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Houston Air Traffic Controller Helps Save Pilot's Life

Discussion in 'FAA - Federal Aviation Administration' started by Tom, Oct 24, 2015.

  1. Tom

    Tom New Member

    On the morning of October 20, 2015, Mr. Steven Zepeda, an air traffic controller at Houston Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON), provided an outstanding flight assist to a VFR only rated pilot that encountered IMC. Mrs. Dayna Tillery, another air traffic controller, provided crucial support to Mr. Zepeda so he could focus his attention on the emergency aircraft. Marty Gutsche, a Front Line Manager (FLM) at Houston TRACON, combined two positions together to allow for an experienced multi-engine, instrument rated pilot (Mr. Hugh McFarland recipient of last years Best ATC save award) to be relieved to provide Zepeda with additional support as well. Several other controllers present in the TRACON during the incident assisted in many ways allowing for Zepeda to handle the aircraft without incident. This was a true definition of an outstanding team effort.

    The actions of these controllers that morning prevented an almost certain fatal outcome for the pilot of N8214E. VFR aircraft entering IMC is among one of the dangerous scenarios a pilot can face and often times leads to loss of situational awareness and loss of control of the aircraft.

    N8214E a PA32 was VFR and en route to Galveston Scholes Field (KGLS). Weather around the Houston area had been marginal VFR most of the morning. There were several cloud layers and some airports had reported ceilings around 1,000 ft. At the time N8214E was inbound to KGLS the reported cloud layer was scattered at 900 ft. and a broken cloud layer of 1500 ft. Air Traffic Control advised the VFR only rated pilot of this and the pilot advised he would start a descent from 7500 ft. to get below the clouds. N8214E had to continue down to near 1,000 ft. just to remain VFR. When the pilot was approximately 30 miles from his destination he was handed off to Mr. Zepeda that was working the approach sector responsible for KGLS airport. The previous controller working N8214E (Mr. Anthony Blount) advised Zepeda that the aircraft was not IFR qualified.

    Mr. Zepeda had been aware of the weather conditions in the area and even previous to working N8214E, Zepeda provided another VFR aircraft outstanding service by suggesting to the aircraft to return for landing rather than attempt to fly to an airport with marginal VFR weather. Mr. Zepeda knew that more attention would need to be focused on N8214E, so after the pilot initially checked on, Zepeda focused on getting other aircraft that weren’t a priority off his frequency so he could focus his attention on N8214E. Once Zepeda went back to N8214E he determined that the aircraft could not maintain VFR. Mrs. Tillery, sitting right beside Zepeda, overheard this interaction and immediately advised the supervisor to come and assist with the developing situation. Knowing that Zepeda would need to focus all his attention on N8214E, Mrs. Tillery called every airport that could potentially release an aircraft to Zepeda and advised them to hold releases and stop departures. Tillery also called Houston Air Route Traffic Control Center and advised them to put any aircraft that would have been routed to Zepeda on her frequency in order to decrease Zepeda’s workload (Zepeda was responsible for close to 8,000 square miles of airspace at the time the incident started). Mr. Zepeda, stated that he would not have been able to provide this flight assist if it wasn’t for the help of Mrs. Tillery.

    After Mr. Zepeda could refocus his attention to N8214E, he advised the pilot that the weather at KGLS was diminishing and asked the pilot his intentions. The pilot nervously responded to Zepeda that he would do whatever Zepeda wanted him to do. Mr. Zepeda learned that the pilot’s visibility was poor and he had no ground contact. At this time, Mr. McFarland plugged in beside Zepeda to provide additional assistance from a pilot’s perspective. Mr. McFarland asked Zepeda to query the pilot about his fuel situation. The pilot responded that the fuel situation wasn’t very good and only about 40 gallons of fuel remaining. Mr. Zepeda made a decision to vector the aircraft to Ellington Field (KEFD) as it was only about 10 miles away and clear of obstructions and Zepeda had recently worked another aircraft into that airport.

    After Zepeda initially issued a few vectors to the pilot of N8214E, Mr. Zepeda realized that the pilot was most likely disoriented. Zepeda decided to issue the aircraft “no gyro” vectors and advised the pilot to keep his wings level as well. There were several other occasions where the pilot was disorientated and Zepeda continued to provide assistance to ensure the aircraft would get on the ground safely. During this time, Mrs. Tillery was in contact with KEFD tower coordinating and making the decision with the to declare the aircraft an emergency. She even ensured she coordinated the Opposite Direction Operation (ODO) phraseology correctly so as not to give the FLM more work to do by filing an MOR about improper ODO practices.

    Zepeda continued to provide “no gyro” vectors to N8214E for approximately five minutes in IMC and advised the aircraft that he would attempt to vector him over the field and the aircraft could enter a downwind for a runway of his choice once the field was in sight. After several attempts of pointing the aircraft towards KEFD the pilot got the airport in sight approximately 1.5 miles south of the airport and around 700ft MSL. KEFD tower gave Mr. Zepeda permission to clear N8214E to land on any runway.

    Shortly after the aircraft landed safely at KEFD, the weather officially diminished over the airport to IFR with a ceiling of 600ft. It is because of the actions of Mr. Zepeda and Mrs. Tillery, and the support of many other air traffic controllers at Houston TRACON that the pilot is safe today. Mr. Zepeda stated that this wouldn’t have been possible without the assistance he had from his former trainer and mentor Mrs. Tillery. The whole incident took approximately 20 minutes until the pilot was safe on the ground.
    Last edited: Oct 26, 2015
    chris pham likes this.

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