Jacksonville Tower air traffic controller Dwayne McLean came to the rescue when he noticed on his radar that the pilot of a single-engine Grumman AA-5 Tiger was making steep right turns on a flight from Florida’s Witham Field Airport to Georgia’s Cobb County International Airport on Sept. 4.
As the pilot struggled to maintain orientation in heavy cloud cover, McLean coached the pilot for more than nine minutes to help him keep his wings level, reduce the power and trust the aircraft instruments until he was able to return to visual flying conditions.
Jacksonville Tower air traffic controller Dwayne McLean
“I’m a pilot as well, so I was very familiar with what was going on with him immediately,” McLean said. “I could tell he was a VFR [visual] pilot encountering IMC [instrument meteorological] conditions. I knew he was in some serious trouble. He was in a very steep, tight spiral and fell from 6,500 feet to 4,500 feet in a very quick amount of time.”
The controller’s radar display indicated that the plane was in a continuous right turn, with the radius decreasing, and its airspeed fluctuating between 230 and 20 knots – a clear indication that the pilot had lost control of the aircraft. A spiraling turn means the pilot has lost spatial awareness and he does not trust his instruments or is not using them.
“I got him to focus on all his instruments, stop the turn and stop the descent,” McLean said.
The radar display eventually showed that the pilot regained control, but the emergency situation was not yet over, as the visual-rated pilot was still in the clouds. At this point, McLean began to guide the pilot through a descent into visual conditions. He advised the pilot to descend at 500 feet per minute, keeping the wings level and maintaining 100 knots. These guidelines he remembered from flight training, and it also helped that McLean has flown in a Grumman AA-5 Tiger.
“I kept reinforcing there are no obstructions and to keep his wings level and come down on the power,” he said. “I told him we needed a nice, controlled descent out of the clouds, and once he came out he’d be in much better position to continue the flight.”
McLean remained calm as he guided the pilot through these steps so he would focus and not panic. Fortunately, the pilot was able to descend out of the clouds and proceed to his destination safely. When the pilot was able to see out of the cockpit, he thanked McLean, a 35-year controller, for his standout air traffic control services: “I am shaken but able to continue. Thank you so much for all of your help.”
Several other pilots in the area heard the flight assist as well and commended McLean for his expertise. “Great job, approach,” many of them said.