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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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 [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.”

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