Thursday, April 17, 2014

Stewart Pearcy: Air traffic controller helps save pilot lost in clouds above Houston area


Being an air traffic controller is considered one of the most stressful jobs in the world.

"Airplanes get in trouble all the time and controllers are there to help them out," said air traffic controller Stewart Pearcy.

Trouble is something Phillip Kardenetz, a new pilot, knows all about. On Feb. 25, 2013, Kardenetz took off in his single engine Cessna from Texas Gulf Coast Regional Airport in Lake Jackson just before 5 a.m. with full tank of fuel.

"It looked like a pretty night to fly," Kardnetz said.

His destination was 22 miles away in Bay City. Had Kardenetz listened to the entire automated weather announcement, he would have known that flying conditions that morning were less than ideal.

"The ceiling was about 500 feet. If I heard that, I never would have taken off," Kardenetz said.

Shortly after starting his shift at 6 a.m. at Houston Tracon, Pearcy saw something on the radar scop that bothered him -- a small plane zig-zagging back and forth near Hobby Airport.

"I got the impression he didn't mean to be there. He didn't want to be there and might not know he was there. I wasn't just going to sit there and wait for something bad to happen," Pearcy said.

Kardenetz said unbeknownst to him he had drifted into Class B airspace and was lost, unaware that he'd been battling strong headwinds causing him to burn fuel and go nowhere fast.

"It really puts the fear of God in you. Here I am, right in the middle of big airlines coming in and out, and I'm just up there tootling around, going five minutes west and five minutes east," Kardenetz said.

Pearcy contacted the pilot of a Southwest Airlines jet flying in the vicinity and asked him to contact Kardenetz on his frequency. Kardenetz then radioed air traffic control.

"The voice was calm, steady, reassuring," Kardenetz said.

Pearcy told Kardenetz that he was also a pilot who flies about 200 hours a year. All Pearcy wanted to do was get him on the ground in one piece. Two and a half hours later, that's exactly what he did -- not in Lake Jackson but in Giddings, west of Brenham.

Pearcy's efforts recently earned him one of the national air traffic controllers association's most prestigious awards.

"It was really, really cool. A big honor," Pearcy said.

The two met each other for the very first time at the event in Las Vegas.

"It was a real thrill. It was a real thrill to meet him because this guy literally pulled my back out of the fire. Essentially he saved my life. The outcome could have been fatal. There's no two ways about it," Kardenetz said.

"I was just doing my job. That's what we are there for," Pearcy said.

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