2020 – Winners of the 16th Annual Archie League Medal of Safety Awards, to be honored on Aug. 11, 2021 at NATCA’s 18th Biennial Convention in Houston:
Alaskan Region: Matthew Freidel, Anchorage Center (ZAN), and John Newcomb, Anchorage TRACON (A11)
The weather conditions in Alaska are often poor, but they’re highly changeable. This can lead to situations where a pilot can encounter difficulty, especially if they’re not able to fly in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC). Alaskan Region air traffic controllers are keenly aware of this each time they plug in for a shift.
“I’ve seen situations where a pilot gets IMC for 30 seconds, they call up needing help, and they’re out of it in 15 to 20 seconds,” said Anchorage TRACON (A11) member John Newcomb, a second-generation controller who was a member of the 235th Air National Guard ATC Squadron before starting his Federal Aviation Administration career in 2014. “Other times, like this situation where it’s prolonged, you’re getting PIREPs from other airplanes and ground facilities, or from other pilots who are climbing out, descending in, or in level flight. But it’s not uncommon up here.”
On this particular Sunday morning, the VFR-rated pilot of a Cessna 172, N758XS, encountered IMC after departing Soldotna Airport (SXQ), headed to Birchwood Airport (BCV). Worse, the initial transmissions from the aircraft were garbled. Newcomb and his colleague from Anchorage Center (ZAN), Matthew Freidel, worked with assistance from their respective facility teams to aid the pilot, including vectors and recommended altitudes. Freidel earlier this month marked his nine-year anniversary in the FAA, all at ZAN. His love of aviation started at age 17 when he learned to fly gliders. He studied first commercial aviation and then air traffic control at the University of North Dakota.
In an area as vast as Alaska, controllers have lots of frequencies, but lots of limitations on their frequencies, such as line of sight. Mountains are everywhere.
“Garbled transmissions are common,” Freidel said. “But something about it felt strange and just compelled me to follow up on the transmission. I couldn’t really understand what was going on for a couple of transmissions.”
Soon, however, Freidel received help in the form of a climbing Peninsula Airways flight. The pilot could hear the broadcast on their end. It served to clarify for Freidel that it was indeed someone he should be talking to as opposed to a bleed-over from another frequency.
“At that point, it changed the whole dynamic of, ‘OK, what am I going to do?’ to ‘What do I need to figure out here?’” Freidel said.
As soon as N758XS appeared on radar, Freidel could finally see what was happening. “It looked like they were precariously heading toward mountainous terrain on the northeastern Kenai Peninsula,” he said. Freidel had a keen awareness of that airspace, having flown around it and been in Alaska for a while, so he knew the other direction was flat with short spruce trees comprising the terrain. Therefore, the impulse was to get the pilot of N758XS turned in that safer direction.
“I think the pilot did a fantastic job of flying her airplane in a moment of distress because she took the squawk code, she took all of the instructions, she kept the aircraft’s wings level, she climbed when I asked her to climb,” Freidel said.
Once the pilot was pointed in the right direction, the remainder of the event was fairly straightforward, both Freidel and Newcomb said.
Newcomb would soon have responsibility for the aircraft as it entered his airspace. He was plugged in, working to get a briefing started for the south radar position. Fellow A11 member Adam Herndon took the handoff first as Newcomb stood behind him and they discussed the situation. Herndon said he would give Newcomb the sector while he coordinated with ANC, Merrill Field (MRI), and Lake Hood Airport (LHD) to determine weather and visibility conditions.
“It was a team effort right there, and 8 XS did a great job, with wings level, climbed, did not descend,” said Newcomb. He advised the pilot she was close to ANC and “don’t worry about the Class Charlie. Just continue, and flight conditions should improve once you hit the shoreline.” Everything was coordinated by A11 so the pilot did not have to switch over to ANC.
ZAN member Chris Weldy said Freidel did a great job quickly diagnosing a pilot in distress, with initially barely readable transmissions. That set the story on a course to have a safe ending.
Podcast below: Hear Freidel and Newcomb tell their story, and discuss their efforts to guide the Cessna pilot away from trouble to a safe landing, in this episode of the NATCA Podcast.
Central Region: Jordan Haldeman and Sarah Owens, Kansas City Center (ZKC)
On Aug. 14, 2018, Andy Crabtree was working the Controller in Charge position (CIC) in the Flint Hills Area at Kansas City Center (ZKC). At approximately noon local time, the controller working Sector 62 noticed a possible problem with an aircraft under his control.
Central Region: Daniel Hittner, Hunter Rubin, and James Smart, Wichita ATCT (ICT)
On Aug. 14, 2018, Andy Crabtree was working the Controller in Charge position (CIC) in the Flint Hills Area at Kansas City Center (ZKC). At approximately noon local time, the controller working Sector 62 noticed a possible problem with an aircraft under his control.
Eastern Region: Mark Dzindzio and Raymond Hanson, Potomac TRACON (PCT)
It was a routine takeoff from Westchester County Airport (HPN) in White Plains, N.Y., for N142KR on Dec. 13, 2018. The single-engine 2009 Mooney Acclaim Type S (M20) departed Runway 16 after obtaining clearance from New York TRACON (N90), which had coordinated with HPN ATCT on a 90-degree left hand turn and a climb to 3,000 feet.
Great Lakes Region: Brittany Jones and Bob Obma, Indianapolis Center (ZID)
During any normal shift in Area 2 of Indianapolis Center (ZID) on a mid-March Saturday afternoon, assisting the pilot of a Cessna 172 Skyhawk who encountered icing conditions would have required the same knowledge, calm professionalism, detailed checklist of tasks, and supreme focus that experienced ZID NATCA members Brittany Jones and Bob Obma bring to work.
But this particular Saturday afternoon shift, on March 21, 2020, was the first in which three areas at ZID were closed after positive COVID-19 tests. With uncertainty swirling as the nation began its descent into the throes of the pandemic, the challenges involved with handling an emergency situation – like this Skyhawk – increased.
“Quite possibly the craziest week of my life that I can remember,” said Obma, who had just been recertified three days prior to this shift after being off the boards for multiple years with a medical issue. “You’re walking down the hallway and you pass these areas with yellow police tape marking them off. All the lights are turned on but there’s no controllers. You could still see some random data blocks on the scopes. It just felt really strange.”
Traffic levels were still high. The closure of much of ZID’s airspace forced controllers to work on the fly and join together to come up with plans and make them work. There were re-routes around closed airspace, aircraft in Area 2 that are usually not worked in that lower altitude airspace (23,000 feet and below), and other situations that were not planned for.
“Everyone was already on high alert,” Obma said. “Their energy was already revved up.”
Dennis Tyner was piloting the Skyhawk. He departed Prestonsburg, Ky., headed for Lexington, Ky. He encountered icing conditions and requested a lower altitude from Obma. Unfortunately, because of the mountainous terrain, Obma was only able to get him down to 3,100 feet, which was not enough to get the ice off the aircraft. As an experienced pilot himself, Obma knew what Tyner was experiencing in trying to fly the aircraft. Obma declared an emergency for him before starting work to vector him around higher terrain and setting him up for an approach at an alternate airport in Morehead, Ky. Jones joined Obma as his D-side controller.
“My first instinct was to sit down next to him and get a briefing from him and get an idea of what was going on, and just help as much as I can,” said Jones, who has been at ZID for all of her first six years on the job and is a second-generation controller whose father worked at Houston TRACON (I90). “Not only is the pilot’s workload huge at this point, but Bob’s workload is dramatically increasing at this point as well.”
Jones knew that Morehead-Rowan County Airport was right next to Lexington ATCT (LEX) approach control airspace. She called them for information including wind and weather conditions to determine the best approach for Tyner to fly into the uncontrolled airport. She amended the flight plan with the new destination and pulled up the approach for Obma to read to Tyner. She also provided the phone number for the airport to their supervisor so that he could call and ask the airport manager to make sure the lights were turned on to their brightest setting to assist Tyner in obtaining a visual with the ground safely.
“That aircraft would not have had a good outcome without her,” Obma said of Jones. “I was already having a busy sector. Without Brittany, there’s no way I could have looked up approach plates, done all these other things, talked to facilities and maintained focus on looking at the pilot’s airspeed and making sure the altitude was good. Her sitting down was the game changer in that situation.”
Obma said the situation required Tyner to quickly get on the ground due to the amount of ice on the aircraft. Tyner couldn’t descend and burn off the ice due to the minimum vectoring altitude, and couldn’t climb either. Time was critical. But while it was only about 10-15 minutes until Tyner landed safely, Jones said “it felt like forever.”
“It felt so much longer because we were just waiting for him to get the airport in sight and let us know he was safe,” she said. “We were just holding our breath, thinking, ‘come on.’”
Tyner called the Area 2 supervisor, Aaron Stone, after he successfully landed to express his gratitude. Stone said he could hear loud crashing noises in the background. Tyner told him, with a chuckle, that was the sound of the ice falling from his aircraft onto the apron.
Jones said the episode highlighted a truly unforgettable shift.
“It’s one thing to come into the building and see people in hazmat suits cleaning everything. That’s surreal enough,” she said. “Then, to come in and be helping to basically save someone’s life and be sure they get on the ground safely in these adverse weather conditions, yeah I would say it was definitely one of the most memorable days.”
This flight assist marks the third time Indianapolis Center members have represented the Great Lakes Region (NGL) in the 16-year history of the Archie League Medal of Safety Awards, all in the last three years. Nicholas J. Ferro and Charles Terry won the award in 2019, and Daniel Rak won in 2018.
Podcast: Below, hear Jones and Obma tell their story, and discuss their efforts to help the pilot to a safe landing, in an episode of the NATCA Podcast.
Flying Magazine, Nov. 19, 2020
New England Region: Dave Chesley, Boston TRACON (A90)
Late on a mid-summer evening, over the ocean and in the fog, pilot Lihan Bao was flying a short final ILS approach to Runway 24 at Martha’s Vineyard (MVY), her second time flying into that airport. The tower had just closed for the night. Shortly after her VOR receiver began to swing left to right, Bao saw a group of bright lights which distracted her. She turned left a bit to try to go back to the approach course but it didn’t work, and a few seconds later she and her passenger heard a noise. She had hit something.
Lihan was at 400 feet and started to lose directional control of the Cessna 172 (N677DM). She added full power right away and tried to bring the wings level. Then, she radioed Boston TRACON (A90) and declared an emergency. On the other end of the mic was someone perfectly qualified to assist her, eight-year veteran controller Dave Chesley, who is also an experienced pilot and flies his own home-built aircraft, a single-engine Murphy Moose, with his wife, Jody, who is also a controller (Boston ATCT, BOS) and pilot.
Chesley maintained a calm, reassuring demeanor throughout the entire incident. He guided Lihan with clear instructions as she diverted to Otis Air National Guard Base (FMH), which had a long runway, a 24-hour facility, and was reporting VFR conditions.
“He gave me headings and altitudes with the voice that made me believe we would survive,” she said.
Chesley works the Legacy Cape airspace in the South Area of Boston TRACON (A90), where he also serves as the NATCA area rep. He grew up in Maine surrounded by a wealth of aviation knowledge and experience. One of his grandfathers was a gunner and dive bomber in World War II. His other grandfather owned small planes and flew outdoor sports enthusiasts to spots in remote northern Maine to hunt and fish.
Lihan had departed with her friend from Caldwell Airport (CDW) in New Jersey. The initial weather report for MVY was VFR conditions but that changed while Lihan was in the air. She decided to land at Groton-New London Airport (GON) in Connecticut and filed an IFR flight plan for the second leg to MVY.
Chesley said it was a fairly normal approach. “It wasn’t until about a two-mile final that things changed,” he said. In one radar return, the aircraft had made a 90-degree left turn.
“I thought to myself at the time that this was either a bad radar return or something could be wrong,” he said. Two more radar returns confirmed the latter. Chesley could tell that Lihan wasn’t flying the published missed approach procedure. The turns, climbs, and descents were erratic. He made two attempts to reach her, with no response. Then came the emergency call and Chesley said Lihan reported they had struck something (later determined to be a tree, causing serious damage to the wing) and the aircraft was uncontrollable. “It’s certainly not the words you want to hear as a controller,” he said. “It’s one of your worst nightmares.”
“He could hear that my voice was shaking and tried to calm me down,” Lihan said.
Chesley knew that as a pilot, you train for emergency scenarios and you learn to never stop flying the airplane. He focused on assisting Lihan with just flying the airplane, maintaining a straight and level attitude, and getting to a safe altitude so they could then figure out their options. With the terrible weather at MVY, Chesley knew another landing attempt there was not the safest option. Low ceilings, fog, poor visibility: “The cards were stacked against us,” he said. Fortunately, to the northeast was FMH and its 8,000-foot runways.
“He told me he would guide me to an airport 15 miles away (FMH), which was VFR there with long runways, and I can land (at) any runway I want,” said Lihan, who was able to get control of the aircraft. “I applied full right rudder and full right aileron to keep my wings level.”
Others in the A90 operation assisted in coordination with FMH, allowing Chesley to concentrate on assisting Lihan. She made a soft landing at FMH “thanks to everyone’s help,” she said.
“A lot of times they say we’re fortunate in this industry that we don’t have to take our work home with us,” Chesley said. “I would agree 99 percent of the time but it’s these instances that you do take home and you do replay over and over in your head, wondering ‘what if I had said this, or what if I had done that’ and how it could have affected the outcome. Fortunately, I’m very thankful it turned out the way it did and hats off to the pilot for doing such a phenomenal job.”
Chesley is the third NATCA member from A90 to win the Archie League Medal of Safety Award, joining Jesse Belleau (2018) and Ken Hopf (2005).
Northwest Mountain Region: Byron Andrews, Joshua Fuller, Brian Hach, Ryan Jimenez, and Michael Sellman, Seattle Center (ZSE)
As Seattle Center (ZSE) member Josh Fuller’s shift was ending on the Saturday afternoon before Thanksgiving in 2019, a supervisor from Area C walked through Area B urgently looking for anyone with pilot experience. A VFR-rated Cessna 182 Skylane pilot in far northern Idaho, Tim Bendickson, had departed Boundary County Airport (65S) on what was supposed to be a 40-minute flight to the southwest back to his home airport in Priest River, Idaho (1S6). Instead, he immediately encountered fog and severe icing conditions, typical for that time of year, ending up in Canadian airspace.
Bendickson, knowing he could not find his own way back to the airport, called ZSE. “I just almost hit another mountain, I don’t know where I am,” he said.
Fuller grabbed his headset, went to Area C, and told the supervisor he had limited pilot experience but not in a Cessna 182. He plugged in. “My stomach was in my throat,” he said, “because I did not have any idea what we were getting into. My first thoughts were, let’s just get him on a heading and keep his wings level.”
Fuller spent the next two hours working with fellow ZSE members Byron Andrews, Brian Hach, Ryan Jimenez, and Michael Sellman. It was an unforgettable team effort that saved the life of Bendickson, who was facing an array of challenges including disorientation that often leads to disaster for pilots. He was also 2,000 feet below the minimum IFR altitude. At ZSE, with 12 seconds between updates on their radar scopes, Bendickson’s position changed dramatically with each sweep. “Any adjustments we make, we have to wait 12 seconds to see if those adjustments work out,” Fuller said.
“Being in the control room, everyone could feel the weight of the situation,” Sellman said.
Sellman was working the low altitude sectors adjacent to where the emergency was occurring. It was a busy football Saturday, with Washington State hosting Oregon State in Pullman, Wash. Sellman worked to free up frequency space on the emergency sector (sector 8) by instructing other controllers to put any aircraft going to low altitude on his frequency. He said the airspace Bendickson was in is worked with non-radar procedures most of the time. Additionally, he said, “our radio coverage is pretty bad,” except for part of a valley where fortunately Bendickson was when ZSE first started to hear him. But that coverage was spotty when he was over the mountains.
Andrews was training a new controller on high altitude that day. He stopped training and ran over to the low altitude D-side position to assist Sellman and coordinated with high altitude controllers, approach controllers, and flight data. Jimenez worked with Sellman to split up initial coordination duties. He also took key steps to alleviate controller workload and frequency congestion. “We had to keep that sector as sterile as possible, to minimize any chance of interference,” Jimenez said. “We needed to keep Josh’s life as easy as possible in that situation.”
Perhaps the most harrowing part of Bendickson’s zig-zagging path above the mountainous terrain occurred near Scotchman Peak, near the Montana border. It rises to 7,040 feet above the town of Lake Pend Oreille, Idaho. Bendickson’s altitude, captured in three successive radar updates: 7,000, 7,100, and 6,900 feet.
“It’s crazy to think that if Tim had another body on board, or 50-60 pounds of baggage, or even eight more gallons of fuel that day, it would have negated the last bit of performance of the aircraft which was already deeply affected due to massive ice buildup once cresting Scotchman Peak,” said Hach, a 22-year veteran controller who is also a Skylane pilot. “In reality, the fact that he couldn’t see the terrain was probably best.”
It was clear at that point that Bendickson had no opportunity to go east, given the terrain and his ice-induced descent. Hach, who like Fuller was an Area B controller working in Area C for this emergency, said the plan at that point needed to be revised. “That is when I learned the sectional chart really quickly,” Hach said, “and we devised the best plan to get to the west.” That’s where lower terrain and a large valley held the probability of better visibility and no ice.
Next, Sellman, Andrews, and Jimenez all played a critical role in using a Washington Air National Guard KC-135 Stratotanker flight – Expo91 – inbound to Fairchild Air Force Base (SKA) in Spokane, Wash., to begin search and rescue instead of landing. The controllers used the flight to find VFR conditions and relay it to Bendickson.
Fuller told Bendickson, “November 2-2 Bravo, you’ve made it a long way so far, so thanks for hanging in there.” Bendickson replied, “Thank you so much!” The crisis was not over, but everyone involved started to have a much higher degree of confidence in a safe outcome. Expo91 reported that Bendickson, on his current heading, would break out of the clouds in 8-10 miles. Ninety minutes after his initial call to ZSE, he emotionally transmitted that he could see land. After ZSE shipped Bendickson to approach control for handling into Coeur d’Alene Airport (COE), east of Spokane, Wash., the relief was joyous and overwhelming.
“A couple of us unplugged and there was some applause in the room,” Fuller said. “It was kinda cool.”
“Thus far into my career, this was the craziest situation we’ve been involved with,” Jimenez said. “I just think it’s really remarkable that Josh and Brian were able to show up and plug into airspace that they are almost completely unfamiliar with. Everybody involved had one goal and we were singularly focused on that, trying to find Tim a place to land safely.”
At the 11th Annual Washington Air National Guard Awards banquet on Feb. 8, 2020, Col. Larry Gardner, 141st Air Refueling Wing (ARW) Commander, showcased what he called an act of heroism by the airmen from Team Fairchild. The crew of Expo91 included pilots Lt. Col. Mike Harris and Capt. Charles Roark from the 141st ARW and Senior Airman Kendall Bryant, a 92nd ARW boom operator.
Calling Seattle Center for help “saved my life,” said Bendickson, who has been flying for 10 years. “They were nurturing and just kept me calm and kept me focused on what my task at hand was. Everything boils down to what my instructor said which is, first and foremost, fly the airplane. That’s what I did.”
“This was an incredible thing to be a part of,” Fuller said. “These guys did one hell of an incredible job. Tim did a remarkable job just holding it together. He’s the one that actually fought for two hours while we coached.”
BELOW: Listen as the five NATCA ZSE members involved in this dramatic, two-hour long event reconnect virtually with Idaho pilot Tim Bendickson – whom they first met in person at the facility after the event (before COVID-19) – and recount how it all happened. Click here to listen.
Southern Region: Marcus Troyer, Pensacola TRACON (P31)
It was like most any other ordinary summer afternoon in Pensacola, with a lot of weather, when Marcus Troyer plugged in for his shift at Pensacola TRACON (P31) shortly after 12:30 p.m. EDT. In the skies to the west, U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Commander Brian Hedges was the pilot and aircraft commander on an ordinary training mission in a newly-converted MH65E helicopter. But a short time later, Troyer and Hedges were joined in a search and rescue effort that was anything but ordinary and showcased the essential nature of their respective professions.
Thanks to their efforts, the life of the pilot of a Cessna 172 Skyhawk, Scott Jeffrey Nee, was saved after he crashed into the sandy bank of the Escambia River in a remote area of Jay, Fla., north of Pensacola near the Alabama border, and was seriously injured.
“They are heroes,” said the plane’s owner, Freddie McCall. “They saved a man’s life.”
Troyer had just plugged in when McCall called the facility to report that he was missing an aircraft.
“We weren’t talking to the aircraft at the time,” Troyer said. “We went back and did a Falcon replay to try and see if we actually tagged him up or anything. We did not, so that complicated the situation.” Troyer had experience doing quality control work and was well versed on search and rescue situations.
McCall, who used his own aircraft to look for Nee, located the crash scene and reported that to Troyer, who was in his 12th year of his Federal Aviation Administration career – all at P31 – through this event before initiating a transfer to Houston Intercontinental ATCT (IAH) earlier this year. “I used all my knowledge that I had from working at Pensacola and tried to get Navy helicopters to respond, but most of them couldn’t do it because of fuel,” he said, adding that the heavy thunderstorms in the area posed many challenges. A LifeFlight crew was in Pensacola but had just completed a mission and was in a mandatory cooldown period.
Soon after, Troyer contacted Mobile ATCT (MOB) and asked if they were providing service to any Coast Guard helicopters. He did this because he knew that the Coast Guard has a base in MOB airspace. However, that base is used strictly for training and aircraft testing, not search and rescue. A MOB controller advised Troyer they were talking to a Coast Guard helicopter and he requested them to switch the communications to Troyer’s frequency. Troyer made contact with Hedges (pictured above), explained the situation, and asked if they would voluntarily attempt to respond to the crash site.
“I felt like if anybody was going to be able to do a rescue and get this pilot out of there, it was going to be the Coast Guard,” said Troyer, who spent the next 25 minutes vectoring Hedges to the crash site and helped get him around a strong line of storms. At that point, an EMS crew on the ground had reached the pilot and Troyer facilitated communications between them and Hedges.
“We had a very good crew but we didn’t have a rescue swimmer on board so theoretically we were not SAR (search and rescue) capable,” said Hedges, who has over a decade of experience as a Coast Guard pilot. He was joined on board by Lt. Commander Bob Lokar and Petty Officer James Yockey. Their base is the largest Coast Guard aviation training facility in the country. “This was the first search and rescue case in the MH65 Echo aircraft so it was kind of unique. We didn’t plan it that way but our aircraft had an all-new glass cockpit and brand-new weather radar, which actually helped us that day.”
Hedges said the unplanned SAR operation was made much smoother due to Troyer. “His demeanor, everything on the radio, was fantastic,” Hedges said. “He painted a perfect picture of where we needed to go, what we needed to do, and who was on scene.”
Once they reached the crash scene, Hedges said he had to keep the helicopter running at half power to prevent it from sinking into the soft sand on the riverbank. As it was, he said, the wheels were halfway down into the sand during the brief time he was on scene.
The crew soon took off with Nee and an emergency medical technician on board and headed to Sacred Heart Hospital in Pensacola. Troyer knew Hedges had never landed at that hospital before so he put him in touch with the LifeFlight pilot who was there and could walk him through the landing and any details he needed to know to arrive safely.
USCG Aviation Training Center Commanding Officer, Capt. W.E. Sasser, Jr., sent Troyer a letter of commendation for what he called Troyer’s “exemplary response.”
“The professionalism and expertise of your team helped my aircrew to safely navigate numerous hazards through the duration of the mission,” Capt. Sasser wrote. “Your controllers were directly responsible for saving a life. I commend your team for their hard work, dedication, and expertise! Bravo Zulu and Semper Paratus.”
After he left position following the event, Troyer said he went to his car to try and relax from the incredible adrenaline rush he was feeling. He said all he could think about was the condition of the pilot, and his desire to talk with Hedges to say thanks. Since the event, he and Hedges have talked several times and gotten to know each other. Troyer said he is appreciative to P31 colleague Dan Briscan for spearheading the effort to recognize him for this save, and had a suggestion for his fellow members who go through these types of events together as a team.
“Show your appreciation to your fellow brother and sister controllers,” he said. “We all say, ‘well, that’s just part of your job,’ but anytime somebody goes through it, the adrenaline’s rushing, people handle things a little bit differently. But talk to them after. Give them some praise.”
Podcast: Below, hear Troyer and Hedges tell their story, and discuss their efforts to make this rescue mission a success, in an episode of the NATCA Podcast.
Media: Watch here, a story from WEAR-TV.
Southwest Region: John (Randy) Wilkins, Fort Worth Center (ZFW)
On Feb. 23, 2019, a single-engine Socata TBM 930 (N897TF) departed Paducah, Ky., en route to Houston. But about 50 miles south of Paducah, the pilot experienced problems in controlling the aircraft and was not responding to air traffic controllers.
Southwest Region: Larry Bell, Brian Cox, and Colin McKinnon, Fort Worth Center (ZFW)
Pilot and flight instructor Anise Shapiro and her student, Jouni Uusitalo (pictured below), were flying Uusitalo’s Piper PA-46 Malibu on a Saturday last spring from Hereford Municipal Airport (HRX), southwest of Amarillo, Texas, to Graham Municipal Airport (RPH), 80 miles northwest of Fort Worth, Texas. Halfway into the nearly 75-minute flight, they lost the engine for the first time in Shapiro’s 23 years of flying. At 14,500 feet and needing quick options, she declared an emergency to Fort Worth Center (ZFW) NATCA member Brian Cox.
Cox asked Shapiro the standard emergency questions of how many souls were on board and how much fuel was remaining. Shapiro responded, “We have two souls, and we have two female pups and four puppies.”
Cox, a 22-year veteran who has also worked at Kansas City Center (ZKC) and Denver Center (ZDV), knew this would be no ordinary day on position, but he was struck by how calm Shapiro was in the face of this urgent situation. Cox also has that trait, according to fellow ZFW member Colin McKinnon. “It’s definitely awesome that it was Brian working, because he’s probably the calmest guy in our building, certainly in our area,” McKinnon said.
The Malibu, nicknamed the “Starship Enterprise” by Uusitalo for its relative spaciousness for transporting dogs in their crates, was being used for a Pilots N Paws mission. Shapiro and Uusitalo flew several of these flights last year, each in West Texas. On this flight, the engine failure immediately put Shapiro into instructor mode.
“I practice it (engine out) all the time and run my students through it,” she said. “A lot of things are going through your mind. I think we were very fortunate to have two pilots onboard. I told him what to do, declared the emergency to get help, and immediately pulled the checklist out so we could start running through it all to see if we could get the engine restarted.”
Cox immediately set to work to find landing options. He was quickly joined by Larry Bell, a former accountant, who was the Controller in Charge for this shift, and McKinnon, a pilot, who was assigned to Cox’s D-side and pulled up the visual flight rules chart for Cox to use. Bell and McKinnon were both hired in 2012 and have worked at ZFW their entire careers.
“The first thing I was trying to do was determine where is the nearest airport because, unfortunately, where she was in a spot east of Lubbock is where there are not a lot of airports,” Cox said.
One was Harrison Field of Knox City, Texas (F75), which was at Shapiro’s 1 o’clock and 25 miles away. She had a visual, and an encouraging glide ratio report. Unfortunately, with the trademark strong winds of West Texas forcing a quicker loss of altitude than expected, Shapiro needed another option.
McKinnon took over the ZFW 49 high sector frequencies to help alleviate frequency congestion for Cox. McKinnon also helped identify the closest highway. Bell, a Texas Tech alum who often drives to the campus in Lubbock, was familiar with the area and knew it was Texas State Highway 114. But Shapiro said from the air, it looked less like a “highway” and more like a typical West Texas two-lane mostly dirt road, lined with fences and mesquite trees. She declined that as a safe landing option.
Shapiro and Uusitalo spotted a final option: An open wheat field with no trees or cattle that had just been cleared of hay. Cox gave her a phone number to call when she was on the ground to expedite the process of search and rescue. The landing was smooth. No injuries. Bell quickly found the coordinates of the landing spot and forwarded them to the operations manager. Help arrived about 20 minutes later and they even brought water for the dogs.
Shapiro said she could feel the ZFW team behind her, having her back. “Knowing that you’re not alone actually is more helpful as a pilot than anything,” she said. “They stayed super calm. The calmer each transmission was, the calmer I felt.”
McKinnon said he worked an aircraft with engine trouble a few months’ prior to this incident. “I had the same feeling of, ‘oh man, please, make sure she’s on the ground safely,’” he said. “I thought she did an exceptional job.”
“I think we all agree that if we have an aircraft land in a field, we all sit there afterwards and think, ‘what could we have done better?’” Bell said. “But in this situation, I think we made all the right calls.”
“I want to thank Larry, Colin, and Brian for being such outstanding ambassadors and representatives of the true definition of a team, a workforce, and professionals that stepped in to rise to the moment,” said ZFW FacRep Nick Daniels said. “I couldn’t be more proud. They make us all look good.”
BELOW: Listen to Bell, Cox, and McKinnon discuss this event in an episode of The NATCA Podcast.
BELOW: Listen to a podcast conversation with pilot Anise Shapiro. She describes what the experience was like and how she and Uusitalo and the six dogs they were transporting all escaped unharmed after landing safely in a wheat field.
Western Pacific Region: Michelle Bruner and Jamie Macomber, San Diego ATCT (SAN)
Duffy Fainer holds three skydiving world records and has encountered eight parachute malfunctions and one emergency ocean landing in 46 years of jumps. His first in-flight emergency in 15 years of flying airplanes, late in the afternoon of Wednesday, April 22, 2020, gave him a different kind of feeling. But he credits the calm, professional, expert handling provided by San Diego ATCT (SAN) NATCA members Michelle “Shelly” Bruner (pictured top left) and Jamie Macomber (pictured top right) with helping him to a safe, albeit nerve-rattling, landing.
Fainer’s home airport is Montgomery-Gibbs Executive (MYF, formerly known as Montgomery Field). He departed on his usual route of flight in his Grumman American AA-5A Cheetah, N365PS, heading west of the Miramar Naval Air Station airspace toward the Pacific Ocean. After Fainer crossed over Crystal Pier, located on the ocean just north of Mission Bay, he realized the throttle was not working properly. It was stuck at the 2,000 rpm point, which was enough to enable him to sustain level flight but it wasn’t going to let him climb. Fainer was at 800 feet at that point in a coasting climb that then took him to 1,200 feet but no further.
“I just felt dread because I knew most likely this was not going to resolve itself,” Fainer said. “I knew that I wasn’t in a good position to try and get back to Montgomery Field, which was six miles away. I was stuck at an altitude that I knew I would have had rising terrain on my way back and that didn’t seem like a good idea flying over houses and suburbs and buildings.”
So Fainer called SAN and was immediately soothed by Bruner’s familiar voice. “She said, ‘whatever you need,’” Fainer said, “which gave me a lot of confidence and sense that somebody was there backing me up despite the fact I was in the cockpit all alone with my sad little airplane.”
“I knew something was up on his first transmission,” said Bruner, the daughter of a Navy mechanic who spent more than five years in the Army before starting her Federal Aviation Administration career 11 years ago. She’s been at SAN for the last 10 years. She noted that Fainer, a professional announcer and host, has a very familiar voice and callsign.
“We’re very familiar with him coming into the airspace but he always calls with all of his requests all at once,” Bruner said. “So this time, when he just called me with his callsign, I’m like, ‘OK, this is going to be different.’ I think instantly the adrenaline started kicking in. I had to figure out what was going to happen, what’s my plan – A, B, and C.”
On that day, in that month, just weeks after the start of the COVID pandemic, traffic was light at SAN, which worked in Fainer’s favor. But it still required the experience of the tower crew to safely handle this emergency.
Once Fainer said he needed to come in, Bruner and Macomber worked swiftly. Anticipating a possible conflict with normal IFR departure traffic off runway 27, Bruner proactively assigned a heading to SkyWest Flight 3378 to deconflict with Fainer. She also issued a go-around to United Flight 1869, which was on a mile final. Macomber handled the declaration of emergency with the airport and handled coordination with adjacent facilities and the fire crews.
“I think at that point, you’re just listening to what’s going on around you and picking up the loose ends; the little bits that need to be done,” said Macomber, who has also been at SAN for 10 years after working at Oakland Center (ZOA) for the first two years of her career. “Shelly sent the United (flight) around, so I called and let everybody know this guy’s going (around) and why he’s doing it, and then it was about clearing as much room and taking as much of the kind of paperwork part of it off of her as much as possible.”
The rpm gauge started to drop aboard the Cheetah and Fainer didn’t know how long the aircraft would sustain itself in flight. He had to make a decision before it was too late to glide anywhere. Beneath him was Fiesta Island, just three miles north of SAN. It has a two-mile stretch of sand that terminates into hard-packed dirt where it meets the water.
But Bruner had a better idea: She offered him an uncommon opposite-direction landing on runway 9, saving Fainer time and altitude.
“When she said runway 9 was available, and I was looking at 27 – which was another mile and a half to two miles away if I was going to approach it from that direction – it gave me an option I wasn’t really considering,” Fainer said, “but my hesitation was I didn’t want to tie up their nice big airport. I didn’t want to be ‘that guy’ that left a big smoking hole in the middle of their runway.”
He needn’t have worried. Macomber recalled a similar experience when a military Beechcraft T-34 lost an engine offshore and they had to bring them in to SAN for an emergency landing on runway 9.
Fainer didn’t know the extent of the problem at the time, a detached throttle bearing, which attaches the throttle cable to the carburetor arm like a trailer ball and hitch. All he knew with one mile to go was that he wasn’t sure if he was going to make the airport and if he did, he wasn’t sure how he was going to stop the aircraft.
At 140 miles per hour and downwind, Fainer killed the engine over the Engineered Material Arresting System (EMAS) before the numbers of runway 9, and put the plane into a steep sideslip bank, figuring that sooner or later it would run out of airspeed. He floated for a good mile down the runway. “I was wondering when it was all going to end,” he said. Finally, it did. He put it down and exited at the 7,500-foot mark.
Fainer (left) said that if he had attempted to return to MYF and tried that same maneuver he used to land at SAN, “I would have ended up in the In-N-Out Burger on the other side of the (Cabrillo) freeway.” He repeated one of the important lessons from this incident for other pilots that he wishes to share: Don’t worry about where your car is, or your hangar; worry about landing safely. “If you’re gonna have a drama you want to go to the longest runway, and have as many services waiting for you as possible,” he said.
“We’ve seen a lot of episodes lately where pilots overflew perfectly good airports with the intention of trying to get elsewhere and it didn’t end well for them. That’s one thing where aviators could do better. And the other thing is we’re typically afraid of, or intimidated by, the big Class Bravo airports and don’t want to infringe or impose or be a burden. I would certainly encourage aviators, especially after my incident, to ask for help and expect that controllers are going to make getting you down safely as their first priority.”
Bruner said she has gone to the Archie League Awards banquet 6-7 times and watched the playbacks of winning events closely. “You always hope that when that situation comes along, that you will be that calm voice; that you will be that helping hand to that pilot,” she said.
Added Macomber: “In those moments, your priority is just, ‘everything I have to do to make sure this person is safe, let’s do that.’”
Fainer, who grew up under the approach path to runway 24 left at Montreal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport, sparking a love of air traffic control, said he relishes his interactions now with ATC.
“Half of the fun of flying for me now is having a professional and cordial communication with the controllers and making my flight successful in that regard,” Fainer said, “not just landing safely but knowing I had a good communication with all the controllers en route.”
PODCAST: Listen below as Fainer, Bruner, and Macomber discuss this event.
Federal Contract Tower: Brad Burtner, Pompano Beach (PMP)
Those familiar with the Los Angeles Basin area of Southern California are used to plentiful sunshine. But icing? That’s a rarity.
President’s Award Winners: Andrew Rice and Ryan Schile, Chicago O’Hare ATCT (ORD)
On March 1, 2019, after noon CST, Chicago-O’Hare (ORD) certified professional controller (CPC) Ryan Schile was working third local control and was departing aircraft off of Runway 10-Left at intersection DD. Schile was also working the arrivals that were landing on 10-Right and 10-Center. He worked them back across the runway he was departing to the terminal area.
“Needless to say, he was a little busy,” NATCA President Paul Rinaldi said in introducing the story to the Archie League Medal of Safety Awards banquet on Sept. 18 at Communicating For Safety.
Schile issued a departure clearance to an Envoy Air twin-jet ERJ-145, with an initial heading of 100 and a takeoff clearance. This heading paralleled the departure runways and the arrival runways so there would be no conflict. The pilot of the ERJ-145 read back the correct heading and began takeoff roll.
Once airborne, for an unknown reason, the ERJ-145 began a hard-left turn, placing that aircraft in a collision course with an American Airlines Boeing 737-800, which was departing Runway 9-Right. Schile quickly recognized the potential for a collision and instructed the ERJ-145 to stop his climb immediately.
Subsequently, Schile issued an immediate turn to the right to a heading of 140.
Working on the other side of the airport was fellow ORD CPC Andrew Rice, who was working the American 737. He also observed the impending collision and issued the aircraft an immediate left-hand turn and a 070 heading. Seeing that was not enough, he instructed the aircraft to continue its left-hand turn on a 360 heading to pull these aircraft apart.
The Federal Aviation Administration measured the closest proximity of the two aircraft at .23 nautical miles and 100 feet.
“And that is only because these two controllers acted so quickly to pull these airplanes apart,” Rinaldi said. “Their actions on that day saved hundreds of lives.”
Schile, upon receiving the President’s Award with Rice at the Archie League Medal of Safety Awards banquet, described the way he felt immediately after the event and the knowledge of just how close these two aircraft got before they were saved. It’s not something any controller wants to experience, his words indicated.
“Andy and I are deeply grateful, honored, and completely humbled to receive this recognition,” Schile said. “But respectfully, we hope to hell we never receive it again.”
BELOW: Watch the award presentation.
BELOW: Watch and listen to highlights from this save event.
Jonathan Eisenmayer, FAI
Mike Myers, A11
Monique Stowers, MRI
Jason Cowden, ZKC
Andrew Cullen, ZKC
Michael Gardner, ZKC
Dale Turner, ZKC
Caryn Truscinski, ZKC
Jeff Volski, ZKC
Andrea Wolf, STL
Jeff Anderson, PCT
Bryan Carroll, PCT
Sunil Chatani, PCT
Jose Cruz, PCT
Mathias Fridgen, PCT
Joe Mash, PCT
Sean Mueller, PCT
Adam Olshanski, PCT
Richard Quiggins, PCT
Andy Rhodes, PCT
Robert Smolen, N90
Casey Whittaker, PCT
GREAT LAKES REGION
Randall Anderson III, ORD
Richard Capizzi, ZOB
Curtis Josefick, ZOB
Jerah Kavoosi, FCM
Matthew Laiter, MDW
John Lesnak, ZOB
Anthony Lucia, MKE
Michael McCabe, ORD
Nate Miller, MDW
Jon Rappe, FCM
Jacob Reddin, MKE
Alan Thomas, ZOB
Sean Watson, ZOB
NEW ENGLAND REGION
Carlos Lebron-Thachar, BOS
Elisa Muise, ZBW
Lisa Orff, PWM
Scott Trafton, A90
NORTHWEST MOUNTAIN REGION
Matt Barsness, S46
Royce Bockelman, ZDV
Candace Bond, S46
Kim Brooks, S46
Andrew Drury, S46
James Ferguson, HIO
Steve Hernandez, S46
Nick Hoggan, S46
Kyle Hoover, S46
Wayne Hygema, S46
Jeffery Principe, BIL
Amitesh Sami, S46
Matt Sharp, S46
Derrek Shroyer, BIL
Eric Steffen, ZLC
Jake Zakrzewski, ZDV
Kelsey Barfield, BHM
Paul Behan, ZJX
Eric Brake, BHM
Clint Cottrell, A80
Bryan Hamm, ILM
Travis Hans, DAB
Joe Koziuk, DAB
Taylor Ledger, ZMA
Brian Liddle, A80
Elena Nash, SRQ
Don Nikolich, ZME
Craig Oldis, SDF
Adam Prinz, CVG
Aaron Rathburn, A80
Ryan Roberson, SAV
Mike Ryan, A80
Joe Vargo, A80
Kevin Vaughn, ZJX
Joel Brown, BTR
Crystal Lingle, ELP
Ben Parker, ZFW
Bryan Roberts, ZFW
Tim Schneider, ZHU
Frank Ward, ZFW
Daniel Watson, ELP
WESTERN PACIFIC REGION
Melissa Benge, SCT
Melanie Chipkin, SCT
Christopher Finley, ZUA
Michael Gottfried, BFL
Ian Lewis, SCT
Stewart Merrell, PAO
Annie Pen, CMA
Maurice Pitts, LAX
Wendy Postema, LAX
Joseph Seimas, FAT
Kyle Shaw, LAX
Adam Yudman, SCT