Worth Center Controller Chris Clavin helped get the pilot out of a difficult situation. How did they do it? Well, I had the opportunity to talk with both Controllers, and here’s their story.

Doug Church:  Let me start by asking you both your background, how you got into air traffic control and your experience. We’ll start with Randy. You’re 13 years now at Fort Worth Center; is that correct?

Randy Wilkins:  Yeah; Fort Worth Center for 13 years. It was my first facility. I’m originally from Indiana, grew up there, went to Purdue, graduated, and moved to Indianapolis for a couple years and then I went–got hired almost immediately out of college, and then straight to Fort Worth.

Doug Church:  How did you get into the field? What interested you to choose this as a career?

Randy Wilkins:  Well, originally, I went for engineering and then decided that wasn’t for me. And then I went back to school after a couple years out, and then thought I wanted to be a pilot, but I didn’t have the money to do that. So, that’s when I found out about air traffic control, because as you know, most of us don’t really know about it until we either have a family member that does it or we hear about it somehow.

And so I heard about it, and I did the CTI Program there at Purdue, and here I am.

Doug Church:  Chris, this is–you’re coming up on your three-year anniversary at ZFW; is that correct?

Chris Clavin: Yeah; I think the first week in June will be my three-year anniversary here.

Doug Church:  How’s it going for you so far? This is obviously you know with the pandemic following this event in October of 2019, pretty eventful start to your career I suspect.

Chris Clavin:  Yeah; it’s put a hold on training for a while, so training is still going on. That’s going well. I’m still progressing with that and hoping to hopefully take care of that sometime at the end of this year or early next year.

Doug Church:  Where are you from originally, and how did you find air traffic control as your career?

Chris Clavin:  I’m from Long Island. Before I started with the FAA, I had been working at JFK Airport with the Air Train, nothing to do with airplanes, but I was running the–by the time I left, I was the supervisor in the Operations Center for the Air Train at JFK, and then–before I got into this.

Doug Church:  Huh, very interesting; that’s great. How did you like that job?

Chris Clavin:  It was great. It was I would say as stressful, but the pay wasn’t as good which made the option to get out of there pretty easy.

Doug Church:  [Laughs] Yeah; I imagine so. Are either of you pilots yourselves?

Randy Wilkins:  No.

Chris Clavin:  No.

Doug Church:  You sure could have fooled me on that ATC tape. I’ll tell you what. I just got done listening to it for a second time here a few minutes ago to refresh myself before the interview, and what an amazing ordeal. It seemed to take about a half an hour from start to finish. Does that seem about right?

Randy Wilkins:  Yeah; it felt like 20 years, but I think half an hour is probably about right.

Doug Church:  Had either of you had an emergency situation similar to this one or any other kind of emergency situation in your careers thus far?

Randy Wilkins:  I have not dealt with one personally. I’ve watched many Archie League Award Banquets before, and honestly, I think they’re a great teaching tool to go back and show people how different Controllers handled different situations. So, really, that was what I had to go back on as far as you know people getting stuck in a bad situation like that.

You know they kind of teach VFR and IFR conditions in the Centers and stuff, but it’s not really lifelike, I guess. I don’t know. It’s not like listening to somebody actually go through it and watching that replay. So, I think that’s probably what I thought of the most when I thought about what would I do in these situations, right? Because you know, you watch a video and be like, well, what would I do? Would I know to say that? Would I know to think about this? And those sorts of things; so, I really fall back on those replays.

And I think replays are underused on the general basis but that’s another topic for another day.

Doug Church:  Well, set the scene for us as far as at the Center and your particular area and airspace. What is the specific airspace that you work, and tell us about what the flight conditions were like on this particular day, which obviously was before the pandemic, so you were at full maximum operational status as far as traffic volume and normal operations, I suspect, right?

Randy Wilkins:  Go ahead Chris.

Chris Clavin:  Yeah; actually I remember it was around the time I was going home that day and luckily traffic wasn’t too bad, but the area where we were working in Oklahoma, so it borders Tulsa approach, Oklahoma City approach to the west, and Razorback approach to the east, and we also are talking to Kansas City Center on the north side, and Memphis Center on the east side, and then to the south, that is our other inhouse sectors that we’re working right next to.

So, that day, when the gentleman got into the IFR conditions, he was pretty much on the–near the boundary of Kansas City Center and between Oklahoma City approach and Tulsa approach, so that’s who I was in most communications with as the assistant trying to get updated weather there to see how to best go about the situation.

Doug Church:  Is that an area where it will be unusual for you to work a general aviation aircraft at that altitude–about 4,000 or 5,000 feet, or is it somewhat routine and not out of the ordinary?

Chris Clavin:  If the weather is good that’s extremely routine. For example, a day like yesterday when I was working, it might be–in one area, the one airspace there talking to–well, to–at one point there was about eight of them in the general aviation and just in our one area at one time, so it’s pretty common.

Doug Church:  So, the weather conditions on this particular day, we had a little bit of everything and very little of it was good I suspect. So, can you kind of paint that picture of what this Pilot was facing, where he was at in the area south of Tulsa and west of Muskogee?

Randy Wilkins:  Yeah; so, it was solid IFR, pretty much. There wasn’t any precip where he was; there was precip in the sector. It was mainly south of Tulsa and then extending to the east, so like in the replay you hear people deviating and stuff, but there was no precip around him.

And I think he reported the base as about 4,500 feet to 4,000. I don’t know what kind of a weather briefing he had or what he had heard, or if it had not been accurate for the area. I don’t remember what was forecasted. But it was pretty much solid IFR from east of Tulsa to Oklahoma City and it did improve after Oklahoma City. So, I’m not sure; I don’t even know where he ended up or where he was going or you know if he was coming or going, or what had happened, so I’m assuming he was maybe trying to get OK City or Tulsa and got lost, or something–somewhere through there because he was running low on fuel.

But as far as the VFR Pilot goes, it wasn’t ideal. That’s for sure.

Doug Church:  So, we really don’t even know at this point where he was going, but as you suspected, it was likely Oklahoma City, to the west?

Randy Wilkins:  I think so.

Doug Church:  Do we know where he took off from?

Randy Wilkins:  No; I have not heard from this person, so–maybe one day.

Doug Church:  Yeah. And so, there was–there’s quite a bit of options you both gave him. Who talked to him first?

Randy Wilkins:  He talked to a Southwest Pilot on Guard at first and that’s how we could hear. We actually didn’t have Guard for a long–until the last couple years. I think like three or four years ago they finally put it in, and we could–we heard some chirping on the speaker. And then about the time I went to hit Guard, Tulsa Approach called me and said, hey, do you hear that? And then so, while this is going on the Pilot is talking to a Southwest jet that’s trying to figure out where he is, you know just because he needs–he’s lost and obviously under stress and he’s trying to get some help, so–.

Doug Church:  Would this have even reached your level had Guard not been installed at the Center, or would you have still known this was a situation to handle because of the emergency indicator coming up on the data block?

Randy Wilkins:  No; he was not squawking emergency until–I don’t remember if he ever did or not. But I mean obviously it’ll show up–either I told him to, or the Southwest Pilot told him to, but I can’t remember. Maybe I told him to squawk emergency and then we could find him and figure out where he was. But yeah; once he did that then we had been fine. But initially we were on Guard. We would have to relay to the Pilot, or you know who knows where that Southwest Pilot was. I’m not sure what that situation was. I never ended up figuring out where he was that but luckily, somebody was at least talking to him that could have probably got him in contact with us.

Doug Church:  Do you recall four years ago when this was–when Guard was–was added into–into your frequencies and–and how that came about and–and truly a very noteworthy event I’d suspect?

Randy Wilkins:  Yeah; at first was annoying because nobody knew what to do with it, right because there’s  a lot of chatter on Guard, people goofing off, and–and then people trying to find frequencies and stuff. But it was–I mean for the most part, it’s absolutely helpful, especially in situations like this because it’s the only one I’ve ever seen or witnessed firsthand. I know there’s been other ones in the years since it’s been installed, but it. once you learn how to handle it, it’s been–I think it’s absolutely imperative to have access to it. You know a quick overall frequency program; I don’t know how many [inaudible] we’ve–we’ve found just punching the Guard and pulling them up. So, yeah; I think it’s very important and very useful.

Doug Church:  Outstanding. Well then, take us through for our listeners here, the two of you, the sequence of events that occurred, what you–the interaction with the–with the Pilot–we’re talking about a Cessna 150, this event had so many twists and turns so I think it’s best if I just let the two of you kind of take me through exactly how it played out in terms of getting him pointed in the right direction and getting him out of the–out of the clouds. You know take us through the sequence of events.

Randy Wilkins:  Sure. So, initially I was there by myself because it was [MACLOW] and it’s usually the slowest sector in the room. So, it’s kind of like the–either the camp-out or punishment sector, or however you want to look at that, but I was by myself, just working like I said earlier some deviations and then we heard him talking. [Call Switch] called and said hey, do you hear that? Yeah; and it’s like [inaudible] Guard, and hence, I’m pretty sure I had him squawk emergency and then got him on frequency. And then I asked him what was going on.

He said he was having trouble holding altitude which in hindsight, Monday morning quarterbacking, I never did think to ask him about carburetor ice. So, I don’t know if he figured that on his own later and was able to kind of–because as you go through the replay, either he learns how to fly in the cloud, he’s teaching himself as he’s going, so I think he’s definitely doing a lot of that. Or he figures out that he’s not climbing because of it. So, I don’t know if he ever turned it on or not.

But like that was one of the things I noticed like I wish I would have said that to this dude because when you hear I don’t have the power to climb or this thing is not climbing very well, it seems like that might be an issue especially going in and out of moisture, when he’s not used to that, right. So, that was one thing that I thought.

But then initially he’s talking pretty well. You could tell he’s frustrated and then once you see him, he’s–he’s just flying in circles, right. Like, I’m trying to talk him into just keeping the wings level, you know use his instruments as much as he can, trying to figure out where he’s trying to go, and then that’s when we learned like he’s running low on gas. And then I think somewhere at this point Chris comes in and that we–we start working on where can we send this guy that’s at least marginally VFR? So that’s kind of the first third, I guess.

Doug Church:  Chris, do you want to take it from there?

Chris Clavin:  Yeah; sure, I wasn’t–like Randy said, I wasn’t initially working with him, and it was actually towards the end of my day. I was working another sector called [ARDMORE] not the D-side. And then I was initially getting up to take my final break for the day and eventually head home, but then I heard all the chatter on Guard where obviously where we were all able to hear that in the area. We knew something was up and then when we realized where he was in Randy’s airspace, and I just decided to plug in and start working with him.

And then once we tried to–while he’s dealing with talking to the Pilot, I was trying to get updated–the most up-to-date weather information that I could between Stillwater Low at Kansas City Center and Oak City Approach and Tulsa Approach and see if they had any guys going VFR, any of the air reports around there. And we were just trying to get updates with that, and I was trying to make sure that Randy didn’t have to do any coordination, or he was just able to focus on that. And that was pretty much my job to make sure you can focus on the Pilot, and I’ll take care of all the other stuff.

Doug Church:  What were the airports around him and–and what were the weather conditions?

Chris Clavin:  The only good report I got was, as Randy said, more to the westside of Oklahoma City Approach and based on the gentleman’s fuel situation, it didn’t look like that was a valid option. So, we kept working [the problem], and eventually got him pointed to an area where he was able to break out, I think.

Doug Church:  Do you recall exactly where he broke out, close to Chandler where his eventual destination?

Randy Wilkins:  Well, I don’t think he ever broke out. I think he flew through the clouds, like at one point we had, we said like, we need to pick and do this right because you’re running low on gas and we’re just going to have to do it. So, that’s when he said I’m going to go to Chandler and I’m like all right man. Well, that’s–and I said you know focus on your instruments and don’t look out the window type thing. Trying to–just trying to give him some kind of a scan to think about or the three or four minutes that he’s going to be IMC trying to get underneath the clouds. So, but yeah, I’m pretty confident he never broke out. Well, I mean he broke out eventually–eventually, but he was definitely IMC for a while on his way down.

Doug Church:  So, Chandler was at 900 feet visibility; is that correct?

Randy Wilkins:  Yeah; I think so. I think everything in that vicinity was at 900-ish feet. You know east of that was worse and then west got better. But it seemed like he did not have the gas to go much further west, so that’s when you know he made that decision to head in, so–.

Doug Church:  So, you both really in essence gave him a flight lesson in instrument flight rules [Laughs] for lack of a better term, right? I mean somebody that had no experience in doing that and–and asking him–or telling–or instructing him not to look out the window.

Randy Wilkins:  I’ve heard–and that–and that was one of the Archie League things, like I’ve heard that–I’ve heard people say that the vertigo and–and you know and if you do any research and like, I can’t remember the name of it. I know this is a little off-topic, but there’s these–I go into You Tube world and there’s aircraft safety investigations or ASI or something like that, and they have like–they go over accidents and incidents and stuff. And then–and they talk about vertigo and IMC and all that stuff.

And so, well, I was trying to think of like, well, what would I–if that was me, what would I want to know? What would I want somebody to say to me before I did this? And I was like well, the worst thing that you always hear about is people getting disoriented and flipped upside down and you know that’s–we all know that’s not very–the likeliness of getting disoriented in clouds if you’re not used to it is pretty high.

So, what can I do to avoid that, right? And so, I’m like well, don’t look out the window. Just concentrate on the instruments, and if–and keep your airspeed up and your altitude right and your wings up. Well, I mean you’re going to be okay. I mean you’re more likely to, you’re going to have a better chance of you know making it through that.

So, that’s what I was–that was my thought process. What can I say to this dude to help him? I can’t–there’s not much else I can do. He’s got to do it on his own. Then over the course of the emergency you can see him. I’m kind of giving him heading updates. And he’s like I’m trying, but you can kind of see him going through the process of learning how to fly either on his instruments or however he was doing it, but you could see him getting better and better at taking control of his aircraft.

So, I think that might have saved his life actually, the 10 minutes he had to get used to flying in a manner like that rather than just like on–you know like I’ve just–I got to go through the clouds now and get down to you know, so–. That’s–that’s how it looked to me.

Doug Church:  That’s fascinating. So, it’s things that you learned just by doing your own research and putting yourself in the situation of what this could look like if it ever transpired and–and sure enough, it did. And you and Chris are there to provide the assistance needed to get him out of it. So, that must have filled you with a lot of confidence that you’re–you’re talking to him and–on a–certainly on a minute-by-minute basis here things continue to get better and better and brighter. Was there a point though that–that you felt like boy, he’s really got a difficult situation here? Was it more the fuel that was the issue or was it more his inexperience, or was it a combination of both?

Randy Wilkins:  I think that it was more the fuel issue. I’m pretty–because he seemed to be flying–you know like I said, he seemed to be flying okay after that first 15 minutes where he was just flying in circles, and like he was way off you know. He’s left and right and I can’t always tell what his altitude is, so I don’t know how he’s doing on that. Luckily, he was able to either use the clouds as a base you know because if he’s flying right at the tops, you know maybe he’s got some kind of horizon that he can use. I’m not sure how he did that. But it didn’t seem like altitude was his problem. It was really just kind of getting him pointed in the right direction.

So, yeah, like–so after that, it was–it was fuel for me. I mean that–you know what–can we get this guy to an airport where he has a–more space to the ground to break out? How much time is that? Where are we going to go? And then–and that’s–unfortunately that window was not very large. And then with him zigzagging back and forth it was eating up some of that time.

Doug Church:  And with a quarter tank of gas left that was good for about 40 to 45 minutes he said on frequency. So, you knew in your mind that the clock is ticking, and there was really no time to waste there of course.

At what point did you lose the radio communications? What general vicinity and–and altitude was he at where you then had to use to 2 PAPA BRAVO as the go-between at the very end there?

Randy Wilkins:  Um, it’s, I don’t remember exactly when, but it’s basically somewhere after he started down through the clouds, because we lose radio–that’s not really close to a transmitter, so we lose him out of 2,500 to 3,000. And so, I didn’t want to talk to him while he was descending you know IMC. I think at that–I can’t remember exactly that went. It’s been a long time.

At some point we–I put him on the advisory frequency over there, or I–maybe I relayed the PAPA BRAVO to–to go through. But yeah; any–anything below 3,000 to 4,000 and of course, I think the airports at 900 feet were going to lose him. So, there was a good portion of that descent to IMC where we weren’t talking to him–at least directly.

Doug Church:  What is that like at that point when you’ve done all you can do and now the rest is up to him and waiting for that notification from Flight Service that he’s on the ground? What are–what are those moments like in your mind?

Randy Wilkins:  Go ahead Chris.

Chris Clavin:  Well, obviously you don’t want to think the worst, but there’s other stuff still going on in the sector that we had to take care of and even though it was slow you still got other things you need to take care of. But yeah; that–it felt like 20 years before we finally got the update that he was on the ground and–because we get the briefings where we know the numbers if a major airline gets to a problem where worst-case there’s usually minor injuries, but the–we’ve all heard that VFR in IFR conditions and they give us the numbers how that usually doesn’t go well.

And so yeah; it does go through the back of your mind, but you still have other work to do, so you have to keep doing it. And then hope for the best.

Doug Church:  And then of course, the emotions turn to elation and relief I suspect when–when you get word that he’s on the ground safely. Is that right?

Randy Wilkins:  Yeah; I actually get relief immediately after that was over because I was not in any shape to keep working that’s for sure. I was tore up after that because I was scared for the guy. I know it wasn’t anything we did, but yeah. I was shook up to the point where I took a pretty long break after that and had to gather myself because it was stressful. And that’s just how that stuff–some people handle that really well and they can just keep on going and keep on going. I needed a break for sure.

Doug Church:  Is there any part of the story here that I didn’t ask about that as you recall how it went down that you’d want to mention here and make sure we cover?

Randy Wilkins:  No; I don’t think so. I think that pretty much sums it up. I don’t–you know I think we just tried to give him the best direction that we can, the most information that we can, and then ultimately, it’s up to him, just like all these situations. It’s ultimately up to the Pilot to finish off the safe landing. So, I’m elated that it worked out and I’m just happy for him really, so–. [Laughs]

Doug Church:  What does it mean to each of you to be recognized now as–as an Archie League Award Winner? Chris, you want to go first?

Chris Clavin:  Sure; yeah. After seeing previous years’ winners and looking at all those events, it’s definitely an honor. I will be honest saying that as the Assistant I don’t feel that I deserve nearly as much credit as Randy does, or any of these other people that were actually talking to the Pilot. But I’m glad I was able to help and do anything I could and I just–I’m very honored to be part of it.

Doug Church:  Thank you; Randy?

Randy Wilkins:  Yeah; for me it’s like one of those when you see all these winners in the past, you’re like wow, that is so amazing, like how did they do that? Like you know like the Jet Blue save where the guy was lined up to land on the taxiway and like how many people that–that dude saved, diagnosing him lining up on the wrong runway?

So, I mean there’s all kinds of good ones, you know like lost F16s and all this–to be categorized like that is an honor, and I really hope that people can take it and learn something from it, because that’s really what this is all about. It’s about honoring, or you know giving gratitude to Controllers that did such a good job. But I try to use it as a training tool and say hey, this is what happened. Here’s what you can do if you get in this situation. So, that’s what I really hope comes out of it for me.

Doug Church:  Extremely valuable and important advice then. I thank you both for your time and taking us through this extraordinary event. And congratulations to both of you.

Randy Wilkins:  Thank you, sir.

Chris Clavin:  Thank you very much.

Doug Church:  Thanks for joining us for this episode of the NATCA Podcast. Please leave a review and a rating if you liked this podcast wherever you’re listening to us. We always appreciate your feedback. I look forward to bringing you another episode soon. Take care.

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