Feb. 14 started as a normal day for pilot Cathy Lewan, as she circled the Atlanta area in her single-engine Cessna to take aerial pictures for her professional photography business.
But then the unthinkable happened: The plane’s throttle cable broke and got stuck in near-max power setting when Lewan was flying about 10 miles south of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, in some of the world’s busiest airspace. Fortunately for Lewan, a team of air traffic professionals at Atlanta TRACON (A80) responded to her call and guided her to a safe landing.
It was the first time ever that a single-engine aircraft landed at Hartsfield after declaring an emergency — one that lasted 50 minutes.
“It was like being lost somewhere and then seeing the beacon of light,” said Lewan, who has been flying in the area for 20 years. “I felt like I was in the right hands. The controller was so calm and reassuring. I couldn’t have done it alone. My FAA heroes saved my life, and gave me the best Valentine’s Day gift I could ever ask for.”
Lewan initially contacted Atlanta Approach’s East Satellite Sector, where controller Patrick Burrows established the aircraft’s location, and ascertained that the throttle was stuck and that the pilot had four hours of fuel remaining. However, transmissions on the frequency were spotty, so Burrows transferred the pilot to the West Satellite Sector, where Mason Braddock was working. The controller in charge, Clay Sutton, moved controller Nichole Surunis from the East hand off (radar assist) position to the West hand off position to assist Braddock. Once Braddock took the handoff from Burrows, he remained on the frequency with Lewan for the rest of the flight assist, and received support from several skilled colleagues.
Certified flight instructor and A80 Traffic management coordinator, Keith Tyus, helped Braddock understand some of the terms Lewan was communicating to him from an experienced pilot’s perspective.
“We just needed to get her to calm down, and describe what she needed to do to get to the airport prior to shutting off her engine,” Tyus said. “Mason had such a calm voice the whole time which was a big help.”
Operations Supervisor Bryant Vaughan explored all available resources and found another certified flight instructor on one of the TRACON frequencies. The instructor advised that Lewan make a gradual descent to the runway to keep airspeed down and pull the fuel mixture to shut down the engine once over the runway.
As Lewan circled the airport, she spotted emergency vehicles awaiting her arrival — an unsettling sight. Panic set in, and fear began to overcome her. She asked Braddock to have someone call her husband and tell him she loves him. Braddock reassured her that everything would be fine: She had four hours of fuel left, the runway at Hartsfield is twice as long and wide as the runway she uses at her home airport (Madison Municipal), and she had a team of air traffic professionals who had cleared airspace for her and would help her land.
“She was audibly upset, but once she realized she was just landing a little faster than usual, she realized she could do it,” Braddock said. “You could hear her confidence kind of build. She was holding for a little while until she picked up that confidence.”
Braddock asked Lewan if she would like to do a practice run and she eagerly accepted, as it would help her get a feel for the gradual descent. He made sure she remained clear of Atlanta Tower (ATL) departures and coordinated the practice run with controllers at the tower. The practice run raised her confidence, and when she came back around she was able to make a successful approach and landing despite the throttle malfunction.
"This flight assist is just a snapshot of the incredible teamwork that's on display every day at our facility," said A80 FacRep Mike Ryan. "I couldn't be more proud to represent this remarkable group of professionals."
“At the end of the day, we put her on the deck gave her a nice long runway; everyone did a really good thing here,” Atlanta TRACON Air Traffic Manager Tom Boland continued.
Lewan also thanked the emergency crews for being on the scene in case her landing went awry, and the ATL controllers for all their support, not only on the landing but also on her takeoff from the world’s busiest airport two days later — a day after a mechanic fixed the throttle.
“Navigating out on the runway with all those big planes around was so incredible,” Lewan said. “I was sitting on the ground opposite a 747. The controllers were handholding me again. They were still there for me. Start to finish I felt like I was in the best hands I could be in.”
This article was originally published by the FAA and featured as an FAA Focus article. This event has also been nominated for a 2017 Archie League Medal of Safety Award.