Washington Dulles Tower
One afternoon four years ago, not long after graduating from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and taking his first job at Fort Lauderdale Executive Tower, Dittamo was on the catwalk talking to a co-worker when out of the corner of his eye, he spotted a Comanche coming over the threshold and preparing to land. The aircraft’s landing gear was still up.
“I raced back inside the cab and got on the radio to advise the pilot about his gear,” Dittamo said. “The funny thing about it is that I remember things from my training that have stuck in my head. That day in the tower I was training on the cab coordinator position and my trainer told me, ‘Look for feet (landing gear). Always look for feet on the (propeller-powered aircraft). The prop guys don’t have the warning systems, but the jets will always have feet.”
Fast forward to the afternoon of July 24, 2004. Dittamo was in the final stages of his developmental program at the busy Newark Tower, receiving training on the local control position.
The weather conditions were ideal; clear skies. Dittamo was looking out the window. “We had a (Boeing) 747 coming in,” he said. “You can point out a 747 easily on a clear day.”
It was Air India Flight 145, with 409 passengers aboard.
“He was on five-mile final approach,” Dittamo remarked. “I saw him but I couldn’t see gear.” With his Fort Lauderdale trainer’s instructions in his head – “Always look for feet” – Dittamo glanced in a different direction and then turned back to the 747 to look again. No gear.
“I thought, ‘something just doesn’t seem right’,” he said. “In my mind, I said I would pick it up in my next scan. But then I looked up and the plane definitely had no gear.”
By this point, flight 145 was on a half-mile final at an altitude of 600 feet. “I was surprised he didn’t go around,” Dittamo stated. “I was going to let it go for one more second, because this was a critical phase of the flight for the crew. But then I just said to myself, ‘I’m not going to let this go for any longer.”
Dittamo keyed the mike: “Air India 145, check gear down. Gear appears up.”
The pilot acknowledged the transmission with a calm, “Air India 145.” Down came the gear and the 747 landed safely on runway 4R.
“Holy cow!” said another controller in the tower, realizing that Dittamo had just prevented a possible disaster. Several other pilots on the frequency, taxiing or waiting to take off, heard the transmissions and instantly knew the importance of Dittamo’s actions to catch a very rare occurrence.
One pilot said on the frequency, “Give that controller a raise!” Another said, “Give him a time off award!” A third offered a succinct compliment: “Hey tower, good catch.”
Newark Tower Acting Manager Michael D. Wagner was more effusive.
“His alertness and timely action may have prevented a possible gear up landing,” Wagner wrote of Dittamo – now a fully certified controller – on a time-off award recommendation form. “Scott’s action is representative of the professionalism and dedication displayed not only at Newark Tower but also throughout the entire air traffic system.”
After his shift was over, Dittamo called his old trainer – who now works at Miami Tower – to report a slight correction to the advice he was given back in Fort Lauderdale:
“Jets don’t always have feet.”
Washington Dulles Tower
In the span of only a few months, Washington Dulles Tower has risen dramatically on the Federal Aviation Administration’s list of the country’s busiest towers, from 24th all the way to 12th. Tower controllers handled 366,000 operations in 2003, but 503,000 in 2004, a staggering jump of 37 percent.
Alertness and situational awareness were always two of the trademarks of Dulles controllers before last year, but the extra workload has forced them to take their skills to an even higher level. And at no time were these traits more vital for a safe operation than during a very busy Wednesday arrival bank just before Christmas, with a tower staff that included Horne, a veteran controller, husband and father of two whose nickname, “Grouchy,” stands in contrast to his calm, professional demeanor.
Horne was working the Ground Control North position. Aircraft were landing on Runway 1L in quick succession in that unrelenting cadence that forced controllers to be on top of their game.
One of those aircraft was N26SC, a small plane that touched down and cleared the runway. The pilot radioed Horne that he was requesting clearance to taxi over to the Hawthorne General Aviation Ramp. Horne promptly instructed the aircraft to “taxi via taxiway Yankee to the Hawthorne Ramp.”
Horne kept an eye on the aircraft but was also having to deal with another issue adding to the complexity of his position; a stuck microphone that created a blockage on his frequency and impeded communication.
And a second bit of bad news: The tower’s Airport Movement Area Safety System was out of service on this day, eliminating any safety net for Horne, who had to remain extra vigilant.
Horne watched closely as N26SC, in attempting to navigate the taxiways, mistakenly turned onto the reverse high speed for Runway 1L, which, when planes are landing from the opposite direction, is used as the high speed turnoff taxiway.
The aircraft was now beginning to taxi toward the active runway. It was immediately at this point that Horne, in the words of another controller in the tower at the time, Leslie Warfield, “displayed great diligence, poise and control judgment” by realizing what the aircraft was attempting to do and correcting the action with a quick, clear and concise instruction to the pilot:
“Hold your position immediately.”
The aircraft complied and later made it safely to its Hawthorne Ramp destination. Horne’s actions prevented a runway incursion or, Warfield says, worse, an accident with another aircraft using the active runway.
Dulles Tower’s NATCA facility representative, Kieron Heflin, nominated Horne for the Archie League award and credited him with one of the tower’s most noteworthy saves in recent memory.
“Disaster was certainly averted that day due to Greg’s quick thinking and attention to detail,” Heflin said. “Greg is the consummate professional, seeking no reward for the fantastic job he does day in and day out. I’m proud to show him that his hard work and dedication does not go unnoticed.”
Concluded Warfield: “Because the AMASS was out of service, the only thing that saved the aircraft from entering the runway was Greg’s actions.”
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