Northwest Mountain Region


Randy Neu
Pueblo, Colo., Air Traffic Control Tower


On the morning of Memorial Day last year, a calm, confident, soothing voice, belonging to Pueblo Tower Controller Randy Neu, was the difference between life and death.

Because of poor weather, the airport was in Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) conditions, utilizing an Instrument Landing System (ILS) approach to Runway 8 Left. It was approximately 10 a.m. local time and Neu and his colleagues were handling a normal traffic load. One of the aircraft, a Cessna 182, piloted by Dan Gilbert, with his wife on board, was making his first ILS approach. The aircraft was on short final, within five miles of the runway, when he suddenly called the tower and advised Neu – who was working the north radar/local control position – that he missed the approach. As Gilbert began his climb-out, he radioed the tower and complained to Neu of suffering from spatial disorientation – vertigo. He was in serious trouble.

Many extensive studies have demonstrated conclusively that spatial disorientation in the clouds must be reversed and righted normally within three minutes; otherwise the flight normally spins out of control, ending in tragedy.  If not the most serious of flight situations, it is certainly among the most common to end in disaster.

Phil Murtha was the controller-in-charge in the tower on this morning. He monitored the position and stood by on the surveillance radar position. “Randy quickly and professionally took control,” Murtha said. Hearing the distress in the pilot’s voice, Neu elected first to guide Gilbert immediately out of the clouds, an action that required a number of simultaneous talents. First, he had to issue instructions that were easy to follow because statistics indicate that he wouldn’t have a second chance. Second, he had to have the presence of mind to ascertain where to guide Gilbert to get him out of the clouds the fastest. And third, he had to do it in such a way as to instill confidence in the pilot who, naturally, would have been in extreme distress and sensory overload.

Neu vectored the aircraft back into position to make a second attempt at landing and established Gilbert on the localizer – the ILS navigational aid – before he re-entered the clouds. Gilbert completed the approach and landed safely.

A couple of hours later, Gilbert and his wife came to the control tower and spoke with FAA Operations Supervisor James Kadrmas, who was advised of what had happened, received their thanks to pass along to Neu and also told that if it hadn’t been for Neu’s calm and assuring instructions, Gilbert said he probably would not have made it down safely. Gilbert’s wife told Kadrmas, “The controller saved our lives. Thank you!”

Kadrmas wrote a Letter of Commendation to Neu, saying, “The continuing praise and sincere gratitude from (the pilot) and his wife is what I wish to commend you for. Your performance reflects well on you, your facility and the FAA. Thank you again.” In a separate memo on the incident, Kadrmas wrote, “Randy’s handling of the situation was one of the calmest emergencies I have listened to in my 27 years of service. His putting (the aircraft) on top and setting him up for the ILS on top was superb.”

Added Murtha: “When Gilbert and his wife visited the tower, could not stop praising the controller that worked him, and his wife chimed in that she ‘thought they were going to die.’ I monitored the situation from beginning to end and, I must say, I have not ever heard a more professional performance. I’m a pilot and a controller for 34 years and it made me proud to witness this save.”
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“The sequence of events and the kind of pressure Randy Neu was under on May 30, 2005, is easily worthy of a Hollywood script.  But as we often learn, our real heroes lead ordinary lives in small towns and cities all across our country.  Randy is one such hero, and a pilot and his wife in Pueblo, Colo., are alive today because he brought his considerable talents to bear at their time of need while ‘just doing his job.’

But it takes more than training to respond as quickly and with such insight and steely confidence as Randy demonstrated.  It takes something special.  And Randy is all the more special because of something that happened to him only a few months before this remarkable save.  Earlier in the year, he was working a flight that disappeared from radar without warning.  As it turned out, the aircraft crashed, killing eight.  After a long, harrowing and difficult investigation, he was found blameless but, as the controller who last spoke to the pilot, Randy was extremely shaken.  Controllers take it personally when things happen on their watch, even things that are beyond their control.  And so it is all the more remarkable that Randy was able to put that memory away, knowing the difference between life and death was quite likely in his hands.

Randy Neu is one of the reasons why our citizens sleep soundly at night, knowing their air traffic controllers are among the best, the brightest and the most caring our country has to offer.”

- Carol Branaman, Northwest Mountain Regional Vice President

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