Heroes in the Tower
Stories about air traffic controllers that you probably didn’t see on the evening news.
- By Michael Klesius
- Air & Space magazine, September 2011
(Page 2 of 4)
It was a private pilot, Skye Turner, 23, and he sounded anxious. Turner was alone in a Cirrus SR22, no. N443CP; later, Boyle would learn that Turner had stolen the airplane from Montgomery Field in San Diego after a fight with his girlfriend, and planned to commit suicide by flying it into the ocean. Now he was reconsidering. But he was not qualified to fly on instruments, and wasn’t trained for the Cirrus.
Boyle calmly directed him toward Los Angeles International Airport. It took some doing because Boyle had to force Turner down into a cloud layer at about 3,600 feet: “I’ll take you out on a nice, long, drawn-out approach, and we’ll descend real gradually,” Boyle told him. “On your present heading, start a VFR [visual flight rules] descent to 2,500 [feet altitude], and with your descent rate we’ll just see what we can do on your present heading of 270 [degrees].”
“He didn’t quite get the whole descending thing,” Boyle says today. “That’s when he kind of lost it for a bit there, got very concerned, dropped a few expletives on the frequency as he was panicking.” Turner climbed back above the featureless cloud deck. He turned north, after which Boyle coaxed him back around for a new approach.
This time Turner stuck with the descent, assisted by the airplane’s autopilot and its GPS, which locked onto the airport’s localizer, a key part of its instrument landing system. The Cirrus popped out the bottom of the cloud deck and made it to the runway, but Turner failed to get on the ground. Boyle had to give the pilot quick instructions: “Three Charlie Papa, make left traffic. There’s a dune that’s west there that’s a couple hundred feet higher. So make left traffic for runway 25-Left.”
After a go-around, Turner landed. Boyle told him to turn off the runway. “I asked him, ‘You okay?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I’m okay.’ Then he said, ‘I can see the cars coming over, and I see the…police cars.”
“I’m like Hmm, sounds kinda funny,” says Boyle. “I said, ‘Whatever. Contact the tower.’ So I go about my business. I’ve got other airplanes.”
The full story would emerge in the following days. Turner had been a pilot, but his license had lapsed. He had taken off in San Diego a couple hours earlier under clear skies, made a stop in Palm Springs, then taken off again. Says Boyle: “He looks down and he can’t see anything but clouds, and it’s like Maybe I am gonna kill myself.” And likely others on the ground.
But not on Boyle’s watch.
Ten months after Chesley Sullenberger lost both engines of his U.S. Airways A320 to a flock of geese, Frontier Airlines flight 820 experienced a similar misfortune. As it climbed out of Kansas City International Airport around 7 p.m. on Saturday, November 14, 2009, the Airbus A319, carrying 124 passengers, suffered a bird strike, probably snow geese, at 4,000 feet. Somehow, one of the airplane’s engines kept running.
That’s when cool-headed controller Jessica Hermsdorfer, 27, working terminal approach radar in the airport’s tower, fielded the transmission no controller wants. “Mayday, mayday, Frontier 820,” the pilot radioed. “Multiple bird strikes.”
The number-two engine had caught fire. “We’ve got severe damage [to] number-two engine, possible one engine as well.”
Hermsdorfer gave the pilot a new heading to get the airplane started back toward the airport. She then saw that she had another airplane already based for final approach, so she redirected him: “Lindbergh seventy-four fifty-three, I’m going to turn you out. I want to get the emergency aircraft inbound first and then I’ll bring you in. Climb and maintain 5,000, turn left heading one-five-zero.”
She remembers today: “He  might have beat him [Frontier] at the time, but it had me worried because I didn’t know how much control he had over the aircraft. I didn’t want to put them that close to each other.” She also slowed down another flight, an Express Jet 2409, also headed for final approach.
Hermsdorfer brought the damaged Frontier down to 3,000 feet. She directed the pilot to turn left to a heading of 90 degrees. She spoke calmly and quickly.