Transcript: Podcast Interview With Wichita Member Hunter Rubin, Archie League Medal of Safety Award Winner
Doug Church: Hi; I’m Doug Church, Deputy Director of Public Affairs at the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, and welcome to the NATCA Podcast.
Today, I want to talk about the busy Wichita airspace. I present to you the story of how three of our NATCA members at Wichita Tower; Hunter Rubin, Dan Hittner, and James Smart, worked together as a team to prevent a wrong airport landing with a Cessna Citation and a possible collision course with another aircraft.
For their efforts, the three NATCA members are the 2020 recipients of the Archie League Medal of Safety Award for the Central Region.
Wichita is the home of general aviation manufacturing and has been called the Air Capital of the World for nearly a century. There’s six airports and McConnell Air Force Base right near the city in Wichita’s Controllers’ airspace. That presents clear situational awareness responsibilities and unique challenges.
On the eastern side of the city there are three airports lined up in a row, north to south, including two, Colonel James Jabara Airport and Beech Factory Airport that are only three miles from each other with similar runway layouts.
The Citation in this story intended to land at Jabara, but something went wrong as the Pilot neared the two similar and adjacent airports, and Hunter was there to catch it.
I talked with Hunter recently and here’s our conversation:
Doug Church: My first question is about you and getting to know you a little bit. You’ve been in the Agency now about four years. Is that right?
Hunter Rubin: Actually, five now [Laughs], so I mean time is flying. I mean hired in February of 2016. [Laughs]
Doug Church: Okay; talk about your background. Where are you from and how did you find your way to the Air Traffic Control profession?
Hunter Rubin: I was born and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico; lived there for 18–19 years, and I always had a love and a heart for aviation whether it was Pilots and flying or Air Traffic Control and doing that side. And I guess you could say like the heart fell in right when I was born pretty much [Laughs] because my dad was a Controller, too.
Doug Church: Oh, he was? Where was he a Controller at?
Hunter Rubin: My dad, he was a Controller. He started in Fairbanks for about three years, four years, and then he transferred to Albuquerque Tower and was there for oh, I’d say at least 15. And then he had kids and needed more money, so he transferred to Albuquerque Center then and then he spent another 15 in the Center. [Laughs] Yeah; I guess you could say it started then when I was born pretty much with dad being in that field. [Laughs]
Doug Church: What was that like?
Hunter Rubin: It was really cool especially back in the day when the FAA allowed visits and all that stuff more often than not. And so, there was many times when I went with my dad, at least once, twice a week, and saw what he did and everything. And I just loved it. It was such a different job that you know you really don’t see anywhere else. You know it’s not a teacher or a police officer or an office person. It’s a family, it’s a community in your area, and just what you do is just different, like people always–it’s hard to explain the job sometimes to people, you know.
They’re like, what do you do? Air Traffic Control. So, you’re the wand waver? You know it’s–it’s just something cool that’s different that you don’t hear about or think about really.
Doug Church: What is your dad’s name?
Hunter Rubin: His name is Barry.
Doug Church: Okay; do you have any brothers and sisters?
Hunter Rubin: I do. I have a younger brother, three years younger than me, and yeah, that’s it, just me and my brother. He’s the school going to be doctor and he’s got another 10 years of school left maybe, but hey it’s what he loves. [Laughs]
Doug Church: Yeah; so why Air Traffic Control for you? Why did you choose it?
Hunter Rubin: Like I said, I love aviation and had a heart for it since I was young. And then I was back and forth Air Traffic Controller, Pilot, and just seeing what my dad does and how much he loves his job and he’s just always happy and he’s home you know more than most parents I would say with the job, you know a full-time job. I felt like he was always home, you know aside from the two nights a week when he had a night shift. But he was also always home and loved his job and never did not like going to work. I think that’s how you say that. But you know he always enjoyed going to work you know and coming back from work happy and stuff. And then just looking into it more, it’s a job where the job doesn’t follow you home.
You know I come home, I can sit, watch TV, play videogames, whatever, but my girlfriend, she’s got to do–grading papers, or she’s got to you know read an essay or all that stuff. I’m like that just doesn’t sound fun you know. [Laughs] Work follows you home. I don’t want to work when I’m not at work, you know, so–. [Laughs]
Doug Church: And so, going to the Academy, did you know if you preferred a Center or a Tower?
Hunter Rubin: For me personally, I really didn’t prefer. I just wanted to get in the door and get the job, you know because I knew you could move within you know. If you started at the Center and you wanted to go to the Tower, you could eventually get there or vice versa.
But for my Academy, class was actually really interesting. When we got there in February of ’16, we made it through all the basics and everything and we were getting ready to start and we were originally assigned the En Route Program, we originally started in that, and then they came in about a week out or so and said hey, we have too many En Route students. We need–some of you has to go Terminal and some of you has to go En Route.
And I really didn’t know because again, I didn’t care if I was En Route, or you know Terminal. I just wanted to get in the door and get started, you know. And so, I actually called my dad and asked him. I was like hey, what do you think? What should I do? We talked about it a little bit and he said, you know if you can get in the Terminal environment right away, he’s like you like airplanes too much to not physically see them. You know you don’t–you like the looking out the windows and seeing you know Southwest flying over the top or you know when we went to Oshkosh a few times, you loved seeing the airplanes physically. So, he said, you know if they give you the opportunity, he said I would transfer to Terminal just because you get that opportunity to be in the Tower and see the airplanes and how that whole thing works. And you just like that so much.
So, then I took his advice and went Terminal, and it’s been the story since. Terminal, got done, came to Wichita and been here since. [Laughs]
Doug Church: Well, that’s a really good transition to my next question because it seems like Wichita was a perfect place for you to start and to continue your career currently because you’ve got an Air Force Base and then these two other pretty busy satellite airports in your airspace, right, Colonel James Jabara and Beech Factory Field. Are there other airfields also that you all are responsible for?
Hunter Rubin: Yeah; so yeah, like you said, we have Wichita, Eisenhower, McConnell Air Force, Jabara, and Beech, as well, but just matter of six, seven miles away from McConnell, Beech, and Jabara, we also have Stearman Field which is a very popular GA flying spot on the weekends because they have like a restaurant that’s literally like right on the runway. So, a lot of people you know that you know fly for that $100 cheeseburger, you know it’s a Pilot term, they all go to Stearman Field which is right there.
There’s Augusta which is just down the highway from McConnell and there’s two Flight Schools, and each Flight School has six, seven, eight planes, and they’re always flying. And then there’s a parachute activity that’s like four or five miles south of Augusta at Cook Field, you know. So, all within 20 miles or so, our airport, we have another what–six airports right there, so, that gets pretty congested. And then it spreads out a little bit. We, you know we go all the way out to Hutchinson which you know that’s 45 you know miles away from here. So, then we start spreading out to where you get a little bit of [Laughs] air–a little bit of air between airports and stuff. But right there in that one 20-mile range it gets very congested. [Laughs]
Doug Church: So, this seems like a perfect place for an airplane lover such as yourself. You’ve got it all going on there, right?
Hunter Rubin: Oh yeah; that’s what my dad said because when we got our list you know we were going through the airports and places I’d like to go and my dad said, Hunter, Wichita is right there. It’s the Air Capital. It’s GA. There are airplanes everywhere. They love their airplanes in Wichita, like that’s where you got to go. Like, it’s calling your name, you know. So yeah; Wichita definitely was the calling if you will for it. [Laughs]
Doug Church: So, let’s talk about the facility then. What is that level of traffic and that intricacy as a traffic, and the close proximity of all those airports? How does that play into the operation at Wichita and the interaction between all of you brothers and sisters to effectively manage that airspace? What is that like if you can generally speak about your mission there?
Hunter Rubin: It’s certainly something else. It’s different. Once you–know at first you know in the early wee hours of the day, you know it’s like any facility. It’s slowly building up. But then once you start seeing all the VFR targets tagging up and picking up here and there, we’re like okay, here they come. You know all the GA boys are getting ready to fly again.
And so, we can start seeing it pick up that way. And we’re–we’re more often than not to open up a second or third radar scope if needed because that E-side over there where Jabara and Beech and McConnell is, it’s just so congested that if somebody calls for a second scope even though we’re like dude, you’re talking like nine or 10 airplanes, you don’t need a second scope, but you just know it’s going to happen. So, we don’t question it. We all get it; that’s a busy spot over there. So, if we’ve got to get somebody to work that little area over there then we’re going to get somebody to work that little area.
And you know everybody watches that area a little bit more carefully you know whether it’s the Supervisor or the Flight Data person. That area just gets a little bit more attention to just because of how congested that is. So, there’s usually another pair of eyes somewhere watching that area as well, you know. You don’t know where it’s from but somebody else is watching it somewhere. [Laughs]
Doug Church: That sounds wise, for sure.
Hunter Rubin: Yeah.
Doug Church: So, let’s talk about this event then because we’re talking about January 29th, 2020, so right before COVID of course. So, traffic was what it would normally be at the end of January 2020. Can you talk about that particular shift, how long you had been on position, and how long into your shift, and weather conditions and time of day and that kind of thing from what you recall?
Hunter Rubin: If I recall, I was saying it would be probably like right around you know busy periods like midday. I don’t recall if it was before or after lunch, but it was like right in like that peak time, you know not when like everybody is getting lunch. But it’s like when everybody is like coming in for lunch, everybody is leaving lunch, or after lunch, and something in that part.
So, I think I had been at work for maybe about six hours or so, so about half my shift. You know getting–getting closer, looking at the watch now, getting ready to go home a little bit if you will [Laughs]. But it was definitely a clear VFR day, just like any other day in Wichita. I remember that much because the guy, the aircraft that did end up almost going to the wrong spot, he–he called the airport and sighted 20–30 miles away. So, it was definitely a clear VFR day, just like another day in Wichita.
And like I said, it was probably getting pretty busy. If I recall, there was a lot of VFR airplanes out in the area, flying around, so, it–it was starting to get pretty busy from, again, either just–just before lunch or just after lunch if I recall. I don’t recall exactly the time of day, but yeah; I’d say I was probably at least a little over halfway done with my shift as well.
Doug Church: Okay and so the aircraft we’re talking about in this particular event was a Cessna 680 Twin Engine. Can you talk about was it just the Pilot orwere there passengers onboard do you know?
Hunter Rubin: I don’t know. It’s a business jet. I’m assuming that they would have had some sort of businesspersons onboard because they were going to Jabara and that’s a very businessperson’s hotspot to fly into. There’s a lot of–a lot of corporate jets out there. We actually just happened a company that told us they bought 40 new business jets to fly out of Jabara. So, we’re like oh my gosh; more airplanes [Laughs] over there. I’m pretty sure there was probably people onboard in the back there, guys going in for lunch you know. But yeah; that–that biz-jet you know, I’m sure that was one of–there was two Pilots on that jet. Don’t know if they were familiar with the area or not or what because that area, like you said earlier, is very close in complexity, so–.
Doug Church: So, Jabara is on the north–I’m looking at a map as you’re talking and trying to set this for our listeners of this podcast at least, is–we’re talking about the northeast side of the Wichita metro area. Jabara is on the far northeast side just to the northeast of Highway 96, which goes around in a beltway type fashion around the Wichita area. So, can you talk about the approach that this particular aircraft was shooting, and was it standard in every way? You know there wasn’t anything unusual about it?
Hunter Rubin: So, yeah, Jabara–yeah, you said–like you said, it’s on the far northeast side of town, just north of the loop, you know the 96 Highway and it’s like you said, a beltway or a loop around the town.
He was–he got there; the Radar Controller descended him down to about 3,000 feet. That’s the lowest you can go if you’re in the Wichita is 3,000 feet. And I think the Pilot then said, he had Jabara in sight, if I recall. And the Controller said roger, cleared visual approach Jabara Airport. And at that point because there’s really no arrival procedure into Jabara; there’s a recommended procedure for Pilots to fly if they’re VFR Pilots or an IFR Pilot flying a visual approach or something, which is to cross Jabara at midfield and then enter the downwind on the west side of the field, depending if it’s–you know which way you’re going to land. That’s up to the Pilot’s discretion because it’s a non-Tower airport.
So, again, he got the Pilot down, cleared him for the visual, and then if I recall, a few minutes later, the Pilot cancelled their IFR which is very common. We try to ask Pilots to cancel sooner than later in that area just so that way–because those three airports, Beech, McConnell, and Jabara all right there, it’s three airports but it still is one in, one out because they’re so close together. [Laughs] And so, we ask people to cancel sooner than later because once they cancel then we can get the next guy going you know in that area.
Doug Church: Sure.
Hunter Rubin: So, if I recall, he cancelled his IFR. They gave him the normal you know IFR cancellation received, Squawk VFR, change to Jabara advisories, and so they did that. And I was sitting in the back watching on Flight Data, issuing–so I was issuing clearances to the guys at Jabara or the guys at Beech or amending Military routes and stuff like that. And then all of the sudden, I saw that guy cancel, and I just saw a tag disappear on my scope. I didn’t think anything of it. I was like that was weird. And then I saw it. And I was like I think there was somebody that was going into Jabara over there. He maybe just went VFR.
But then all of the sudden, I saw him at 3,000 and I saw him start like nosediving down, like down to like 2,000 feet very rapidly. I’m like, that’s really weird, like there’s no–that’s not normal. You know most planes stay about 3,000. They’ll get down a little bit you know into the pattern altitudes and again, cross Jabara midfield, but then the Pilot started deviating a little bit to the south. So, he was pointed more or less at Jabara, but then he started turning a little bit to the left and he was pointing more towards like Beech Field now.
And if you look at your map again there, so, Jabara is north of a highway. But then you go a little bit south of that; Beech Field is also north of another highway.
Doug Church: Yeah.
Hunter Rubin: So, they’re the same runway configurations and they’re both north of a highway. It’s which highway you know? [Laughs]
So, the Pilot, he was looking at this point you know Beech Field. He saw the airport north of the highway and he started deviating towards that airport which is now Beech Field. And as he got closer, I’m just watching him; I’m like maybe he’s you know just going to be entering a weird straight in for the Jabara Airport and not crossing midfield, like is recommended for them to do.
So, then I put a leader line on it just to see like how this plane is going to start flying. You know is he going to all of the sudden you know dip into towards Beech or something because it just didn’t seem right. It wasn’t feeling right.
And so, I was watching him a little bit more. And then when he got maybe about two or three miles away from Beech Field at this point because again, he turned left earlier and started aiming for–towards Beech Field, I called Jim and Dan, and they were working the radar scope at the time, and I said hey, that Citation or Lear or whatever it was going to Jabara, he’s going to Beech. He’s not going to Jabara.
And then that’s when they quickly–I think called Beech Tower and said hey, we have an aircraft headed your way and he’s supposed to be going to Jabara. And then what happened from there, what Beech did, if they light gunned the Pilot or if Beech went on Jabara’s Unicom and told that, I don’t know. But from my view I was just like that–yeah that’s just not normal you know. It happens; Pilot will mistake the two. It happens here more than not. You know we’re famous for the–the Boeing 747 whatever it was, that transport that landed at Jabara when it was supposed to land at McConnell, you know the most famous one of that.
Doug Church: Huh.
Hunter Rubin: But yeah; like I said, it was–he was doing I think the normal procedure. He was going, but he just got Jabara and Beech mixed up, because then it looked like he was going to be crossing Beech at midfield for a downwind. So, I think he just had the wrong airport at the wrong point. [Laughs]
Doug Church: Here’s that exchange on the ATC audio:
Controller: Beech Wichita, traffic about a mile south of you; can slide [inaudible].
Controller: Wichita, yeah, Beech–the guy is on the go here at Beech. I cancelled takeoff clearance on Gulf Coast until this guy clears out.
Controller: Okay; uh–
Controller: He is midfield on the go right now. I don’t know who he is.
Controller: Yeah; he’s a Citation. He’s still maintained outside your Class B. He was going into Jabara.
Controller: Yeah; he’s heading over Jabara now it looks like.
Controller: Yeah; he [inaudible].
Controller: Okay; yeah, he’s turning away. Gulf Coast is going here in about a minute.
Controller: Okay; he’s released.
Doug Church: So, he’s on the CTAF frequency, right. So, he’s communicating that way.
Hunter Rubin: Yes.
Doug Church: So, was it difficult or easy to get in touch with him to cancel his mistaken approach into Beech?
Hunter Rubin: Um, I think–I don’t know what Beech did at that point, what they did because once he–because yeah, they gave him the visual approach. And I think they might have switched him to CTAF frequency and told him to cancel with us because they can reach us on the radio, at Jabara, in the air, or on the ground to cancel their IFR. But we like to get them over to CTAF sooner than later–later, like at least 10, 15 miles away just because of how many airplanes are in that area. So, that way, they can start talking to other airplanes and figuring out where they’re going to be.
But so, then I think, like I said, once he then went full VFR, you know he cancelled his IFT. We got it. You know I hate to say it, but you know Controllers are–do it, where it’s you know VFR cancelled, gone, forget–you know it’s a VFR tag, out of sight, out of mind, you know. They forget about it. And I think it was just the fact that I saw an airplane that’s IFR on my scope and then it disappeared, and I wasn’t expecting something to disappear or if you see something that you don’t know is disappearing and it disappears, you’re like what was that? You know why did something just disappear? [Laughs]
Doug Church: Yeah.
Hunter Rubin: So, it just caught my attention for the odd sense–you know the odd time of that. But yeah; so, he was already over to CTAF, talking to Jabara traffic but he was going for Beech Field. And then that’s when we actually called Beech Air Traffic Control Tower, we called their–their Tower, and told them about this. So, then that’s when I didn’t know if maybe Beech Tower was–they got their light gun out maybe and they were light gunning the airplane, like with a red light, like hey, this is not where you’re supposed to be. Or if Beech, they physically got on like Jabara’s CTAF frequency, if like somehow Beech Tower can do that and tell this plane he’s going to the wrong airport; I don’t know what Beech can do over there.
I’m sure Beech has some sort of something because of how close they are to Jabara, they can see what’s going on at Jabara as well.
Doug Church: Sure.
Hunter Rubin: But then all of the sudden, we saw the plane. He was coming out to Beech and then he was down to about maybe 1,800 feet or so, so pretty close to the ground, like going to land at Beech. And then all of the sudden, we saw his VFR tag come back up, and it was like at 2,200–2,300 feet, passed over Beech Field and then went into Jabara. So, he never landed at Beech, but he got pretty close–at least for us [Laughs], you know within at least a half mile or so.
Doug Church: Oh wow.
Hunter Rubin: Getting pretty low.
Doug Church: And the obvious danger here was multifaceted but pretty acute danger for the aircraft that was supposed to be taking off from Beech that would have–. Would that aircraft have flown into the path of the oncoming Cessna?
Hunter Rubin: Most definitely yeah. I think that–I don’t know what Beech had departing at the time but whatever it was–so, Beech would have had the aircraft taken off and that Citation, they were probably on a collision course. One was an old–I think one was landing south and one was landing north because it’s uncontrolled out there and you know we hear it more often that not, somebody calls ready to depart Runway 1A to Jabara, but Beech is taking off Runway 1 so if somebody is taking off south and somebody is taking off north, it happens more often than not out there. [Laughs]
Doug Church: Yeah.
Hunter Rubin: So, I think yeah, Beech, they might have had somebody that was ready to take off and then there’s this Citation that they don’t know you know all know about until we call them. And they’re like oh my gosh. So, they did what they had to do. And yeah; they would have been on a collision course or somebody would have climbed into somebody. It could have been mid-air over the top of a business park in Wichita.
Doug Church: Yeah; that situational awareness that you had and–and the feeling that you had that something was not right, can you talk about where that comes from? Is it innate to you having the experience of growing up with a Controller, knowing a lot about the job and then working for you know four years at that point in a place like Wichita that this is such a busy slice of airspace? Or is there something specific that may have happened in your first four years that you know–maybe a similar situation that kind of triggers that–that skill, that ability to be able to recognize something that’s–that’s off, and then react quickly like you did?
Hunter Rubin: I think a little bit definitely could come from the fact that I was growing up around it and my dad and seeing his–you know seeing what he has done for so long and visiting the Center and the Tower in Albuquerque. I definitely think some of it just comes from that. You know just talking to Controllers then, you know they just know like if something doesn’t look right or whatever.
I personally can’t recall any times that it’s happened to me where something didn’t look right somewhere, but in my time in growing and training and gaining experience in the Wichita area, there’s just like certain little things that my trainers and instructors have taught me just to like look for. Like, hey, if you see something is like this, it shouldn’t be like that. And then it’s just a skill I believe that’s developed with Controllers over time that if something doesn’t look right or it doesn’t feel right, it’s definitely not right. You know because you know what you’re looking for. If something looks good, you know it’s good. You don’t really worry about it.
But then if for some reason something is askew or amiss, you’re like that just doesn’t look right. I’m going to look a little bit closer into this and make sure it is right, you know.
Doug Church: Uh-hm.
Hunter Rubin: Whether it can be something as simple as you clear a guy for an ILS approach and he’s like a half mile or so off the course, and you’re like, you know that just doesn’t look right. Why is he like that? You know so you just make sure he’s correct or something as you know big as this, like, wait; that just didn’t look right. Why did all of the sudden something I wasn’t expecting happened you know? [Laughs]
Doug Church: Sure.
Hunter Rubin: So, I think it’s a skill more or less developed over time I believe that Controllers around the country probably would agree, like you just learn to develop that. If something doesn’t look right, you know it’s not right. You know most people can forget like eh, it doesn’t look right, but somebody will fix it, or something will happen, but I think us, Controllers, we all would say like, if it doesn’t look right, we’re going to say something to someone somewhere. That doesn’t look right because it’s our job. [Laughs] You know people’s lives are in our hands you know.
Doug Church: Yeah; excellent. Thank you for that answer. I just have one more question for you. And that is about this Archie League Award. I mean it’s such an honor for–for us at NATCA to be able to present it to your facility, to the three of you for a–a job extremely well-done. What are your thoughts about being recognized for your work in this way?
Hunter Rubin: It’s definitely a really cool honor; very excited, super–super-cool, and to see something like this, this young and early in my career, you know anybody, anywhere, any time whether you’re a trainee or a 25-year veteran, you know if you see something not right, you say it. You know the fact that you know–they always say, see something, say something, you know. And then you do it and you just don’t see any recognition for it. You feel like maybe they don’t really see me. It’s like whatever. But then when you get the recognition, you’re like people are watching, people do care. You know they do appreciate what I’m doing and care that I’m doing this. And it’s–it’s just a really cool feeling. I really, really, really enjoy it you know. Very, very thankful for it, for sure. [Laughs]
Doug Church: Excellent.
Hunter Rubin: Yeah; something–I joke with my dad, too. You know he spent 33 years-plus, and he never won one and he was like I don’t get it. How did you do it already? [Laughs] You know I’m like I don’t know, dad. Something just didn’t look right and feel right in my gut and I said something, and you know the–they recognized it. So, and I’d say for all the Controllers out there, and everybody out there, even if you’re just a–you know office guy, you know driving home from work, if something doesn’t look right, you know see something, say something, because it’s probably not right.
You know we, as human beings, we know what should be right and what’s not right. The same thing with Air Traffic Controllers. If something–you know we know what’s right, what’s not right. If it’s not right or it doesn’t look right, say something. The worst they’re going to say is oh no, that’s how it’s supposed to be. You know or the best thing ever is you just saved you know potentially dozens or hundreds of lives. You don’t know.
Doug Church: Yeah; excellent. I appreciate that very much. That’s great advice for everybody out there no matter what your occupation is, so–. Well good; thank you again. This has been a fantastic conversation. And–and it’s been my honor, and I really appreciate you giving us the time here this morning.
Hunter Rubin: Oh yeah; you’re very, very welcome, yeah. It’s an honor to be here and an honor to earn the award and the recognition from the FAA and the NATCA and everybody. [Laughs]
Doug Church: Good.
Hunter Rubin: You, too.
Doug Church: All right; bye-bye.
Doug Church: Thanks for joining us for this episode of the NATCA Podcast. I’m Doug Church. Take care and stay safe.