SW McFarlandHugh McFarland, Houston TRACON

On November 16, 2014, longtime Houston TRACON NATCA member Hugh McFarland received a call from a distressed pilot who had become stuck on top of solid Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) weather. The pilot was only Visual Flight Rules (VFR) certified, and had encountered the weather conditions while en route from Kerrville, Texas, to David Wayne Hooks Airport, just north of Houston. After flying towards Houston for almost two hours, the pilot knew he needed more help.

After McFarland received the call from the pilot, he immediately began to make a plan to get the pilot safely on the ground. The weather the pilot was stuck on top of was almost 8,000 feet thick, and the conditions extended hundreds of miles around the Houston area. There was almost no chance the pilot could have flown his Cessna 172 to an airport with reported VFR conditions with the remaining fuel he had on board.

The decision was made to attempt a descent through the weather and have the pilot land at Houston Executive Airport (TME).

As a Beechcraft Baron aircraft owner and certified multi-engine instrument rated pilot himself, McFarland understood how critical it was that the pilot be able to land at TME. For 20 minutes, McFarland acted as the pilot’s navigation equipment and eyes through the weather. He prepared the pilot for the descent into TME, helped the pilot load up his GPS with the airport’s information, constantly reminded the pilot of his airspeed, bank angle in the turn, to stay calm, to breathe, to trim the aircraft, and to ensure the carburetor heat was on to prevent icing, among other things.

McFarland: N59G, you’re doing great, just keep the wings nice and level and airspeed about 85-90 knots, enrichen the mixture just a little bit more. Not all the way, but just a little bit.

McFarland: N59G, if you’re having to apply carburetor heat, go ahead and pull the carburetor heat knob out.

N4859G: Carburetor heat has been out, thank you.

McFarland: Roger.

McFarland: N59G, doing great, about another 500 feet to go, just continue southbound, heading 1-8-0, wings nice and level at 1-8-0, and just maintain 2,000 when you get there. About another 500 feet to go.

McFarland: N59G, when you’re ready, just make a standard-rate turn to the left, it’ll be just about 10 to 15 degrees of bank to the left, into a 0-9-0 heading, just due eastbound, just nice gradual turn, and use the turn coordinator and your attitude indicator to make just an easy turn to the left, about 15 degrees of bank.

McFarland also used landmarks to help assist the pilot in finding the airport. At 700 feet mean sea level, the pilot finally saw the ground. As the pilot descended lower, McFarland lost radar contact with the aircraft, but continued to provide the position of TME relative to the last known position of the aircraft until he heard the pilot had safely landed his aircraft.

McFarland also won the NATCA President's Award, presented by NATCA President Paul Rinaldi, for the year's top flight assist.

  • Listen to the highlights of this event.
  • Watch the Archie League Medal of Safety Award presentation.
  • Watch the President's Award presentation.