2021 Archie League Medal of Safety Award Spotlight: Noah Walker, Greensboro ATCT (GSO)
At approximately 8:30 p.m. on March 9, 2021, Greensboro ATCT (GSO) member Noah Walker was working the approaches into Greensboro, N.C., from the tower cab, as the positions were combined and the radar position was moved to the tower.
Walker was lining up a Lifeguard aircraft to the final for Runway 14. Just before he instructed the pilot to contact the tower, he noticed lights that appeared to be another aircraft in conflict.
He asked the tower controller if he was talking to an aircraft, but the controller confirmed he was not. Walker determined it was a drone flying near the arrival corridor for runway 14. He recognized that the aircraft and the drone appeared to be on converging courses, so he canceled the approach clearance. The aircraft was given a downwind for another runway in an effort to avoid the drone and still keep traffic moving.
Other aircraft were taxiing for departure off both southwest runways that pointed their departure course right at the drone, which they estimated to be the size of small light sport aircraft. So, the two controllers coordinated to have the aircraft taxi to the other side of the airport and depart off runways 5L and 5R, away from the drone.
They were able to depart a few aircraft, but the drone then changed its course and flew to the other side of the airport. After a few minutes, it flew changed course once again and flew directly over the tower that is located very near midfield. Since the controllers could not predict the erratic behavior of this very large drone, they had no choice but to suspend operations at GSO until they could be reasonably sure the drone no longer presented a threat.
Multiple arrivals were diverted or put in holding and departures were delayed until there were no sightings for a reasonable period of time to ensure that the safety of flight was no longer compromised. The controllers coordinated with the adjacent centers and a ground stop was put into effect for GSO. One of the aircraft affected was a student pilot from a neighboring airport that had come to do one touch-and-go; they certainly didn’t expect to spend a few hours on the ground there.
The situation presented such a safety hazard that the Domestic Events Network (DEN) and other entities were tracking the events closely which required a lot of coordination. Local law enforcement and fire and rescue personnel were alerted to what was going on and began a search to try and locate the pilot of the drone. Law enforcement was prepared to shoot down the drone if it came within a distance and altitude that they could safely do so, but it never did. The drone stayed in the area for a few hours, occasionally leaving for a few minutes but then reappearing a short time later. After approximately two and a half hours, the drone departed, and the pilot was never located.
Walker’s actions on this night prevented a collision and ensured the safety of the users in the airspace. NATCA is proud to recognize his professionalism and skill to identify the hazard even though it did not appear on radar. It led one pilot to comment on frequency, “Thanks for looking out for us.”