Three air traffic controllers received a national award in March for saving the life of a pilot and passenger in a small plane.
The three men — Carlton Wickstrom, Aaron Fones and Brian Bond — are controllers for the Phoenix Terminal Approach Control Facility, called TRACON, at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.
The group, which met with media Tuesday, received the Archie League Medal of Safety Award on March 22 for outstanding controller work, the nation’s highest honor for controllers.
On Jan. 20, 2016, Wickstrom made contact with a pilot flying a Cessna 172S, a small aircraft, who was having trouble maintaining proper altitude amid harsh weather and low visibility en route to Goodyear.
Wickstrom, along with the other controllers, convinced the pilot that changing route and landing in Prescott would be a safer alternative than continuing her route.
Over about a 40-minute time frame, all four gave detailed instructions on the exact speed, angles of turns and directions to take the aircraft in order to land at the Prescott airport.
“They basically had to fly it for her,” said Richard Mulliner, a fellow controller for Phoenix TRACON.
Priding themselves on being the “calm voice” for pilots in distress, Wickstrom said the team effort was not easy and that a slew of high-fives and celebration occurred after they confirmed her safe landing.
“It’s a little nerve-racking. You’re sitting there and a pilot actually is wondering if they’re going to continue the flight safely, or if they’re going to make an emergency landing, or something worse,” he said.
All four men in the team giving directions were trained pilots, which Mulliner said was essential in allowing the pilot to safely direct her plane. Air traffic controllers are not required to be trained pilots in order to achieve certification, he said.
Wickstrom said the collective experience of the group was crucial in giving proper instruction to the pilot.
“We know what it’s like to sit there on a turbulent day and try to fly an aircraft while it’s bouncing around. It’s tricky,” he said.
Doug Hart, the air traffic manager, insisted that if controllers are doing their job properly, the pilots they are helping do not realize how difficult the job is.
“We did take a phone call from the lady herself, just to make sure she was safe,” he said, adding, “I don’t know if she recognized the dire consequences, or the trouble she could have been in.”
The Archie League Medal of Safety Award recipients are the first for Phoenix’s station, and the group considered the award an honor, but not something to aspire to.
“We don’t generally go looking for this kind of publicity or kudos, we’re just happy to do our job,” Wickstrom said. “If we never win this award again I’ll be happy.”
He said small tasks and near-saves are a regular occurrence for controllers, who just want to see pilots go home after landing. This “save” was merely one that gained more publicity.
“We show up the next day and do it all again,” he said.
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