Monday, July 4, 2011

Air Traffic Controllers Usually Do An Outstanding Job

Just recently the quick thinking of an air traffic controller in the Midwest saved the life of an older couple in a high flying Cirrus. You probably have heard or read about it. As the controller was communicating with the pilot, he noticed that the pilots speech became slurred. To the controller that meant one thing, probable hypoxia. The plane was at 17000 feet, and was unpressurized. So, if the pilot and passenger were on oxygen, maybe something wasn’t working right.

The controller immediately shifted his focus to this pilot, in spite of working numerous other aircraft. He was able to talk with the pilot's wife, in the right seat, a non pilot. She had to take over the controls, which in this case meant learning to work the autopilot. She accomplished that with with the help of a nearby commuter turboprop pilot who followed along, assisting in this dramatic rescue. The goal of the controller was to have the plane descend to a lower altitude so the increased oxygen in the air would revive the pilot. This plan worked and finally the pilot was able to resume control of the plane and safely land as the hypoxia cleared.

In my opinion, this is juxtaposed to the mishandling of an A36 pilot in the mountains of the southeast by ATC. In that case a somewhat rusty, questionably skilled instrument pilot was placed on a vector into high terrain, below a safe altitude, and wasn’t alerted before he augured in. The official NTSB report doesn’t clearly define who was responsible, only that the pilot did not request specific flight following to warn of low terrain. Yes, there were some extenuating circumstances, but I believe them to be poor excuses. The bottom line is that a pilot crashed and burned on ATC’s watch.

OK, now compare this to the first example. Rather than consider who was responsible for the condition of the pilot ie. pilot or controller, the controller intervened immediately. Thus began a successful scenario that ultimately saved all aboard. ( By the way this dramatic event is available on the FAA website under Accident and Incident Data: Air Traffic Control Tapes-Cirrus, May 11, 2011)

My personal experiences with ATC have almost always been positive. I had some rather scary scenarios early in my career. For example, a flight between Syracuse and Boston in a Cherokee 140 almost ended in disaster. It was a long flight with deteriorating weather along the route. ATC helped out by suggesting a course of action that got us on the ground before the fuel ran out. Other times, a helpful vector or a shortened approach in bad weather, or a heads up warning of low terrain were greatly appreciated by me. That is why I felt so bad when I read about the crash of the plane in the mountains, an area I have flown in many times.

ATC does an outstanding job everyday, handling thousands of flights safely. Their fine work mostly goes unnoticed. So, when there is a goof, why not step up to the plate, accept some blame and then FIX the problem?

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