The 14th Annual Archie League Medal of Safety Award Winners
Josh Hall, Patrick Johnson, Jeremy Lee, Darren Tumelson, Tommy Vaughn, and Andrew White, Memphis Center (ZME)
On the afternoon of Friday, Aug. 11, 2017, a Piper PA-31T Cheyenne departed Cleveland, Miss., located between Memphis, Tenn., and Jackson, Miss. The aircraft was en route to Destin, Fla., and the pilot, Charles Schindler, requested VFR flight following. Shortly after reporting on frequency, he stated that there was an issue with the aircraft and he was attempting to troubleshoot.
Within a few minutes, the problems got worse and Schindler declared an emergency. He requested to land at Greenwood, Miss., less than 10 miles away.
The controllers working on Memphis Center (ZME) sector 65, Andrew White and Tommy Vaughn, spent the next two hours assisting Schindler as he experienced locked flight controls, autopilot issues, loss of pitch control, and hydraulic failure. A team of other controllers, including Josh Hall, Patrick Johnson, Jeremy Lee, and Darren Tumelson, and supervisors went to work to assist Schindler with the many issues he was dealing with.
A key moment came when the team contacted Vincent Zarrella, Director of Global Customer Support with Piper Aircraft, Inc. Johnson, who has multi-engine IFR experience, was on the phone with Zarrella and relaying information directly to and from Schindler. Johnson told Zarrella that Schindler could not lower the landing gear and that the aircraft was suddenly experiencing changes in altitude with no command inputs. Schindler could not move the flight controls and he thought the autopilot was engaged. Zarrella brought Piper Chief Pilot Bart Jones into his office and they continued to provide instructions for Schindler on how to disengage the autopilot, including pulling all related circuit breakers and momentarily turning off both generators and the battery. But this didn’t help Schindler’s ability to move the flight controls.
Zarrella and Jones advised Schindler to override the autopilot by forcing the flight controls. Reducing power caused the aircraft to descend, indicating that if autopilot engagement was the problem, at least the altitude hold mode was not engaged and Schindler could control his altitude with power.
At one point, the controllers told Schindler to start a northward turn to avoid a line of thunderstorms that he was approaching while involved in the difficult task of simply maintaining straight and level flight. The aircraft was approximately 80 miles south of Greenwood and the controllers continued to provide navigational guidance, reassurance, and information.
Finally, after more expert guidance on final approach from Zarrella, Jones, and Johnson, Schindler landed safely at Greenwood. It was almost two hours and 300 miles from where he took off. His unintended destination was only 37 miles away from his departure.
This was the second time in 18 months that Schindler experienced an in-flight emergency in the same aircraft in Memphis Center’s airspace and, incredibly, the second time Tumelson was part of the resulting flight assist.
Schindler’s wife, Ashley, who had waited helplessly on the ground during the event, wrote a thank you note to the facility which read, in part, “Probably the most calming for me was knowing that Memphis Center had him! Each and every one of you played a specific role to support my husband and his safe landing and for that, he, our five children, and I owe you a debt of gratitude that cannot possibly be repaid properly.”