NATCA hosts annual ‘Communicating For Safety‘ convention and honors the air traffic controllers who went above and beyond durning the last year.
Last week I was honored to attend the National Air Traffic Controllers Association’s (NATCA) premier safety convention, ‘Communicating For Safety’ (CFS). The annual event drew 1,400 people from across the country. Attendees included hundreds of NATCA air traffic controllers, FAA management, and hundreds more from the aviation industry worldwide.
CFS is broken into two parts. One part is a convention where NATCA, the FAA, and the aviation industry show how they are working together to make the National Airspace System more efficient and safer for everyone involved. The second part is NATCA’s Archie League Medal of Safety Awards, which highlights some of the best lifesaving moments by NATCA controllers from across the country.
The safety convention part of CFS was as diverse as the people who attended the convention. They had industry leaders, like Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, who talked about new equipment they are designing to make it easier for controllers to interface with their radar equipment.
NATCA President Paul Rinaldi spoke at length about the political issues facing the National Airspace System. NATCA and many other unions have been pushing back against the ‘sequester’ that is slowly starving federal organizations like the FAA. The political gridlock in Washington is making it harder for controllers to do their jobs: major staffing shortages, cuts to equipment acquisitions budgets, and cuts to general maintenance budgets. Politicians are putting unnecessary risk into the world’s most complex – but still the safest – air traffic system in the world.
The main focus of the CFS convention was to get real controllers together and talk openly about some of the issues facing controllers in the workforce. These issues are the same as elsewhere in the transportation industry: including fatigue, workload-overload, complacency and distractions (i.e. cell phones and text messaging). Controllers and managers discussed solutions to these problems.
The Archie League Medal of Safety Awards
The Communicating for Safety convention concluded with NATCA’s annual Archie League Medal of Safety Awards banquet. Archie League was credited as the first air traffic controller, who used two flags to signal pilots at the St. Louis Airport when it was safe to land. NATCA honors Archie and his vision for a safer air traffic system, by highlighting some of the most dramatic, and lifesaving moments by air traffic controllers over the past year.
NATCA President Paul Rinaldi opened the awards banquet by saying, “Tonight you will laugh, you will cry, and most of all you will feel pride for your profession.” And boy, was he right.
Watching these events unfold would make most people cringe, and vow to never fly again, until that moment where the air traffic controller comes in to save the day. In Alaska, it was the quick thinking of the Anchorage Center controllers who used a pair of military bombers to help them make contact a lost airplane that was below their radio coverage. In Miami, controllers averted disaster as an air carrier mistakenly taxied onto an active runway, just after another aircraft was cleared for takeoff. In Houston, Stewart Pearcy helped guide the pilot of a single-engine Cessna 172 to safety, after the pilot was caught by a fast moving storm.
Jared Mike from Seattle Terminal Radar Approach Control safely guided a pilot through the steep mountaintops of Washington State, with precise vectors to Boeing Field, a small airport where the plane could land. The entire time the pilot, Philip Bush, who admitted at the event that this flight “was the scariest moment in his entire life”, kept informing the controller that he could not see out front windows of the airplane because they were covered in ice. Bush told the crowd of over 1,500 people that while he was trying to safely navigate through the mountains “it was the calming voice of Jared that helped him get through”.
Some of the presentations showed how controllers’ quick actions and professionalism during a crisis saved additional lives.
Last year Asiana flight 214 crashed at the San Francisco Airport. Even as the tragic event unfolded, the controllers rerouted other aircraft that were on approach to the airport, and notified emergency services to get the fire equipment on the scene.
Listening to the audio replay from that day, you could hear the tears in the voice of Alexis Shirkey as she informed the surrounding air traffic facilities that the San Francisco Airport was closed due to an aircraft accident.
As the plane burst into flames, the smoke filled the sky. Controllers in the tower watched in horror as the smoke rose and began to obscure their view of the crash site. It was not until emergency crews arrived that the controllers in the tower knew that anyone had survived at all.
In fact, 307 passengers and crew from the Asiana flight survived the crash. A brief moment of silence was held for the three people who lost their lives in that tragic crash.
If it was not for the quick action from this dedicated group of professionals, there is no telling how bad this could have been. Their teamwork during this crisis showed what true professionals these men and women are.
The final award given at the Banquet is called the President’s Award. This is the NATCA President’s choice for the best of the best this year. NATCA President Paul Rinaldi had to choose between all of the dramatic life saving award winners and pick the one he thought was the best. As you can see this was no easy task.
This year the Presidents Award went to Nunzio DiMillo from Boston’s Logan Airport. Nunzio was working in the tower around 7pm on Sept 27th of last year. This was a pretty typical day for Nunzio and all of the controllers at Boston Tower, with multiple aircraft looking to depart, and a line of aircraft waiting to land.
One of those aircraft waiting to depart was a Jet Blue Airlines Embraer (E)190. The regional jet, which holds around 100 passengers, requested permission to depart and was taxing to the end of the takeoff end of the runway. At the same time, Nunzio was working a small Cirrus (SR22) who was lining up to land, before the Jet Blue aircraft would be cleared for takeoff on the same runway.
As the Cirrus began to get closer to the runway end, Nunzio could tell something was wrong. Nunzio a veteran controller of 23 years, quickly checked his tower radar to confirm his suspicions. The Cirrus was not lined up for the runway, but was actually about to land on the taxiway that the Jet Blue E190 was currently occupying.
Nunzio quickly told the Cirrus to ‘Go Around! Go Around!’ The Cirrus pilot did not question Nunzio; he gave the plane max power and initiated a climb.
T.R. Wood was the pilot of the Jet Blue E190 who saw the Cirrus coming at him and knew there was not much he could do to avoid it. Wood tried to maneuver the E190 off the side of the taxiway in hopes to minimize the impact with the Cirrus. He heard the plane power up, and said as the plane passed overhead the sound from the propeller driven aircraft was “deafening”.
Wood told the crowd that his self-defense maneuver would not have saved the E190 if Nunzio had not acted. In fact Wood talked about how his wife, and the mother of his children, was sitting right where the Cirrus would have impacted the E190.
When a complete review of the event was conducted, the Cirrus came within 30 feet of colliding with the Jet Blue aircraft. After this event, Nunzio the consummate professional, continued to work the busy traffic session. He worked over 90 aircraft in the hour surrounding the near disaster.
(You can see Nunzio’s acceptance speech of the Presidents Award and hear the full story from Capt Wood by clicking here.)
All of these controllers got up and accepted their awards, most of which had similar acceptance speeches. They all thanked their co-workers, because air traffic controllers are part of a team. They rely on each other, and they help each other in times of crisis. They other thing they all said was, “I was just doing my job.” Every one of these controllers went above and beyond to ensure the safety of these pilots and passengers – and all they can say is, “I was just doing my job.”
(You can view all of the award winners acceptance speeches and the video replays of their award winning events thanks to NATCA, here.)
As a member of the flying public, I would like to thank all the members of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association for their hard work and dedication to make air travel the safest form of transportation in the world.
NATCA, thank you for all you do!