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Air-traffic controllers earn praise for a calm assist

By Joe Davidson
Tuesday, March 23, 2010; B03

The next time you hear someone bad-mouthing federal workers as bureaucrats who sit around bemoaning this and that, tell him or her to ask Doug White about Lisa Grimm and Brian Norton.

Grimm, Norton and other air-traffic controllers guided White to safety on April 12, 2009, when the pilot of his plane died during a flight. Grimm, based at the Federal Aviation Administration's Miami center, and Norton, who was in Fort Myers, are among the controllers that the National Air Traffic Controllers Association planned to honor Monday night in Orlando at its sixth annual awards banquet.

Six of the honorees, including Grimm and Norton, helped White after his pilot, Joe Cabuk, died suddenly while flying White's King Air 10-seat, two-engine plane in Miami airspace. White owned the plane as an investment; he did not know how to fly it.

Jessica Anaya, Nathan Henkels, Dan Favio and Carey Meadows also were being honored for assisting White.

White had limited experience as a pilot of a two-seat Cessna, but he said that trying to fly the much larger King Air was like moving from a Volkswagen to an Indy 500 racecar with no training. To fly a King Air 200, pilots need to know how to fly on autopilot, be instrument-rated and be qualified for a multi-engine plane.

"I had only been in the plane one time before," White said, "and the only thing I asked is, 'How do I talk on the radio?' That was the only thing I knew how to do up there."

That one bit of knowledge may have saved his life -- and the lives of his wife and two daughters who were with him. It allowed him to push the right button and say: "I've gotta declare an emergency."

According to a transcript provided by the controllers association, White said: "My pilot's . . . unconscious. I need help up here. . . . I need to get this thing on the ground. I'm flyin' a King Air . . . N559DW. My pilot's deceased. . . . I need help."

The controllers could hear the panic in his voice.

White: Do I turn off the altimeter or not? It's steady climbin' . . . but it looks to me like my, uh, altitude of descent is on 10,000. I dunno why I keep goin' climbin'. I need to figure out how to level off.

Grimm was called away from the flights she was working to deal with the emergency. A pilot and a flight instructor, she had flown other twin turboprops as well as Learjets.

That's the kind of person flight crew members and passengers want guiding them, especially when the skies don't seem so friendly.

Because of her experience as a flight instructor, she knew to make her directions as simple as possible. Her tone on the tape of the conversation is reassuring, and she uses positive reinforcement. "That was the goal, to convince him that he could control" the plane, she said.

But White wasn't so sure. Alarm was what Grimm said she heard in his voice.

White: You find me the longest, widest runway you can, ma'am. Grimm: November five delta whiskey, roger. I'm gonna try to keep ya. . . . Hold the plane level. . . . You're doing pretty good, one-seven thousand. . . . Try to hold the plane level now at one-seven thousand . . . we're gonna start a slow, shallow descent. Just easy down on the yoke, a slight descent. We're gonna get you down to one-one eleven thousand. . . . All right, November niner delta whiskey, you're doin' a real good job. . . . You're doing . . . very good . . . keeping your heading, you're doin' a real nice descent there.

Grimm had established a rapport with White, and there was some consideration of letting her talk him all the way in. But having controllers at the Fort Myers airport, which has a long runway, handle the approach and landing made more sense because they would be able to physically see the plane.

At Fort Myers, it was Norton, with help, who talked White through the landing.

Norton: November niner delta whiskey, are you using the autopilot or are you flying the airplane?

White: I'm in the good Lord's hands flying this niner delta whiskey.

The unruffled demeanor and skill of the controllers helped, too.

"Their individual resourcefulness and the calmness on the radio is what got my mind thinking we can get this done," White said in an interview. The controllers "exuded confidence through the radio, and their specific instructions gave me confidence."

Some of those instructions were relayed from Kari Sorenson, a flight instructor with King Air experience. Favio called Sorenson, and his step-by-step directions helped ensure a safe landing.

Norton: Nine delta whiskey, the runway's all yours. You can, uh, turn left or right, whatever's easier for you. Power all the way back, and they're telling me max breaking.

White: We're down, buddy, thank you.

Norton: Nice work.

Recordings of the conversation between White and the controllers can be found with this column at http://www.washingtonpost.com/fedpage.

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