Informing and connecting with the members of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, who work to safely handle 70,000 flights daily and nearly one billion passengers annually.
Ep29 "I Just Almost Hit Another Mountain;" Seattle Center (ZSE) Controllers Save Idaho Pilot
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. For their efforts, the five air traffic controllers have been selected as the 2020 NATCA Archie League Medal of Safety Award winners for the Northwest Mountain Region.
Ep28: From The Pilot's Perspective - How Calm Controllers Having Her Back Meant Everything
In our last episode (Episode 27) of The NATCA Podcast, we brought you the story of Fort Worth Center (ZFW) air traffic controllers and NATCA members Brian Cox, Larry Bell, and Colin McKinnon. The trio worked together as a team to help pilot and flight instructor Anise Shapiro and her student, Jouni Uusitalo when the engine failed on his Piper PA-46 Malibu halfway into a 75-minute flight over West Texas. For their efforts, the controllers are being honored this year with the NATCA Archie League Medal of Safety Award for the Southwest Region.
Now, we bring you part two of this event - a conversation with 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.
Shapiro has been flying since 1997. This was her first engine failure, something she trains for regularly with her students.
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.”
Ep27: Two Souls, Six Dogs, and an Open Wheat Field of Safety
Halfway into a nearly 75-minute flight last spring to Graham Municipal Airport (RPH), 80 miles northwest of Fort Worth, Texas, pilot and flight instructor Anise Shapiro, in a Piper PA-46 Malibu, lost the engine for the first time in her 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.
Onboard with Shapiro were her student pilot, Jouni Uusitalo, and six dogs they were transporting. With the vast West Texas terrain beneath her and losing altitude steadily in a strong headwind, Cox and fellow ZFW members Larry Bell and Colin McKinnon worked quickly as a team to assist her. Unable to make either Plan B, Harrison Field of Knox City Airport (F75), or Plan C, Texas State Highway 114, Shapiro and Uusitalo spotted a final option: An open wheat field with no trees or cattle.
For their efforts, Cox, Bell, and McKinnon have been named the recipients of the NATCA Southwest Region Archie League Medal of Safety Award.
Ep26 Boston TRACON Controller Had "The Voice That Made Me Believe We Would Survive"
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 (later determined to be a tree).
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.
For his efforts, Chesley has been named the 2020 Archie League Medal of Safety Award winner for the New England Region.
Ep25 Losing Altitude, Options, Grumman Pilot Gets Help From San Diego Controllers
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 and Jamie Macomber with helping him to a safe, albeit nerve-rattling, landing.
Duffy’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.”
Ep24 Indianapolis Center Controllers Guide Pilot With Ice Buildup to Safe Landing
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.