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Fri, Oct 30, 2009

Controllers Help Passenger Fly Plane

Hypoxia Temporarily Incapacitated Pilot

This is a long story, but a very instructional read, and a good job done by the controllers, as well as the young woman who found herself an accidental pilot in command.

When the pilot of a small plane reported an oxygen problem over Ohio last week and asked to “lose some altitude,” Ron Lewis, an air traffic controller at Indianapolis Center, responded immediately.

He told the pilot to descend to 17,000 feet from 23,000 feet, and asked him what altitude he wanted.

Twelve-thousand feet, the pilot said. Lewis instructed him to descend and maintain 11,000 feet, gave him the altimeter reading at Columbus International Airport and asked if he needed any other assistance.

“Negative,” the pilot responded.

Then nothing happened. Despite Lewis's repeated calls to the pilot, the Cessna 400  didn't descend.

About five minutes later, a woman's voice came on the radio: “We cannot figure out how to descend. And I don't think my dad's feeling very well.”

Hypoxia had set in. The pilot’s body was deprived of oxygen, and he was left feeling confused and disoriented. The controllers at Indianapolis Center aren’t sure that he passed out completely, but he was in no shape to fly the plane.

His daughter, who had no pilot’s training, had to take over. With careful coaching from the Indianapolis Center and a nearby private pilot, the woman was able to fly the airplane to a lower altitude where the distressed pilot recovered enough to eventually land the plane safely.

“This was truly a perfect example of aviators assisting aviators in a very tense, potentially tragic situation,” said Randy Smith, the air traffic manager at Indianapolis Center. “We’ve had two or three similar situations in the last year or so that have not turned out well. This was perfect.”

For Lewis and his colleagues, what began as a routine request soon tested their persistence, resourcefulness and aeronautical knowledge.

About a minute after he told the pilot to descend, Lewis instructed him to switch to a different frequency as he was about to fly into another sector. The pilot read back the new frequency, but didn’t switch his radio. And he still didn’t descend.Then the women’s voice came on the radio and the controllers had confirmation that they did indeed have a situation to handle.

After several more radio exchanges, in which the pilot seemed to drift in and out of lucidity, the pilot's daughter began talking to the controllers.

File Photo

The pilot “was just having a hard time trying to figure out what was going on,” said Rodney Riggs, support manager at Indianapolis Center. “He couldn’t get his mind to work for the aircraft to descend.”

The pilot’s daughter had never flown before and sounded flustered, according to Bill Walker, another air traffic controller at Indianapolis Center who stepped in to help Lewis.

But she had to learn how to operate the plane quickly, otherwise she might become just as disoriented as her dad.

“I was concerned that what had happened to him was going to quickly happen to her,” Walker said.

Fortunately, Walker is a private pilot and familiar with the aircraft. And another pilot flying in the area who knew the navigation equipment in the plane volunteered to help.

For 15 minutes or so, Walker and the other pilot, Jimmy Foote, orchestrated a high-altitude distance-learning seminar.

“Since he had already passed out and she didn’t seem like she was on top of her game either, we figured she didn’t have much longer herself,” Foote said. “So really we didn’t have much choice but to kick that autopilot off and get her down best we knew how.”

The biggest obstacle at first was telling the woman how to turn off the autopilot so she would be able to fly to a lower altitude.

Foote “tried to get her to disconnect the autopilot by looking for a disconnect switch on the pilot’s yoke,” Walker said. “But she didn’t even know what the term yoke meant. So we had to go back to basics to help her out.”

Foote walked her through adjusting the trim, which turned off the autopilot, and the throttle in a “nice, slow Southern drawl” that Walker thinks helped calm the woman. “And she settled in to a nice 600- to 700-foot-per-minute rate of decent,” Walker said.

“The only thing I knew to do was to get her to bump the electric trim on the yoke and just knock [the autopilot] off line and try to get her to ease the power back just enough to give her a stable approach down,” Foote said. “And fortunately for everybody, it worked.”

Meanwhile, Walker and Lewis got the woman and assisting pilot alone on a radio frequency and kept the airspace clear.

Since the plane had flown into another sector, Walker coordinated with the controllers who were managing that airspace.

“It was a group effort. There were five or six people in constant coordination just to keep the planes away from what we were doing,” Walker said. “We split the sector in two, and some surrounding sectors took one or two of the planes.”

To complicate matters, Walker was also giving Foote, who had been flying from northern Ohio to Tupelo, Miss., vectors to make sure he stayed close enough to continue to help.

And controllers at Indianapolis Center called Columbus Tower, where a controller with a pilot’s license was standing by in case a landing there was necessary.

As the plane descended through 16,000 feet, the distressed pilot came back on the radio and said he wanted to continue on to his destination of Stafford, Va.

“I didn’t want to be a hindrance to his situation, so I said that’s fine, let’s just get you back on course,” Walker recalled.

But the pilot stopped responding again. And after Walker called twice, the pilot’s daughter was the one who responded.

She continued to fly the plane until they reached 14,000 feet, at which point the pilot took over for good.

It took him a while to become fully aware of what was happening and he initially wanted to continue flying to Virginia.

“He was in constant communication below 14,000 feet and he sounded a little slow until he got very low,” Walker said. “The other controllers who I spoke to afterward said until he got down to about six or seven thousand feet, he was a little slow on the transmissions,  and really, really wanted to go home.”

But Walker strongly advised him to land at a Zanesville Municipal Airport in eastern Ohio, where the pilot made a safe, straight-in approach to Runway 22 about an hour after entering Indianapolis Center’s airspace.

Riggs said the Indianapolis Center will put together a briefing on the event for all its controllers. And the facility will continue to keep controllers aware of the signs and dangers of hypoxia.



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