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At Amsterdam's Schipol airport in the Netherlands, air traffic controllers oversaw 386,000 takeoffs and landings last year. (Mark Brouwer)

Heroes in the Tower

Stories about air traffic controllers that you probably didn’t see on the evening news.

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THEY HAVE GOTTEN some bad press this year, but there’s a lot to love about air traffic controllers. While pilots get big credit for feats like landing airliners on rivers, air traffic controllers are tasked with keeping these pilots, literally, in line. From one month to the next, the 15,500 controllers of U.S. civilian air traffic regularly make countless little saves, and some big ones. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association recognizes some of these saves annually with an award named for Archie League, who became the nation’s first air traffic controller when he was hired by the city of St. Louis in 1929. But the details of most controller achievements don’t get much news coverage.

From This Story

Perhaps the stories here will get you thinking, the next time you’re on a flight, about who’s looking out for you down below.

LET'S IMPROVISE
In the late summer of 1952, Bob Tracy, a 23-year-old U.S. Air Force technical sergeant, was manning the tower at Thule Air Base on Greenland’s northwest coast, 695 miles north of the Arctic Circle. The sun hadn’t yet set when he received a call from a Royal Air Force Lincoln bomber flying over the ice cap from Scotland. The crew were lost.

At extreme latitudes, a compass is useless. “The magnetic north pole was actually southwest of us about a thousand miles,” says Tracy, now retired in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. For navigation purposes, the region was divided into a grid. “Each runway up there had a grid heading,” he says, “and you just got out on the runway and set your gyro[scope] on that grid heading. So that’s how you oriented yourself. With the maps.”

The crew had drifted off course, or thought they had. Tracy seems to recall that their gyro had failed. Once night fell, they’d be flying blind. They spoke of bailing out, or, if they could find the edge of the ice, ditching.

Tracy told them to drop those ideas. He had just written the standard operating procedures for Thule, and the number-one rule, he says, was “You do not bail out unless the airplane’s on fire. Your chances of survival were almost nil before you froze to death.”

Thule was half-completed, and had only a low-frequency, non-directional radio beacon. The range of its ground control approach radar was just 30 nautical miles.

But Tracy knew the Air Force was building a powerful radar station about four miles north, part of the DEW (Distant Early Warning) Line. Stretching across the far north, from Alaska to the Faroe Islands, these stations were intended to detect a Soviet air strike coming over the pole. Tracy had heard the station was in its test phase.

He made some calls. “You’ve seen in the movies where they operate these field phones, where you turn the crank?” he asks. “That was our phone system, and all the wires were just lying on the ground, on the permafrost, all over the base. They weren’t even on telephone poles. It was a real hootie-cow operation.”

He reached some technicians who were able to operate the new station. “They got in their jeeps and went up there and fired up that radar.”

They found the Lincoln, more than a hundred miles north of the base. Using a method for an airplane with no gyro, Tracy vectored the air crew. “Start a standard-rate turn left now,” he said, working off the DEW Line crew’s information. The pilot would make a turn equivalent to one needle width on the turn indicator. “Stop turn,” Tracy said.

“A few of these put the airplane on a general heading pointed toward us,” recalls Tracy. When the Lincoln drew within 30 miles of the base, the approach radars took over.

Now there was a new problem: The sun had set, and the sky was overcast. With no working lights, the 10,000-foot runway was good for day landings only. “But there’s trucks all over this place, building the place,” says Tracy. The crews were eating dinner. Tracy and the base operations officer put out the call. All the drivers scrambled back to their trucks, lined the runway, and turned on their lights. Minutes later, the Lincoln landed safely. It had an hour and a half worth of fuel left. “They’d been talking about ditching with three hours of fuel,” says Tracy, incredulous.

PANIC IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT
On February 19, 2010, Dan Boyle, 50, was working the graveyard shift at the Southern California Tracon (Terminal Radar Approach Control—a type of air traffic control facility) in San Diego when he got an ominous transmission. “Basically, when somebody calls you at 2:30 a.m. and they’re not landing at L.A., you know there’s something wrong,” he says.

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.

GOOSED AGAIN
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 [7453] 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.

“Frontier 820, you’re seven miles from the final approach fix; turn left heading zero-four-zero. Maintain three thousand until established on the localizer, cleared ILS [instrument landing system] Runway One Left Approach.” A moment later, the airplane touched down safely.

Hermsdorfer credits her training as an air traffic controller for the U.S. Air Force. “You have an emergency every day in the Air Force, it seems,” she says. “Flameouts and things like that. But this one by far was the scariest I’d ever had. Just because of the pilot’s voice, I could tell it was more serious than anything I’d ever dealt with. I can’t recall ever hearing anybody say ‘Mayday’ before.”

Once the airplane was on the ground, she still had two hours left of her eight-hour shift. “You just kinda get back to work,” she says. “When something like this happens, you’ve got to kind of push it to the back of your mind and keep on going. I still had those other two that needed to come in right behind him. So I just kept working.”

For her cool, Hermsdorfer won the 2010 Archie League Medal of Safety Award for the central region.

THE DAY THE PILOT DIED
“I’ve gotta declare an emergency. My pilot’s…unconscious. I need help up here.” The desperate call came to Miami Center on Easter Sunday in April 2009. The pilot of a Super King Air 200, no. N559DW, had fallen unconscious and soon died, apparently from a heart attack, while flying four passengers from Marco Island, Florida, to Jackson, Mississippi. The voice belonged to Doug White, who sat in the other front seat. “My pilot’s deceased…. I need help.” With White’s wife and two teenage daughters in the back, White took over the controls of the King Air, which was climbing rapidly. Though trained to fly single-engine airplanes, White was not certified in the larger, twin-engine turboprop King Air.

Miami Center controller Jessica Anaya immediately rerouted all airplanes in the area. Nathan Henkels and Lisa Grimm began to instruct White, helping him deactivate the autopilot to stop his ascent. “You find me the longest, widest runway you can, ma’am,” White said, and Grimm obliged, sending him toward the Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers. It had a 12,000-foot runway, which served as a backup landing site for the space shuttle. “November niner Delta Whiskey, just so you know what we’re doing here, we’re gonna get you down to one-one thousand,” said Grimm. “We’re gonna give you a turn to the west, we’re gonna hand you off to Fort Myers Approach….”

At Fort Myers, controller Brian Norton was about to head home when his supervisor called him back. Dan Favio, another controller, was eating lunch when he heard what was happening and joined Norton. They asked White if he was on autopilot or flying manually. “Me and the good Lord [are] hand-flying this,” said White, a touch of panic in his southern drawl.

Favio, 29, pulled out his cell phone and called a friend, Kari Sorenson, in Danbury, Connecticut. A pilot and flight instructor, Sorenson had thousands of hours in the King Air 200. He pulled out his manuals and told Favio how to configure airspeed, flaps, and trim to prepare for landing. Favio related the details to Norton, and Norton passed them to White. One of the final instructions Norton related: “Nine Delta Whiskey, the last instruction I got, when you get to 150 knots, the flap control will say ‘Approach flaps’ on there. Just select that detent when you get to 150 knots.” About 30 minutes after the crisis began, White landed at Fort Myers. Norton and Favio handed him off to Carey Meadows at ground control, who helped White shut down the airplane.

“You cannot train for this as a pilot or a controller,” says Doug White today. “That’s why they’re so great, because they’re so resourceful. They did stuff that’s not in the book. It’s like being in combat together.”

The six controllers—Anaya, Grimm, Henkels, Favio, Norton, and Meadows—won the southern region’s Archie League Medal of Safety Award for 2009, as well as the President’s Award for the best flight assist in the country. White had his own plaques made for them, and he and Sorenson were invited to the awards ceremony, where they too were honored.

Favio had not memorized Sorenson’s number, but had programmed it into his phone. Shortly after the save, the phone died. “I came out of the radar room and called Kari back to let him know that they did land,” says Favio. “That was the last call that phone made. It didn’t get wet. It didn’t get dropped. It didn’t get anything. It just—that was it.” The next day he headed to a cell phone store. “I went in there to get a battery and came out with a new phone.” The first number he programmed in was Sorenson’s.

THE BIG ONE
On the morning of September 11, 2001, 55-year-old Ben Sliney drove to work at the Federal Aviation Administration’s Air Traffic Control System Command Center in Herndon, Virginia. The center tracks the nation’s airspace and has ultimate authority over all towers, terminal approach controls, and en route centers—stations that pass a flight from one region of the country to the next. “It was a crystal-clear sky,” he recalls. “I’m thinking to myself Good, I won’t have problems with the New York airports. Visibility and ceilings were unlimited from the tip of Florida to the tip of Maine…. I said, This’ll be a great shift.

Sliney had left air traffic control a few times to practice law, most recently at the beginning of the 1990s. In late 2000 he again became a controller. “I had come back three or four times,” he says in a New York accent. He took a seat in Herndon as a rank-and-file operations guy. “I’d been out for 10 years. I said, ‘Let me be a journeyman for a while.’ I wanted to get all the equipment and tools under my belt.” In a year, he was promoted to national operations manager, the top decision maker on the floor. Sliney’s first day on that job was Tuesday, September 11.

At 8:46 a.m. he was on a routine conference call when an airplane struck the north tower of the World Trade Center. Sketchy information followed: American Airlines flight 11, out of Boston, had shut off its transponder, and a flight attendant on board had been stabbed. The military liaison at the command center suggested putting CNN up on one of the screens at the front of the room; the cable network reported that a small airplane had hit the tower.

“I said, ‘That’s no small plane’—the conflagration was huge,” Sliney recalls.

New York controllers reported that the pilots of United 175, also out of Boston, weren’t responding. That airplane’s transponder was still active. At 9:03, the airplane arrived at the tip of Manhattan.

“He made a hard left turn and dove like a manhole cover,” Sliney recalls. On their data screens, he and his staff watched the 767’s altitude plunge, and looked up in disbelief at the screen as the airliner rammed into the south tower. “It was the most horrifying sight I think any air traffic controller could ever see,” he says.

He ordered a ground stop, which keeps flights from taking off, for the entire continental United States. Nationwide, en route centers were told to report any airplane that shut off a transponder, ceased voice contact, or altered course or altitude without clearance. Sliney set up a white board at the front of the room, where his team listed suspect flights. The list included American flight 77 and United flight 93. At 9:37, flight 77 struck the Pentagon, outside Washington, D.C. Sliney ordered the first-ever unplanned grounding of all airplanes in the nation.

“I gave that order, and I had maybe 30 type-A personalities gathered around me—these people wanted to do something,” says Sliney. The controllers ordered all pilots to divert immediately to the nearest airport. “I expected to get a lot of push-back [from pilots],” says Sliney. “Well you know what? I had one specialist come back to me and say, ‘So-and-so wants to know if they can go to this airport instead of that one,’ and I said, ‘No, they have to land at the nearest,’ on the supposition that I don’t know who’s in that cockpit.”

Sliney’s team watched United 93. “It kind of meandered,” he recalls. “It didn’t seem to be heading anywhere until it started toward Washington.” At 10:03 a.m. it went down in a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

By noon, about 4,000 commercial airplanes had landed. It would be two days before any commercial flights were allowed to take off, and then, only on a case-by-case basis. More than a week would pass before general aviation airplanes were allowed to fly under visual flight rules, but with restrictions on airspace.

“When [command center manager] Jack Kies had wanted me to take the job as national ops manager,” recalls Sliney, “I asked him, ‘What is the scope of my authority with regard to the national airspace?’ And he replied that it was unlimited. That figured in my mind when I decided to land everyone. I had asked him directly, and he had told me directly.

“I figured: Look, if it was the wrong decision, what’s the worst thing that would happen? I’d be back practicing law sooner than I expected.” Sliney stuck with the FAA until 2003. Today he is back in New York, once again working as a lawyer.

Michael Klesius is a former Air & Space associate editor.

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