Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Stories From the Trenches

As an air traffic controller there are a couple things I don't do when I'm in the sector (or out of it for that matter). I don't try to imagine how many people may be under my control (although I have) at any one time and I don't spend any time worrying that the next call may come from a pilot in distress. Either of those two things occupying much of my idle thoughts would only serve to distract and unnerve me say nothing of the hyperventilating that would follow. The green slash on the radar which represents the aircraft's position is just that; a green slash. It's not really an airplane at all. There's a bit of disassociation that needs to occur to be able to do this job day after day. At least for me.

This month marks my 27th year as a controller with the FAA. I can't say I've had a huge number of emergencies in that time but I've had my share. Often times they're military aircraft with equipment malfunctions requesting an immediate descent in the direction of their destination. Sometimes it's an air carrier with a medical emergency needing to get on the ground as soon as possible with an ambulance at the ready.

All too often they unfold in unpredictable ways.

I took over the sector from Bob Nicol back in 1990 with Mark Warren on the (data) D-side. It was a busy sector with lots of traffic (some non-radar) and a military airspace active from 6000 feet and up just northwest of Fort Dodge, Iowa. I don't think I'd had much more than a few seconds to catch my breath for the first 15 minutes I'd been plugged in. I remember commenting to Mark when there was finally a lull, "Let's see if everybody is present and accounted for". It was my way of making sure I had the flick. I began to methodically go through the flight progress strips correlating them with the targets on the scope. Right away I noticed that a non-radar aircraft at 6000 feet had failed to report progressing the Fort Dodge VOR (navigation aid) and appeared to be inside the military airspace we were protecting for. That's not good. I had Mark get on the line with Coffin Corner (the military radar unit working with the fighter aircraft in the airspace) and tell them that we may have somebody inside the airspace so that they could protect for him. While Mark got on the line my next move was to key the frequency and issue a clearance to the pilot to descend to a lower altitude which would get him underneath the airspace. Coffin Corner told Mark to standby. Mark said to me, "This doesn't sound good...they've got sirens going off and said they just had a midair". Mark assumed that one of the A-7's had collided with our guy who'd gotten away from us. I assured Mark that it wasn't our guy because I was talking with him. Huge sigh.

Two A-7's had collided in a dogfight. Here's a report of the incident a coworker and friend, Tim, found...

USAF A-7K Corsair 80-0292/SD and A-7D ??/SD of South Dakota ANG/175th TFS collided head on in mid-air near Spencer, Iowa during a mock dogfight. Both aircraft exploded in a ball of flame spreading debris over a wide area of farmland but no injuries reported on the ground. The two pilots and one civilian passenger, Ward Bushee editor of a newspaper in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, all ejected safely.

I remembered that there was a reporter from the Sioux Falls Argus Leader on board who had to eject. That was the part of the story that was always so intriguing to me. I'm not sure that anybody can be prepared to eject from an A-7, certainly not a newspaper reporter just riding along for a story. The reporter most definitely got more to write about than he anticipated.

Edit: Ward Bushee from the A-7 ejection story was kind enough to put that experience into words for my blog. You can read what he wrote at this link.

In the late 1990's I had a woman attempting to land at Mason City, Iowa in dismal weather conditions who was sounding more and more distressed with each unsuccessful attempt to execute an instrument approach. I can't remember the last time I'd asked a pilot how much fuel they had remaining but I did that in this instance. Her reply was "20 minutes."  That wasn't a number I wanted to hear. With that little fuel left she had only one more attempt at an approach, if that. I declared an emergency for her without telling her what I'd done as I figured it would only add to her stress level. I asked the supervisor to see if there were any pilot rated controllers available who could help me/her out. Mike Blume was plugged in with me in a matter of moments. Mike was probably one of the more experienced pilots of any of the pilot rated controllers/supervisors among us and we have many.

I have no idea what sort of thought processes the pilot was using to allow herself to get into such a position but her situation had deteriorated to do-or-die and I don't think that's much of an exaggeration if at all. Mike was able to talk her through the approach in ways that a non-pilot controller such as myself likely couldn't.

At the 'missed approach' point in the procedure she stated that she still didn't have the field in sight. Mike and I both looked at each other and understood that she was eventually going to have to come through the clouds. She could either do it now in a controlled manner or do it with no power in an aircraft with empty fuel tanks possibly much further away from the field and a low ceiling allowing for little time to react once she broke out. She needed to somehow squeeze another 100 feet or more out of the minimums otherwise there was much less chance of her and her passengers walking away from this one. Mike asked her if she could descend just a bit more to see if she could make ground contact. Within a few seconds she came back on the radio and stated "I can see the airport". Less than one minute later she was calling us on the ground to say she'd landed safely. I remember being surprised at how quickly she got the plane on the ground from the time she first reported the field in sight.

Months later I asked the Quality Assurance people if the incident was ever processed as a save. It wasn't. All in a day's work I suppose.

It was my sector that golfer Payne Stewart's plane fell out of the sky from back in October, 1999. It wasn't much of an emergency by the time it got to me as there was conceivably no chance to save anybody on board since they were all likely hours dead from hypoxia (a lack of oxygen) due to a sudden decompression of the aircraft. Still, it was quite a zoo with all the military aircraft shadowing the plane waiting for its fuel to run out. It came through the sector on auto pilot with its altitude maxed out somewhere above 40,000 feet and fluctuating slightly. I simply had to keep everyone clear of its path knowing that it could come crashing down at any time although we had a pretty good idea how far its fuel would carry it based on the information the pilot had entered in his flight plan.

In the middle of it all I had a United pilot requesting a routing change which would have taken it across the stricken plane's path. I told the pilot I couldn't help her with her request but I didn't elaborate as to why. There was a lot going on behind the scenes as well which was competing for my attention. I remember she made a comment about me finding somebody else who could get the job done. It was a rude remark to make and one she no doubt felt embarrassed about later in the day when she watched the news and realized what had been happening and why I couldn't accommodate her. We all do and say stupid stuff occasionally and she was no exception.

Typically, pilots experiencing a loss of cabin pressure are able to don oxygen masks and at a minimum keep flying the plane until they can either correct the problem or safely descend to a lower altitude. Investigators were never able to determine why the crew of Stewart's plane were unable to do that.

I've never had a pilot on my frequency who showed any signs of hypoxia and I'd like to think that I'd recognize it if I did. But then again, depending upon the severity of the condition it may go unnoticed. The pilot in the audio link below is a 67 year old retired United Airlines pilot. It's my understanding that the copilot was unconscious for most of this event and the pilot doing the talking doesn't recall much of any of it. Notice how they begin to regain their senses as the aircraft descends into denser air but imagine how easy it would've been for the pilot to slump over in his seat and drift away. My guess is he was fighting pretty hard to remain a player in this one whether he remembers it or not. Scary stuff.

I was at work the morning of 9/11 and remember walking past a TV in our Traffic Management Unit tuned to the first tower crash as I made my way to the area. I had no idea nor did anybody else about what would soon unfold. I assumed it was a small, single engine plane that got off course and crashed into the tower. Some time later Dave Holtorf came around to the sectors and told us to stop all departures. About that time Jim Niemann offered me a break from sector 26 which covers much of Nebraska including Offutt Air Force Base where President Bush would arrive a few hours later. "Sure, I'll go" I said to Jim. Who could have imagined?

I can't think of any other notable situations off the top of my head that I've been involved in during my career. If I have no more to add to this collection by the time I retire I'd be fine with that.


Tim said...

I remember the A-7 incident as well.

After the accident part of the "talk around the water cooler" was how ironic it was that the mid-air occurred.

Apparently the reporter (Ward Bushee) had previously written that he believed the flights were dangerous to those on the ground in Iowa. So the Air National Guard gave him an opportunity to ride along during their training so they could show him how safe the flights were.

I guess they showed him alright...

Anyway, after the accident I remember people saying that the reporter ended up writing a favorable article anyway (can't confirm that though).

I wonder if this is the same Ward Bushee (on January 25, 2008 he was named executive vice president and editor of the San Francisco Chronicle).

Regardless, you've got your share of "war stories". In 18+ years of working traffic I'm fortunate so far to yet have been involved in a bad incident (knock on wood), although I've watched plenty.

Although you've definitely got some years working traffic on me (ole' timer), I must have good luck in that regard. That reminds me to try and stay away from you in the control room; don't want any of your mojo! ;-)

I was also working on 9/11 that morning, and was a developmental A-side during the start of the UAL232 accident at Sioux City. I was on break when the flight actually crashed and watched the news on TV.

It was an eye-opener for me as a trainee, because I had witnessed a lot of controllers working a lot of emergencies that had all turned out OK. So I hadn't given much thought to the possible outcomes of an emergency until then.

I think that most radar controllers don't think of the "blips" as aircraft with people on them. I think it's more just because it's not relevant to what we do really; we just keep the targets apart.

It's when bad things happen that we realize there's people on board, and usually that's after the fact. Fortunately most of the time during an emergency we are too busy doing our jobs to think about it.

But afterwards controllers get to think lots about those incidents...

Kevin said...

As I was writing this last night I had one thought which kept occurring: I'm overdue for another incident. Let's hope my intuition is wrong.

I'm pretty sure you found the right Ward Bushee, Tim. I sent him an email asking if he had a copy of the article he wrote about his experience and if I could use it here. I also invited him to comment here if he'd like. That would be nice.

pdog said...

"As I was writing this last night I had one thought which kept occurring: I'm overdue for another incident. Let's hope my intuition is wrong."

Why don't you just retire and save us all the headache. That and you have a better schedule then me.