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Transcript: Podcast Featuring NATCA PCT Members and Archie League Award Winners Mark Dzindzio and Ray Hanson

Control Tower:  NGO65 just for your planning purposes, I’m going to take you pretty far out and give you plenty of time to be able to get you established on the approach. I’m going to bring you pretty much to the end of the localizer, about 18 miles away from Shenandoah to get you plenty of time to get established.

Pilot:  Yes, sir.

Doug Church:  That was the voice of Potomac TRACON Air Traffic Controller Ray Hanson, as he worked with Piper PA28 Pilot Karl Muller. Hello everybody and thank you for joining us on this episode of the NATCA Podcast. I’m Doug Church, and I’m the Director Director of Public Affairs at the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

Today, I’m excited to introduce our two Eastern Region Archie League Medal of Safety Award Winners with you, Ray and his fellow Potomac TRACON Controller, Mark Dzindzio.

Karl was having difficulty navigating in IFR conditions above the Shenandoah Valley in Western Virginia. When Ray sat down with Mark to assist Karl, Ray applied the full breadth of knowledge he has acquired from 13 years as a Controller and nearly a quarter of a century as a Pilot himself.

It wasn’t until a couple of days after helping Karl out of the jam that Ray realized the incident was eerily similar to his own in-flight challenge in the summer of 1999. He had just gotten his instrument rating and was flying with a friend from Daytona Beach, Florida to Mansfield, Massachusetts. Their rented plane was burning fuel at a much faster rate than he was expecting, and Ray found himself over the Chesapeake Bay with thunderstorms in the path of his urgent need to land and refuel, but with Washington Center Controllers lending a helping hand.

Ray grew up wanting to be a 747 Pilot thanks to two parents who worked at Pan-Am and nurtured his love of aviation. He found his way to Air Traffic Control as a career after the 9/11 attacks decimated the aviation industry, but he earned both his certified flight instructor instrument and multi-engine instructor ratings.

Mark has spent the past 10 years at Potomac TRACON, after beginning his FAA career at Manassas Tower. Karl began flying in 2015 and earned his license and instrument ratings over the next two years. He had just joined a Fly Club in Harrisonburg, Virginia near Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport and bought a home nearby.

On this day in late May 2020, he planned to fly up to his previous home airport Hagerstown and back to Shenandoah Valley. The first leg was uneventful. On the flight back, he filed an IFR plan. Let’s listen now as Karl gets a chance to talk about this event with Mark and Ray.

Doug Church:  Okay; let’s start with Karl. What is it like for you to have this opportunity to talk to the Controllers who assisted you last year? This is a very rare thing for us to be able to invite a Pilot on to join our Controllers at an event such as this. What’s that mean to you?

Karl Mueller:  Well, it means a lot because I get to say thank you to both of them. And it was you know life-changing because they saved me in the clouds, so I’m glad to meet them now and be able to say thank you.

Doug Church:  Well, let’s stick with Karl. Talk about your flying experience. You’ve been flying for the last six years; is that correct?

Karl Mueller:  That’s correct. I started in 2015 and got my private pilots license in 2016, and then my instrument in 2017, which is what I had at the time of the incident last year. After that this past October I went on to get my commercial pilots license and a seaplane rating.

Doug Church:  Outstanding. And this particular day, we’re talking about the middle of May 2020, and you live up in Southern Pennsylvania, not far from Hagerstown. So, on this particular day, you were doing a roundtrip flight to and from Shenandoah Valley Airport. Is that correct? Can you kind of take us through your route and your day?

Karl Mueller:  It was kind of diverse because I had just joined about three or four months prior a second club down in Harrisonburg in Shenandoah Regional Airport, so it was roundtrip from Virginia up to Hagerstown, which went fine, and then the second leg was the trip home, down to Virginia where I have just bought a house and I’m moving.

And both halves had significant clouds between roughly 2,000 feet and 5,000 or 6,000 feet, between Shenandoah Valley Regional and Winchester, but the skies were clear from about Winchester to north of Hagerstown. So, my climb-out from Shenandoah Valley, I was at IFR from about 2,000 feet to 5,000 or 6,000 on the flight plan, broke out above the clouds. By the time I got above Winchester, things were clear, and it was VFR.

It was similar on the way back [inaudible]. But it was clear from Hagerstown to Winchester. I filed IFR but my intent was it was waning, the ceiling was still about 2,000 feet, and as I looked at our–you know what happened on the flight, I realized that I wanted to cancel IFR and descend. And that was my mistake is that sequence right there. I wanted to descend and fly VFR along Interstate 81, and fly at about 2,000 feet back to Shenandoah Valley Regional VFR.

But my initial mistake before we get to some of the navigational things that I did wrong, was simply flying into the clouds at 5,000 or 6,000 feet on my instrument flight plan, at which point of course, I could not descend and go VFR.

Doug Church:  Mark, let’s talk about Potomac TRACON on this particular day, and this is only two months after COVID19 had shut everything down and really disrupted the aviation system and our national airspace system in a way that we’ve never seen before, and hopefully never will again. What were the working conditions like in your particular area on this shift and some of the shifts prior, and kind of set the stage for handling this emergency on this day?

Mark Dzindzio: Sure, so as you said, it was early on in the pandemic and there weren’t–there wasn’t that much flight activity. Most things had been cancelled. There were still you know some flights and some flight training. In this case, it was the first time that we split the position to have to work the situation with Karl, because otherwise, it had been pretty manageable, sometimes a little bit busy. But you know overall, as long as everything went smoothly with you know the frequencies and the traffic, that you could work it by yourself pretty comfortably.

But maybe every now and then, me or Ray would like, you know, just sit in there for a few extra minutes and make sure that the other person was okay with the traffic. But yeah, again, in this case we had to split it and that was really kind of unheard of at the time. Now, of course, you know we work two or three or four positions, and we may need more you know going back into normal schedules. But at the time, it was a lot slower.

Doug Church:  Mark, what was the first inkling you had that this was going to be a difficult situation, one that was going to require extra attention, lots of extra time, and care?

Mark Dzindzio:  So yeah, on that day, as well, it was IFR, you know running instrument approaches everywhere, and it was also really windy from I forget, the west or east, probably from the west, like super-windy. And you know so sometimes, you know you miss your headings, and you have to change it based on the winds, and in this case when the Pilot came over, they were having a lot of difficulty just flying straight and level. And I had tried to give him a fix on the approach, Montebello VOR to just kind of have–you know give him a good down-wind heading, and you know not have to worry about it as much, you know while I work other traffic in the area.

But you know it was a lot of headings trying to get him towards Montebello and then he wasn’t able to, and then I think he has an explanation for at least why he wasn’t initially finding Montebello on the GPS. But and after that, I vectored him to the localizer at Shenandoah, and he really wasn’t picking up the localizer or staying you know on the glide slope. And with a lot of you know attention to that, at that point, I told him to go around because it wasn’t looking like a very safe approach or one that would be successful. And that’s when Ray had come over and that’s when Ray came over and we decided to split at that point so he could just focus on the–the one Pilot with the you know more unusual situation.

Doug Church:  And Ray, before I ask you to get involved there on that part of it and taking that position, Karl, explain then what was going on in the cockpit and what Mark had alluded to as far as the fixes he was giving you and the headings and so forth.

Karl Mueller:  Although I had just done three approaches the week before with a fellow club member to work on the Garmin 650 that we have in the Piper, I entered–because I couldn’t quite understand the Controller, who was I–you know I think now saying Montebello, and it simply wasn’t familiar to me as my home airport with the fixes.

And so, I was putting in M-o-n-t and I was thinking I was hearing something about Monty, and it brought up M-o-n-t-y, which is a GPS waypoint about 50 miles further near Lynchburg, Virginia. And I was confused between Radio 1 and Radio 2. And then starting to look over at my iPad because I knew I was close to SHED, that you know eventually I did actually do an approach with the first Controller.

But I did not get to the point of having the Montebello VOR as part of my navigation because I became fixated on Monty on the GPS. And that was just wrong, and it was far away.

And so, then after the first missed approach, when the second Controller came on, he gave me very simplified instructions and you know one step at a time, took me around again, and said that you know if I were to go miss that time, he was going to vector me over the Blue Ridge to Culpeper, Virginia, where the ceilings were about 4,000 feet to do a visual approach and landing.

But fortunately, and he got me lined up with the runway, and I was able to say field in sight. It was raining, and it wasn’t dark, but it was very overcast of course. But I broke out between 1,500 and 2,000 feet and landed, and then called him back.

Doug Church:  Ray, let me ask you as a Pilot, you’re getting involved in this situation and when the sector gets split, knowing that Karl has you know a limited amount of experience, but some experience, take us through your approach to the emergency and how that changes your planning and execution of a plan to get him safe.

Ray Hanson:  Well, at first, it was offline Mark and I had quickly talked about the situation and what was going on with all the traffic before he gave me the regular briefing. And when he told me everything that was going on with Karl over by Shenandoah, we had Air Force Two coming in, too, I had a feeling it was going to be too much. So, sat down over on Charlottesville, and then you know next was ask questions, you know with Mark’s explanations of you know having a hard time tracking to a VOR, having a hard time holding altitude, having a hard time holding headings, whether it was like Mark said, the wind earlier or whatever the case was. I now have plenty of time to talk to this one individual. I didn’t have much of anybody else to deal with.

So, it gave me time to start asking questions, and you know one of the first things I think I asked Karl was, you know how much time have you gotten recently in instrument conditions because you know somebody who is instrumented rated, you wouldn’t think that they would be having the problems. So, the step for me was find out what I’m working with, find out, you know is this person that actually knows what they’re doing or is it somebody who is kind of you know relatively new to the situation.

And then when I got Karl’s answer, basically it had been a while, you know it was like okay, let’s treat this individual as if they have little to no time. Let’s not try to make too many corrections or too many turns or too long of turns or anything else. Let’s just one thing at a time, keep it simple, and limit the workload that the Pilot was going to have.

Doug Church:  One other thing I wanted to ask you about Ray, at this point is, you had told me that this same situation had happened to you once before as a Pilot about 20 years ago.

Ray Hanson:  Yeah.

Doug Church:  And talk us through what the situation was then that you had faced and–.

Ray Hanson:  Oh, for me, it was summer of ’99. A buddy of mine–I had just gotten my instrument rating and he and I were flying from Daytona Beach up to Mansfield, Massachusetts. And the plane that we had rented was supposed to burn 9 gallons an hour; it was burning 15, and we didn’t know.

We got up north–now knowing the area, we were north of Tangier but south of Salisbury, Maryland, and we were running out of gas. And the Center that I was talking to, our Washington Center at the time, said yeah; I’ve got a place for you to land, but it’s on the other side of the level three/four thunderstorms that are in front of you.

And I was like all right; well, do they have gas? He said yeah. And the FBO is open. I had no choice but to go through the thunderstorms. And really didn’t think about that until a day or two later when I was talking to one of my buddies from college, and he reminded after I described the situation, he was like, you know that’ what happened with you and Artie. And I was like well, damn; you’re right. That is what happened with me, and you know. The only difference was–is you know I was 19 years-old. I was young and stupid and felt like I was indestructible, so at the time it didn’t really register with me compared to when he reminded me of this situation. That hit home a lot more.

Doug Church:  Karl, the latter part of this event, and getting a successful approach into Shenandoah, take us through the steps that you went through and the coordination that you had going on with Ray and then the emotions you had as you finally break out of the clouds.

Karl Mueller:  Sure; well, like the second Controller had said, it was you know a matter of simplifying things and just doing one thing at a time. So, you know instead of trying to manage both the iPad and the cockpit Garmin, I made sure that I put the Controller first, did exactly what he said, and it really–although, I did you know keep an eye on both the Garmin and Foreflight, I was really at that point, like I said the first time we talked, the second Controller, I it felt like okay, I can do this rather than being confused. I kind of dropped the Montebello/Monty confusion, did what he told me, and although I kept an eye on the screens, I really relied more on the Controller and it was almost a surprise when you know I, of course, was watching the altimeter, but it was almost a surprise when I popped out of the clouds because I was focused on doing exactly what he said.

And once I popped out of the clouds, you know I was just joyful and telling him like, airfield in sight. And then from then on, you know although I think I had four reds initially because I came in a little low on the approach. You know I got back up a little bit. And I mentioned that the CTAF, they don’t have a Tower at Shenandoah but there’s a fellow, I believe his name is Stacy, who works there, and he was monitoring the common traffic frequency. And he said, you know you’ve got four reds. And I was able to you know get back on the glide slope and land successfully. And the Controller had said hey, when you do land and when you’re off the runway, give me a call. And that’s when we talked a little further about the experience, which I was right on the edge with my six months and six approaches. And I had done three the right–or the week before, like I said, focused on learning the Garmin in that plane. But I hadn’t–clearly, I hadn’t mastered it, and I hadn’t prepared the approaches well enough to fly that in IMC.

My intent, like I said, was to basically go down low at Winchester and just follow 81 because it’s almost a straight shot. But for whatever reason I didn’t do it. I didn’t execute my plan, and so that was the price I paid and basically ending up deviating from my course line in the clouds. And I think that was largely due to fatigue and stress, and certainly stress at the end of the flight. But the success was all due to you know following the instructions of the Controller on that second approach.

Doug Church:  Karl, what’s the biggest thing that you’ve learned as far as the jobs that–that they have at Potomac and other facilities that you talk to in your flights, things that you’ve learned about Air Traffic Control and this experience that were new and perhaps surprising to you?

Karl Mueller:  Well, I don’t know about surprising because I’ve always been impressed with the professionalism of the Controllers I’ve dealt with. I do keep my IFR currency so that I can fly within the system because I think that’s added layer of safety to be in communication with professionals who have me on their screens.

And the interchange with both of these Controllers on this flight, you know showed me that I have deficiencies, but they were able to recognize those, and you know whether it’s not preparing the approach thoroughly or enough options or making an assumption, once I dealt with that second missed–well, the second approach that–where I landed successfully, there was just a measure of trust there with the simplified instructions. I haven’t needed that before, but it was a welcome change and a necessary one at that point to get me on the ground safely.

Doug Church:  Mark and Ray, just a last question for you would be, your reaction to winning the Archie League Medal of Safety Award? This is the 16th year we’ve been doing this and in the Eastern Region I think we’ve perhaps given it to Potomac Controllers, Potomac TRACON Controllers maybe only a couple of times before now. What does that mean to you, to add your names to a very great list of members who have received this from Eastern Region?

Ray Hanson:  Honestly, at first, I think Mark and I, I think that one of the conversations we had was really? Why us? Like, yeah; we knew we did something kind of good, but at the same time, I feel like I’ve seen people do bigger and better in a sense, whereas like it’s really cool, but like why us? It seemed kind of more–I don’t–not to say anything bad to Karl, but it seemed kind of mundane. You know it seemed more like just kind of another day at the office where I’ve seen other people more traffic or working a–to me what was more a difficult situation. But you know thinking back on it a little bit more I guess, it was more difficult than it seemed like in the situation, and to be added to the–the group of Controllers that have received this award is pretty damn cool.

Doug Church:  Thank you; Mark?

Mark Dzindzio:  Yeah; I think it seems you know a little surprising you know to be chosen but it was such a great result of course and you know, and we knew that you know there was absolutely a danger of the Pilot not landing successfully, and it was a scary moment, as well.

And then he said that he had the field in sight and it felt really good. And you know we were telling our fellow Controllers or friends you know later, like hey, I did a cool thing. And but yeah; again, it seemed like you know sometimes you feel like you’ve done more or–and not been recognized, but then again, you know it’s something special and it’s a little weird to keep having the–you know the ceremony pushed back and pushed back because of COVID, and it would be nice to not be in the limbo of it and not. But again, it was really cool, yeah.

Doug Church:  Yeah; you just touched on something that I certainly can sympathize with that and the stop and the start nature of trying to get the event scheduled and safely.

Mark Dzindzio:  Yeah.

Doug Church:  I think we’re in good shape so far for August. So, fingers crossed on that. Gentlemen, thank you all again. I really appreciate your time. Thanks again and have a very pleasant evening.

Mark Dzindzio:  Sure; great. Thanks; good to talk to you guys.

Doug Church:  Good; thank you.

Ray Hanson:  Goodnight.

Doug Church:  Thank you for joining us today in this episode of the NATCA Podcast. We hope you’ll subscribe to this podcast on any of your favorite podcast platforms. I’ll look forward to talking with you again soon; take care.

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