Amateur Pilot Guided by Hero Controllers

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There are some 14,000 air traffic controllers guiding the 5,000 planes that are in the skies over the United States at any given time.

When one of those controllers does something wrong, we - that is the press and the public - can and rightly do criticize them. Consider the case of the controller who allowed his children to issue directions to pilots at New York's JFK International Airport earlier this year.

When controllers do something right, something extraordinarily right, we should praise them.

On a busy Easter Sunday last year, Lisa Grimm, an air traffic controller at the Miami Air Route Traffic Control Center heard these words crackle over the radio: "My pilot's deceased … I need help."

The voice belonged to Doug White, a passenger in a King Air 200. His wife and two daughters were in the back of the plane. The pilot had fallen ill and died at 10,000 feet. White was a private pilot, but had never flown an aircraft as big and powerful as the twin-engine turboprop that he now assumed control of.

Listen to Doug White's emergency call.

"We're going to have you hand-fly the plane," Grimm told White as the aircraft continued to climb. "Hold the yoke level and disengage the autopilot."

"Alright, I disengaged it. I'm flying the airplane by hand," White said. "You find me the longest, widest runway you can, ma'am."

That's exactly what Grimm did. As fellow Miami controllers Nathan Henkels and Jessica Anaya rerouted planes to clear a path for the King Air, Grimm guided White toward Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers and helped him begin his descent.

"Alright, November Five Delta Whiskey, we're gonna start a slow, shallow descent.[…] Pull back slightly on the throttle and just ease over the yoke gently," Grimm instructed.

Listen to air traffic controllers guide Doug White toward the runway.

As the aircraft descended, Grimm reassured its nervous pilot. "We're gonna bring you around to Fort Myers. They've got the longer runway … You're gonna do fine."

"I'm in the good Lord's hands flying this," White said a few minutes later, as the plane continued to descend. Actually, he was now in the hands of Fort Myers air traffic controller Brian Norton, who, with the help of fellow Fort Myers controllers Dan Favio and Carey Meadows, and a flight instructor that Favio reached on the phone, helped White configure the plane for landing and lined it up on that runway.

"It'll be runway six," Norton told White. "It's a 12,000 foot runway so you're going to have plenty of runway to work with … It's all yours."

"I think I see a runway at twelve o'clock," White said.

"That's correct," Norton confirmed. "You're looking at the right runway."

As the King Air approached, Norton reassured the pilot, "Looks good from here. Good job."

"It ain't over 'till it's over, friend," White quipped. Then moments later, Norton knew it was over when the relieved pilot told him, "We're down, buddy. Thank you."

"Nice work," Norton said. But the nice work wasn't done just by the pilot that day. It was also done by the controllers. All six of them involved in the harrowing incident will be receive the National Air Traffic Controller Association's Archie League Medal of Safety Award on Monday.

Dale Wright, a former controller and current safety and technology director for NATCA said the incident was the most impressive flight assist he has ever seen in his 36 years of experience in air traffic control. Doug White, no doubt, would agree.

"When something good happens, air traffic controllers don't get the high-five and the 'attaboys'," said White. "I'm going to give them the 'attaboy'."

And so should we.

  • Carter Yang

    Carter Yang is a Washington, D.C.-based producer for the CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley. He covers aviation and transportation.