This is the first in a series of three stories recapping the events that have won an 2016 Archie League Medal of Safety Award.
Ron Sparks, Anchorage Center
Mike Thomas, Anchorage Center
Thirty-year air traffic control veteran Ron Sparks and 26-year veteran Mike Thomas were on position at Anchorage Center (ZAN) Nov. 30, 2015, when aircraft N256V flew into their sector on its way to Nome, Alaska. A low cloud ceiling and limited visibility began to affect the pilot’s ability to successfully land at Nome. After his second failed attempt to land, the pilot requested information on other airports. Working together, Sparks and Thomas found an alternative airport – Unalakleet – about 100 miles to the east, and began vectoring the aircraft there. While en route to Unalakleet, the pilot began to sound nervous about the change in direction and wanted to turn back and try Nome again. Both Sparks and Thomas knew that at that point, the aircraft was running low on fuel and would not make it to Nome. They encouraged him to continue on to Unalakleet. They wanted to prevent the pilot from getting stranded and running out of options in dangerous weather as the conditions at Nome continued to worsen. When the pilot reached Unalakleet, he realized he did not have the appropriate plates for the airport, so Sparks and Thomas provided him the necessary information to land. The pilot landed successfully with just six minutes of fuel remaining. Sparks’ and Thomas’ calm and steady direction saved the pilot’s life that day.
Brett Rolofson, Kansas City Center
William Keeney, Kansas City Center
Kansas City Center (ZKC) controller Brett Rolofson was training William Keeney on June 15, 2015, when N345TM, a Visual Flight Rules (VFR) flight receiving flight following from ZKC, came onto their radar. The aircraft was en route to Lee’s Summit, Mo. (LXT), when it experienced an oil pressure issue. This caused the pilot to request a route change to land at a closer airport. Rolofson took over Keeney’s position while Keeney began relaying information about nearby airports to Rolofson, who in turn relayed them to the pilot. The aircraft requested and was cleared by air traffic control to reroute to Perryington County, Texas (PYX). When the pilot received the weather at PYX, he realized it was instrument flight rules (IFR) and that he would not be able to land there either. Rolofson then suggested the pilot head back towards Liberal, Kan. (LBL), where Keeney and Rolofson were seeing reports of better weather. Shortly after, the pilot realized his aircraft could not make the journey back to LBL, so Rolofson and Keeney recommended Beaver, Okla. (KK44).
After giving that recommendation, Rolofson lost contact with the pilot on radio. The aircraft disappeared from his radar due to its altitude, so Rolofson relayed clearances and information to-and-from N345TM through the pilot of American Eagle flight ENY3315, who was able to reach the pilot in distress over his radio. Because of Rolofson and Keeney’s dedicated teamwork, the distressed pilot was able to report through the pilot of ENY3315 that he had landed safely at KK44.
Jeff Schuler, New York TRACON
On Dec. 22, 2015, an apparently disoriented pilot was operating Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) in aircraft N9525M. Certified professional controller (CPC) Chris Fedrich observed the aircraft descend below the glide scope and below the minimum safe altitude area on its approach to Islip/MacAruther (ISP). The aircraft descended as low as 700 feet, quickly climbed back up to 1,800 feet, then descended again to 800 feet, just nine miles from the airport. Two radio towers stood as high as 643 and 821 feet near by as the pilot struggled to maintain altitude. Fedrich radioed the team at ISP tower to confirm the low altitude alert and tell them he believed the pilot was having difficulties. ISP tower advised the aircraft to climb back to 2,000 feet and return to Fedrich’s frequency. At this point, the pilot advised that he was having difficulty holding his altitude or fly the assigned headings issued by the controller due to turbulence, wind, and rain. Fedrich asked the pilot how much fuel was left in the aircraft and the pilot told him that he had over four hours worth of fuel left.
Weather at ISP was approximately 700 feet and overcast with visibility below one and a half miles. The pilot began requesting information on any airports in the area with better weather conditions. Fedrich determined that Hartford-Brainard Airport (HFD) was the best option in the area, with an 800-foot ceiling and seven miles of visibility. The pilot had the aircraft climb to 5,000 feet and air traffic control cleared him for HFD. Upon that clearance, air traffic control informed the pilot that HFD had a localizer type directional aid approach (LDA). The pilot advised that he could not complete that type of approach. The next best option was for the pilot to land the aircraft at Danbury Airport (DXR), but the pilot still appeared to be disoriented and was unable to correct headings or maintain altitude. CPC Richard Donovan had since been handed the aircraft and decided to give the aircraft no-gyro vectors in an attempt to assist the pilot, but the pilot was confused by the instructions.
At this point, New York TRACON (N90) controller and licensed pilot Jeff Schuler returned early from his break to relieve Donovan. Schuler was able to keep the pilot calm, and after again checking local weather, Schuler decided that the best option was for the pilot to land his aircraft at Stewart Airport (SWF). The weather at SWF was slightly better than at DXR, and the runway was much longer. The descent required to land at DXR also has mountainous terrain obstructions, which would make it too dangerous for the pilot to attempt, given the state of disorientation and inability to control his aircraft. Schuler cleared the pilot to land at SWF and once again, on the radar screen, the aircraft flew opposite to the instructions, at times circling and losing altitude.
The decision was made by management to move all other aircraft on N9525M’s frequency onto another frequency so Schuler could concentrate on only the emergency at hand. The pilot mentioned wanting to go back to the Atlantic City (ACY) area where he thought the weather might be better. Schuler continuously queried the pilot about the aircraft’s fuel status, in response to which the pilot advised the aircraft fuel levels were fine. Yet, every time the aircraft turned south with strong headwinds, the aircraft showed a speed of only 40 knots in Schuler’s radar data block. It became apparent to Schuler that the pilot would not have enough fuel to make it to the ACY area, so the pilot agreed to try SWF.
The pilot then advised that “one tank just went empty, it was showing one-fourth full a minute ago.” Schuler then convinced the pilot to fly to Sikorsky Memorial Airport (BDR), over which he had been circling at 5,000 feet. The BDR instrument landing system (ILS) for runway six was out of service. The BDR visual over runway (VOR) navigational air for runway 29 had recently been decommissioned. Runway 24 was closed due to construction. The only approach aligned for runway 29 was with the use of a global positioning system (GPS). Schuler did not believe the pilot’s GPS equipment was reliable, so he gave vectors to the pilot for the VOR approach to runway 29. The pilot was continuously turning his aircraft in the wrong direction and descending on his own. Schuler was able to confirm that the aircraft’s GPS was not reliable because the pilot was following GPS from his iPad, and the device’s battery was dying. The distraction of his failing GPS hindered the pilot’s ability to maintain altitude and a correct heading even further.
Schuler was able to get the pilot to descend his aircraft for the approach into BDR, albeit slightly southeast of the ideal course, while continuously reminding him to keep his wings level. Schuler issued corrective headings throughout the pilot’s approach, while his colleagues provided him altitude restrictions and radials that he relayed to the pilot. The pilot broke out at approximately 600 feet above ground level (AGL) as they were losing radar contact with him. The pilot was able to safely make a circling approach to runway 29.
The teamwork and professionalism displayed by Schuler and the assisting controllers prevented a tragedy that day.