Recent Air Traffic Events Save Lives
Friday, September 28, 2012
Houston Center Members Help Locate Two Pilots in the Gulf of Mexico
Ashley Curtsinger and Tony Hanel were on frequency last Thursday, September 20, when a pilot radioed in, "Center we have a problem." This problem would soon after lead to a crash in the Gulf of Mexico.
Two pilots flying from Baytown, Texas, to Sarasota, Fla., knew they had problems when they began experiencing smoke in the cockpit. It wasn't until they were 30 miles off the tip of the Louisiana coast over the Gulf of Mexico when they started seeing flames in the airplane.
"His mic stayed up for three seconds after he told me there was a problem, and I heard all this noise in the background and then it went out," said Amato. "Shortly after I called my supervisor because I wasn't sure what the problem was, and then I saw him immediately begin to descend."
The plane crashed in the Gulf of Mexico, and the two pilots managed to get out of the plane before it sank. Both men floated for three hours until help arrived. But it was Amato and Hanel's efforts that helped save these two pilots' lives.
"I keep stressing that he's so lucky," said Amato. "If he had been just 10-15 miles further east, he wouldn't have been heard on anyone's frequency. I'm just so glad I was able to hear him say he was in trouble because I don't think he realized no one would have known he went down otherwise."
Controller Effort Helps Pull Two from Pacific
Editors Note: This is an article published by the FAA, view article here.
When Air Traffic Controller Emily Birkland was getting ready to take over a position at Oakland Center on Sept. 9, she had heard about a plane that had ditched in the Pacific Ocean. But she didn't realize it was in her sector until she sat down at the scope.
The floatplane had suffered an engine failure, and its pilot, Stanley Shaw, had executed a forced landing. Stanley and his son, Stanford, had come down into an inhospitable ocean. They faced swells as high as 10 feet, water as cold as 50 degrees and their Cessna 185 was stuck in a kelp bed.
Making the situation more ominous, Oakland Center’s radio coverage at low altitudes in that area is spotty at best.
But Birkland and Roy Teshima, who was working the D-Side for the sector, were able to hear Shaw’s emergency transmissions thanks to a pilot of a Civil Air Patrol aircraft headed through the area.
The pilot relayed what Shaw was saying, and Birkland and Teshima quickly determined his approximate location.
The CAP pilot volunteered to turn around and circle above the crash site to continue to serve as a communications relay. Birkland guided him toward Shaw.
Within 18 minutes, he was circling above, continuing to relay information to the controllers, who had begun to coordinate a rescue effort through Front Line Manager Kaila Flores and Operations Manager Ken Wittmer.
Time was tight. Shaw was struggling to keep the plane afloat — he told the controllers numerous times that it could flip at any moment — and if he and his son were forced into the Pacific, they would likely succumb to hypothermia in about 20 minutes.
Wittmer called the Coast Guard. And he notified the FAA’s Domestic Events Network and the Service Center of what was happening.
Unfortunately, the Coast Guard wouldn’t be able to get helicopters on site for a while. They launched rescue choppers from San Francisco and Los Angeles, but they didn’t expect to reach Shaw and his son for nearly two hours.
In the meantime, the CAP flight had started to run low on fuel. He wasn’t going to be able to provide a vital communications link for much longer.
Fortunately, another pilot in the area had been listening to the transmissions. He offered to replace the CAP flight, and Birkland helped him find the crash site.
Around the same time, a California Highway Patrol plane headed toward the scene.
While the volunteer pilot circled above at 8,500 feet to maintain steady radio contact with the Oakland Center controllers, the Highway Patrol pilot flew lower to keep an eye on the Shaws.
Birkland used the relay to get information on the status of the Shaws, if they had lifejackets and what lifesaving equipment they had onboard their plane. And she continually relayed reassurance to the Shaws that help was coming and that they were doing what they could to get it there as fast as possible.
While all this was going on, Birkland and Teshima still had their regular traffic to manage. They had reduced frequency congestion by letting VFR pilots know that they wouldn’t be able to provide traffic advisories. But they still had IFR aircraft to guide.
Fortunately, Birkland said the demand was only about average. And there was enough time in between communicating with Shaw to handle their other traffic. Flores and Wittmer used that downtime to brainstorm other ways of getting help to the Shaws.
“We were thinking of what we could do to be as proactive as possible,” Flores said. “We tried everything. We couldn't get anyone there.”
The Coast Guard remained their best option.
As the event stretched toward 90 minutes, another controller was brought in to give Birkland a short break. To minimize the number of position changes that needed to be made, and the chances that vital information would be lost, Shawn Pierce took over the D-side for Teshima, and Teshima moved to the R-side.
When Birkland came back, she relived Teshima. Behind them, Front Line Manager Justin Parsons handled the normal managerial duties for the area, freeing Flores and Wittmer to focus on the downed pilot and his son, while Operations Manager Dan Foster helped coordinate with the Coast Guard.
After almost two hours, the Coast Guard helicopter from San Francisco drew near the crash site. But there was a problem. The pilot wasn’t sure if he had enough fuel to make the rescue.
He thought he might only have enough gas to drop a life raft and a swimmer before turning back to fill up his tank.
That led to a tense few moments at Oakland Center, where everyone involved understood that the Shaws plane might capsize before the helicopter was able to return.
But the pilot stretched his fuel out long enough to pull both Stanley and Stanford Shaw to safety.
As soon as Stanford was lifted into the air, the plane rolled over and began to sink.
“I felt tremendous relief once the Coast Guard pilot said he had both passengers,” Birkland said. “I was on edge the whole time. There was so much uncertainty.”
But her job wasn’t quite done.
Once the Shaws were safely on board, the Coast Guard pilot called to be directed toward San Luis Obispo, Calif., for fuel and medical care.
Birkland knew the urgency of the situation and she knew that Paso Robles Municipal Airport was closer. She directed the Coast Guard pilot there.
"We are very proud of the collaboration and professionalism of our team,” said Oakland Center Executive Officer Steven Nauss. “Their determination and teamwork helped in the successful rescue of the Shaw family."
Denver Tower Member Helps Land Ann Romney to Solid Ground
Joshua Hahn and wife, Kristin
"Denver Center, Worldwide 12, we'd like to get back to Denver. We're having an electrical issue here and we're going to declare an emergency."
These are the words that came from a pilot on Friday, September 21, that needed to make an emergency landing, and it just so happened that presidential candidate Mitt Romney's wife, Ann Romney, was aboard the plane.
Denver Tower Controller in Charge (CIC) Joshua Hahn said the controllers didn't have much information during the initial emergency call, only that a Challenger was having electrical problems. They also knew there was the possibility of a VIP on board due to the requests for additional secret service/law enforcement personnel on the scene.
"There is a lot going on in the tower during an emergency," said Hahn. "It gets tense anytime you have an emergency inbound, but when you start hearing VIP on board and secret service/law enforcement is needed, it seems to elevate the situation."
As the plane began to get closer to the airport, concerns heightened as the pilots said they were starting to see smoke in the cabin. The plane did make a safe landing, and Hahn said teamwork was key to that successful landing.
"Being a CIC during this emergency made me realize how privileged I am to work with such a great group of professionals," said Hahn. "I feel like everything was handled seamlessly during the emergency situation, not because of anything I necessarily did, but because of how everyone reacted and came together as a team to make sure all coordination was done."
Hahn said the controllers, traffic management, and the city and county officials all played a critical role during the emergency.
"It was great to see the professionalism of everyone fall into place," said Hahn. "I am proud of the reactions of all my coworkers. It's great to work with such competent, knowledgeable and experienced professionals."