This is the second in a series of three stories recapping the events that won a 2016 Archie League Medal of Safety Award. The awards banquet to honor the winners will take place on the evening of Wednesday, March 23, closing Communicating for Safety 2016 at Bally’s Hotel in Las Vegas. All of CFS, including the awards banquet, will be live webcast on natca.org.
Great Lakes Region
David Kilgus, Columbus (CMH)
David Kilgus plugged in to position on March 10, 2015, and began working aircraft N914DP. The pilot of this aircraft was flying to CMH from Guatemala and had been in the air all day. Weather in the area was instrument flight rules (IFR) with a 200-foot cloud ceiling and a half-mile of visibility. Kilgus began vectoring N914DP to instrument landing system (ILS) runway 10R at CMH, but the pilot was having a hard time understanding his instructions. English was not the pilot’s first language, and the difficult flying conditions combined with the lengthy flight made that barrier harder to overcome. Suddenly, the pilot made a hard right turn towards final approach without instruction, directly into on-coming inbound traffic. Kilgus immediately caught the pilot’s error and issued him an immediate hard right turn away from traffic to get the pilot back on track. Kilgus again began vectoring N914DP towards Runway 10R for a second landing attempt.
The pilot was having a hard time maintaining the ILS and his altitude and flight course did not line up with the required final approach. Kilgus was continuously giving corrections as well as the ILS frequency when the pilot asked Kilgus to “keep an eye on me.” It soon became apparent the pilot could not make the approach into CMH due to his inability to navigate the ILS approach. Kilgus decided to offer the pilot the location of nearby satellite airport, Rickenbacker International (LCK). LCK had reported better weather than that at CMH. N914DP accepted this suggestion and was given short-range clearance and a weather report by air traffic control. The pilot of N914DP was still having difficulty navigating this new approach and was constantly setting off low altitude warnings.
On the aircraft’s four-mile final approach into LCK, the pilot reported he had run out of fuel. Kilgus relayed to the pilot the distance to LCK and after a few intense seconds, the pilot reported that he was able to transfer fuel from his other tank. Kilgus was then able to safely work N914DP into LCK airport, all while he continued working other air traffic on final approach at CMH. Not wanting to have the pilot of N914DP make any unnecessary frequency changes, Kilgus took responsibility to work the aircraft, possibly saving the pilot’s life.
The pilot of N914DP called CMH later that day and asked to personally thank the controller who helped him safely land his airplane even though Kilgus had many other airplanes on the frequency at the time. Kilgus made sure that the pilot of N914DP was able to understand and receive all the guidance required for a safe outcome and saw the pilot through his worst day.
New England Region
Joseph White, Providence (PVD)
On April 20, 2015, the pilot of aircraft N5773S was experiencing a gear malfunction. At the time, Joseph White was on position at PVD and began assisting the pilot, who was having a hard time staying calm. White relayed to the pilot that “It’s ok, we’re going to work with you on this,” and took control. Adding to the difficult situation, the airport surveillance radar antenna (ASR-9) at PVD was out of service, which was causing loss of radar contact with aircraft below 2,000 feet in the vicinity of the airport. The PVD front line manager (FLM) at the time began coordinating from another scope to help White track the aircraft by using long-range radar (LRR). This helped White identify the aircraft’s location at low altitudes.
There were low cloud ceilings and IFR conditions. The pilot of N5773S began to report that his geographic positioning system (GPS) and auto-pilot were inoperative. White attempted to vector N5773S towards the airport and initiated no-gyro vectors for ILS Runway 5 at PVD. N5773S was unable to intercept the localizer, so at the FLM's direction, White advised the pilot of N5773S to descend to 1,200 feet — well below the minimum vectoring altitude in that area. Because of this lower altitude, N5773S was able to break through the low cloud ceiling and identify nearby Quonset (OQU) airport visually. At this point, a decision had to be made about which airport the pilot in trouble should attempt to land at. The pilot inquired if he could attempt to proceed to PVD, but White knew that with the pilot’s equipment failures and options for handling them running out, the pilot should attempt to land at OQU. White’s quick actions and calm, reassuring tone ensured that the pilot was able to land the malfunctioning aircraft safely.
Northwest Mountain Region
Joshua Pate, Seattle TRACON (S46)
Joshua Pate had been a controller at S46 for about four years on Sept. 6, 2015, when he put his 12 years of cumulative air traffic control experience to incredible use. At the time, Pate was working the departure east sector at S46, which borders the 14,411-foot Mount Rainier and the Cascade Mountain Range.
The pilot of aircraft N704QR departed Ranger Creek Airport. He planned to follow the White River valley northwest towards lower terrain and eventually land at Boeing Field (BFI). The aircraft’s elevation at takeoff was 2,650 feet in the foothills just north of Mount Rainier. He landed there the day before with a friend and camped overnight, with a plan to return the next morning. The cloud ceiling had been predicted at 5,000 feet that day but unfortunately, it was much lower. When the pilot turned the aircraft to follow the valley to the west, he encountered a wall of clouds and had no choice but to enter them.
The visual flight rules (VFR) pilot, who had minimal hours of flight time and no instrument flight rules experience decided to climb his aircraft with the hopes of reaching air traffic control to get assistance out of the clouds. He first called BFI because that was the only frequency he knew and they relayed to him the departure east frequency that Pate was working. The pilot relayed to Pate that “I am lost in the clouds, in the mountains and a VFR pilot…help me.” The pilot of N704QR relayed that he was at 5,900 feet. Pate pulled up his emergency obstruction video map (EOVM) map and saw that the aircraft was less than five miles north of a 6,400 foot elevation profile and seven miles west of another rise in terrain.
The average life expectancy of a VFR pilot lost in the clouds is 178 seconds. When an inexperienced pilot encounters unplanned instrument meteorological conditions (IMC), a physiological reaction occurs and they begin to sweat and lose orientation. Their instruments suddenly don’t seem to operate properly. They think their instruments are malfunctioning so they start to correct for the perceived error and they get into more trouble.
As an experienced controller, Pate knew that the most important thing he could do was establish a straight and level flight. When the pilot informed him that he was having navigation issues, Josh immediately began issuing no-gyro vectors. The pilot began circling because of his disorientation and inability to get a sense of his direction without his instruments. The pilot and his passenger were scared. The pilot was not sure how much longer he could continue to operate the aircraft. Pate was able to calmly and reassuringly direct the aircraft into VFR conditions all the while relaying to the pilot that the most important thing was to maintain altitude and keep the aircraft’s wings level.
Pate had been providing no gyro vectors for about six minutes at this point; twice the length of time a VFR pilot can typically sustain IFR conditions. Pate continued to provide these vectors for an additional five minutes. Thanks to the experience and expertise of Pate, the inexperienced pilot was able to overcome conditions that normally would have caused a fatal incident for the pilot and his passenger. The pilot was eventually able to break his aircraft through the clouds and continue to his destination safely.