Extreme Turbulence Creates Inflight Emergency

A blast of turbulence, a bump to the head and a broken yoke left a pilot in a precarious situation over El Paso, Texas, this past winter, but a quick-thinking air traffic controller helped guide the pilot to a safe landing.

The incident occurred the morning of Feb. 23 as an experimental aircraft flew over West Texas. Right after El Paso TRACON controller Shane Mazur handed off the flight to Albuquerque Center, he noticed a shift in the flight path. The single-engine Lancair 360 was headed toward other traffic at that point, so Mazur tried to contact the pilot.

Lancair 360
The pilot didn’t respond immediately, and then his initial transmission was garbled. “You’re breaking up a little bit,” Mazur said. “And did you make a northbound turn, sir?”

The pilot asked for and received permission to land at El Paso International Airport but struggled to explain his predicament. “I have experienced an extreme turbulence, some wave or some condition, and I’ve got some function situation with the aircraft,” he said.

The reason for his lack of clarity became clear in his next response to Mazur: “I’m sorry, but I hit my head. The pull yoke actually pulled out of the stick. I got to get some composure, but I’m [going to] head it toward El Paso Field, [do you] mind?”

Joshua Gutierrez

Mazur confirmed the clearance for an El Paso landing and then calmly described the approach to the pilot, who was unfamiliar with the area. He also provided the direction and distance to the airport, the runway number and the aircraft’s altimeter reading. Mazur emphasized that the pilot would see Biggs Army Airfield two miles north of El Paso International but should land at the public airport unless that wasn’t possible.

With other aircraft headed toward the airport, Operations Supervisor Chris Oropeza alerted the tower and briefed the team. Tower Supervisor Joshua Gutierrez coordinated efforts as the tower cleared the airspace for the Lancair.

“We moved everyone that was coming, departures and arrivals ... so that he could have that whole runway by himself,” Gutierrez said. Mazur updated nearby pilots as necessary, but he said they made his job in the emergency easier by staying quiet on the frequency.

As the approach continued, Mazur periodically updated the pilot on the aircraft’s position in relation to the airport. About 3 ½ minutes into the emergency, Mazur asked the pilot whether he could steer the aircraft.

“I’m having to hold the yoke with two hands because it actually disintegrated in my hand,” the pilot answered. “It came completely out.”

The response concerned Mazur, who had handled some challenging emergencies as a military controller in Afghanistan. He replayed some of those experiences in his mind in an effort to help the Lancair pilot but maintained his composure in their interactions.

“Shane just kept talking to him,” said Gutierrez, who also was concerned that strong winds could complicate the landing.

Fortunately, the winds were calm as the pilot turned the aircraft for final approach. About eight minutes after the emergency began, the pilot called the tower. “I wanted to tell you, I’m on the ground and rolling out, sir. ... I appreciate all your help.”

ATM Curtis Dowling swearing in air traffic controller Shane Mazur and colleague Samantha Rablin.

Mazur said his adrenalin was pumping as the situation unfolded. “I was extremely relieved when [the aircraft] rolled out,” he said. And he was grateful to have had the support of his colleagues. “The team concept for air traffic definitely came into play for that.”

Air Traffic Manager Curtis Dowling wasn’t surprised. “It’s great to see our controllers rise to the occasion by maintaining a high level of professionalism and concern when a pilot is in need,” he said. “Our purpose as air traffic controllers is to consistently provide that quality of service to the flying public. Job well done.”

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