The single-engine light plane had been in flight a half hour when Joan Chalupnik's pilot husband suffered a massive stroke and collapsed, his unconscious body slumped over the flight controls.
Almost totally paralyzed by fear herself, she leaned over her husband, who had been sitting in front of her in the tiny plane, and reached for the only instrument that she knew how to operate: the radio.
Down at her hometown Fairbanks, Alaska, airport, air traffic controller Chris Johansson was on a break, but he vividly remembers Chalupnik's first emergency call. "She was very hysterical," he says. "And I realized that I was probably the most qualified person on duty to teach her how to fly. So I went . . . and I talked her down."
Her husband was never to recover, but 22 minutes after she first made contact with Johansson and using only the control stick and throttle, Joan Chalupnik brought the plane down safely at the Fairbanks airport.
Yesterday, Johansson was honored for that "life saving feat" as the Federal Aviation Administration held a special ceremony for him and two other air controllers who guided planes to safety.
"So often we expect these kind of life-and-death saves to be part of the job. We act as if it's expected," said Ray Van Vuren, directorf of the FAA's Air Traffic Service, before presenting Johansson of Fairbanks, Gary Bentley of Shattuck, Okla., and Gregory Snyder of Walnut Creek, Calif., with this year's FAA Outstanding Flight Assist awards.The FAA chose them from among the 2,695 flight assists provided to pilots in trouble by FAA air traffic facilities in 1980.
Van Vuren's voice broke as he read the citation for Snyder. "I heard the transcript of this one," he said, repeating the pilot's declaration as he broke out of the clouds into safety: "Center, we're right over the numbers, we're going to make it."
"That goes right to the heart," Van Vuren said.
Synder was on duty at the Red Bluff, Calif., airport when a high altitude air traffic controller handed him the case of a small twin-engine plane with one failed engine.
Then, at 18,000 feet, the second engine of the Cessna 414 died. For almost a half hour, Synder guided the gliding plane through a series of well-planned turns, all the while redirecting other flights out of the way.
"I was scared, I was really frightened," Synder remembers. "The odds of him landing successfully were absolutely nothing."
Three months later, Synder flew to Salt Lake City to meet the pilot whose plane he had guided to safety. There the two men listened to a tape of their 25-minute ordeal.
"He's the hero as far as I'm concerned," Synder said of the 25-year-old pilot, who was alone. "He stayed cool, calm and positive the entire time. If he had lost his aplomb, he wouldn't have made it."
Bentley remembered the January afternoon in Gage, Okla, when he received an emergency call from a solo pilot of a single engine plane. Desperately low on fuel, he needed help descending through the ice-filled clouds because he wasn't qualified to fly by instruments.
"At first, we were really formnal with each other and I was just going to guide him through the clouds," Bentley said. "But as soon as he entered the clouds he pulled right out again, saying he couldn't do it."
"At that point I asked him his first name, and I told him mine. We cut the formality and got together on it," Bentley remembered. "I said, 'Look, we're going to make it work,' and he responded real well."
The nerve-wracked pilot missed the landing on the first try, but Bentley calmed him down and explained the procedures again. "After a while, I heard him say, 'I can see it, I can see it,' and I decided at that point to be quiet and let him concentrate."
When the small plane landed safely 30 minutes later, the two men shook hands and then embraced. "I was an Army helicopter pilot, so I've seen a few things," Bentley said. "But I felt, gosh darn, we really made it work."