Heroes in the Tower

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

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

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.”

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