Top image, this year's Archie League Medal of Safety Award winners, from left to right and top to bottom: Patrick Armstrong of Dallas/Fort Worth TRACON; Brian Bond, Aaron Fones and Carlton Wickstrom of Phoenix TRACON; Mason Braddock, Patrick Burrows, Nichole Surunis, Clay Sutton and Keith Tyus of Atlanta TRACON; Andrew Cullen and Jeffrey Volski of Kansas City Center; Jessica Earp of Anchorage Center; Aaron Grijalva of Denver TRACON; Eric Knight and Ross Leshinsky of Boston Tower; Jaymi Steinberg and Richard Wallace of Washington Center; David Stempien of Cleveland Center; and Eric Vanstrom of Fort Wayne Tower. (Photos: NATCA)
Every year in air traffic control has its share of heroes, and NATCA recognizes the best of them with its annual Archie League Medal of Safety Awards. This year the winners include controllers who talked pilots through harrowing weather situations, guided them to safe emergency landings after engine trouble and calmly helped them overcome disorientation.
“You were right there,” a pilot in trouble told one of the award recipients by phone after their calming in-flight interaction. “Thank you so much!”
NATCA recognized the award winners last night at the Communicating for Safety conference in Las Vegas. Here are summaries of the scenarios that played out in their parts of the national airspace system, with links to NATCA’s complete reports:
Patrick Armstrong, Dallas/Fort Worth TRACON (Southwest Region)
March 10: The pilot of a Beechcraft B35 had trouble landing at Grand Prairie Airport while flying under instrument flight rules. With five miles of visibility in light rain and ceilings of 800 feet, the pilot struggled to maintain altitude and headings and had only 10 minutes of fuel after two failed landing attempts. Armstrong quickly thought of all his options and offered the pilot an approach by instrument landing system at neighboring Arlington Municipal Airport. He conveyed both the weather and the Arlington ILS approach plate to the pilot to save time and coordinated with Arlington Tower. The pilot later called the TRACON and thanked Armstrong personally for saving his life.
Brian Bond, Aaron Fones and Carlton Wickstrom, Phoenix TRACON (Western Pacific Region)
Jan. 19: Wickstrom talked the pilot of a Cessna 172S through an increasingly dire flight situation as she experienced equipment problems in bad winter weather. The pilot was headed to Phoenix Goodyear Airport but changed course to Prescott Municipal Airport at Wickstrom’s suggestion. The pilot’s difficulty in maintaining a heading revealed trouble with the aircraft, and she sounded increasingly confused. Front line manager Doug Hart sought help from Bond and Fones, experienced pilots who knew the area. Fones took over the frequency and talked the pilot away from high terrain and toward the airfield. Together the three controllers formulated a plan and communicated it to the pilot, all while keeping her calm and focused.
Mason Braddock, Patrick Burrows, Nichole Surunis, Clay Sutton and Keith Tyus, Atlanta TRACON (Southern Region)
Feb. 14: A throttle malfunction created an emergency situation for a Cessna 172S near Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Burrows took the initial call and briefed Sutton, the controller-in-charge. He pulled in Braddock, Surunis and Tyus to assist during the incident. Braddock talked to the pilot on a clearer frequency, Surunis assisted him, and Tyus monitored the situation to provide perspective as a skilled pilot. Sutton reached out to controllers at Atlanta Tower, and Front Line Manager Bryant Vaughan helped him explore all available resources. A certified flight instructor provided additional expertise. Braddock offered reassuring words to the pilot as she voiced concerns during the emergency. He also suggested a practice approach to the runway, and that boosted her confidence.
Andrew Cullen and Jeffrey R. Volski, Kansas City Center (Central Region)
Dec. 16: A Cirrus SR22 headed from Hannibal Regional Airport to Jefferson City Memorial Airport asked Volski for permission to return to Hannibal upon encountering severe icing. Cullen assisted him as the data controller. Volski issued instructions for an approach, but the pilot missed that initial approach. Volski provided navigational assistance and headings for the second approach, even as he worked other aircraft during a busy time in his sector of airspace. Although the pilot had difficulty holding altitude, he landed the aircraft safely. Volski and Cullen provided assistance and reassurance to the pilot through both approach attempts.
Jessica Earp, Anchorage Center (Alaskan Region)
July 25: Shortly after takeoff from Eielson Air Force Base, a Navy F-18 declared an emergency due to an aircraft malfunction. The pilot shut down one engine and operated the second at reduced power to conserve fuel. With poor visibility in the Aleutian Islands and at most airports, the pilot headed to King Salmon Airport, which has an 8,900-foot runway. Earp suggested nearby St. Paul Airport as an alternative because of fuel and weather concerns. The airport only has a 6,500-foot runway, but the skies were clearer. The pilot, who had contemplated ditching his jet and hoping for a water rescue, appreciated the suggestion. Earp issued a heading to St. Paul, and the pilot landed without incident.
Jaymi Steinberg and Richard Wallace, Washington Center (Eastern Region)
March 27: Steinberg and Wallace guided the pilot of a Piper PA-23-250 to an emergency crash landing on a Virginia highway after the plane lost power in both engines. The pilot first contacted the center after the directional gyro and altitude indicator on his plane malfunctioned. Steinberg and Wallace worked together to identify the closest airport with visual flight conditions, but then the engine trouble started, first in one engine and eventually in both. The pilot didn’t think he could make it to the nearest airport, so the controllers guided him to the nearest highway in southern Virginia. The Piper PA-23-250 ended up hitting a tree while landing in the median. The plane flipped, but the pilot suffered only minor injuries.
Eric J. Knight and Ross Leshinsky, Boston Tower (New England Region)
Oct. 20: Boston Tower was short-staffed as a Piedmont Airlines De Havilland Dash 8-300 made its final approach. Knight, the controller-in-charge, and local controller Leshinsky noticed that the approach was abnormal. As the aircraft made a short dogleg, the pilot rolled out with less than one-eighth of a mile to and lined up with a taxiway instead of the runway. Knight warned the pilot that he was off course, and Leshinsky told him to go around the airport. The plane flew over a JetBlue aircraft on the taxiway as the pilot heeded Leshinsky’s instructions. The team’s attention to detail prevented a potential accident.
David Stempien, Cleveland Center (Great Lakes Region)
Oct. 1: Stempien reacted calmly when a pilot experienced a serious updraft and lost control of his Beechcraft 35-33. Over the frequency, controllers heard yelling, panicked breathing and someone shouting repeatedly, “Let go of the yoke!” Stempien sought to help the pilot but heard no response as the aircraft descended from 8,100 feet to 5,000 feet. When the pilot finally answered, Stempien reassured him with guidance like “trust your instruments.” The pilot held level at that altitude to regain composure. Stempien offered to guide the pilot to the nearest airport, and he eventually took a break at Arnold Palmer Regional Airport in Latrobe, Pa., before continuing his journey.
Eric Vanstrom, Fort Wayne Tower (Great Lakes Region)
Vanstrom came to the aid of a pilot who lost navigation in his Piper PA-32R-301T during a severe weather incident and could not correct course on his own. Vanstrom’s flight assist helped the pilot get the plane out of a circling descent despite problems with the vertical speed indicator. Vanstrom gave the pilot headings to Portland Municipal Airport in Indiana because the weather was clear there and additional corrective headings as the pilot performed multiple circles and altitude changes around the airport. While also working other aircraft, Vanstrom communicated with the pilot for nearly two hours. The plane eventually made a safe landing.
Aaron Grijalva, Denver TRACON (Northwest Mountain Region)
Dec. 11: Grijalva answered a student pilot’s call for “flight following” services as he struggled to navigate his Cessna 172S through the clouds around Centennial Airport. The pilot asked for navigational aid to get to Pueblo Memorial Airport, but Grijalva used his judgment and reason to convince the pilot, who seemed disoriented, to turn back to Centennial instead because the weather was better there. Using his pilot skills, Grijalva provided guidance, weather conditions and basic flight maneuvers to the student pilot. He later confirmed with the flight instructor that the pilot will be retrained on navigation and radio procedures.