2021 Archie League Medal of Safety Award Spotlight: Matt Wyrick, Indianapolis Center (ZID)
In the late afternoon of June 16, 2020, Matt Wyrick was working in Area 6 of Indianapolis Center (ZID) when the controller-in-charge (CIC), fellow NATCA member Rachel Gilmore, was contacted by another area that they had worked a Cessna 441 Conquest II (N441LS) minutes prior and suspected hypoxia due to the speech rate and intermittent responses from the pilot.
The pilot regularly flies through Wyrick’s airspace to and from their home base in Youngstown, Ohio. Even though he had only been a fully certified controller for a year and a half at ZID before this day, Wyrick recognized the familiar call sign but said this was the first time he has dealt with a case of possible hypoxia. He said he relied on his training. “There have been a few times during lab training in the past, but this was the first time in the live environment,” he said.
Wyrick, who is in the sixth year of his FAA career, all at ZID, grew up immersed in aviation. His father, Allan, was a longtime pilot for NetJets. Wyrick said hypoxia came up in some discussions between them.
“He never actively talked about it, flying with me, but for some reason I remember that he always told me to ask the pilot, if it ever happened, to look at his fingers. He said that if they were purple, that would be a big sign,” Wyrick said. “My trainers went through those situations with me when I was training and said the biggest thing they said to do was descend, and to use basic phraseology to do it; keep things really simple. That helped a lot.”
When Wyrick took control of the aircraft, his area was combined from three sectors to two, a common practice at that time during a period of reduced traffic volume just three months into the COVID-19 pandemic.
“My neighboring controller from Area 3 handed the aircraft off to me,” Wyrick said. “He called me on the landline to let me know that both he and the preceding controller from Area 7 were a little suspicious that he might be hypoxic because he sounded a little slow and had a bit of a slurred speech rate.”
Wyrick decided to get a feel for the situation. He asked the pilot questions about ride conditions and the weather and issued control instructions to keep him engaged. “His response was still a little slow,” Wyrick said. “It wasn’t enough to convince me he was doing OK.”
He knew that the pilot would be landing relatively soon but not soon enough to begin normal descent instructions. However, with the concern rising about the possible worsening hypoxia taking place, Wyrick decided to descend the aircraft two thousand feet, to 27,000 feet. The pilot read it back, slowly, but did not begin a descent. When Matt asked the pilot, he mistakenly reported he was leaving FL 27,900.
The pilot then started a descent but did not respond to Wyrick’s next transmissions for a couple minutes. Transmissions from the pilot sounded slurred at some points, and other points he keyed up and the transmissions were unreadable.
“It took so long for him to respond, and even when he was responding, it didn’t sound good,” Wyrick said. “Finally, I declared an emergency for him.” Wyrick kept descending the aircraft to get him below 10,000 feet. He informed the pilot there was no traffic anywhere of concern and gave him a pilot’s discretion descent. He complied.
Wyrick spoke with the pilot about his hypoxia suspicions and used an emergency checklist and information in the En Route Information Display System (ERIDS) to ask the pilot questions and understand what he was going through. Wyrick asked two separate times iif the pilot had oxygen on board and if it was working. The pilot responded that it did, adding that he didn’t believe he was hypoxic but rather was “really tired,” Wyrick said.
Several pilots who were on the same frequency and listening to the exchanges checked in with the Cessna pilot and told him to check his supplemental oxygen and make sure everything was working. Wyrick cited that along with many fellow controllers at ZID which he said comprised an outstanding team effort of about a dozen people, one of the best he has been a part of, he said, thus far in his young career.
“I had my CIC standing behind me and I had a good D side that was watching the rest of the sector, because in a situation like that, you tend to get tunnel vision,” he said.
Wyrick handed off control of the aircraft to Cleveland Center (ZOB) when it reached 9,000 feet. The pilot landed safely a short time later.
“Matt remained professional throughout the event and communicated well with the pilot,” Gilmore said. “The pilot reported fatigue, and that may be the case, but Matt did an excellent job of making sure he stayed awake and on oxygen. The aircraft landed safely at its destination thanks to Matt’s attitude of the importance of safety.”
Wyrick said he was honored and humbled by the award. “I was just there doing my job that day and I had a bunch of good people around me who were a huge part of the outcome. I really think the award is more a reflection of everybody I work with. I don’t have a doubt in my mind that any one of the controllers in my area could have sat there and achieved the same outcome.”
This flight assist marks the fourth time ZID members have represented the Great Lakes Region in the 17-year history of the Archie League Medal of Safety Awards, all in the last four years. Bob Obma won the award in 2020, Nicholas J. Ferro and Charles Terry won in 2019, and Daniel Rak won in 2018.