Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Pilot in distress: My 'SWAT team' of calm air traffic controllers steered safe landing at Hartsfield - Jackson Atlanta International Airport (KATL)

Left to right: Patrick Burrows, Nicole Surunis, Mason Braddock, Cathy Lewan, Clay Sutton, Keith Tyus 

Cathy Lewan

Cathy Lewan is extremely comfortable flying her single-engine plane. But in a 50-minute emergency call from last year, the nerves are easy to hear in her voice.

The radio traffic was just released from the February 14th, 2016 incident when Lewan, who was out for an aerial photography flight, found herself near Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, flying solo with a broken throttle.

From his FAA air traffic control station, Mason Braddock handled Lewan’s mid-flight call, guiding her through an emergency landing with a team of air traffic controllers and aviation officials.

“I could hear the distress in her voice and that was my main concern," Braddock recalled. "Because I knew my team would figure out the appropriate response to her situation.”

In order to land safely, Lewan would need to dodge incoming and outgoing commercial airliners and land at the world’s busiest airport. 

“(I couldn’t) slow the plane down, and being in Hartsfield’s airspace, I knew I was a threat to them as well,” she recounted. 

Braddock is not a pilot, but he kept talking with Lewan as his team continued brainstorming. “You’re wracking your brain – what can I do, what can we come up with to help her out,” he said.

Lewan began praying: “Can I ask you one more favor,” she radios to Braddock. “Would you call my husband for me?"

She also asked him to ask her husband to “put a prayer chain out to my church and ask the whole church to start praying, and everybody else that’s listening…I’m going to be fine cause you’re helping me and the good Lord is helping me, but I always need prayer.”

Braddock’s response was “Not a problem…it’s gonna be fine.”

Clay Sutton was directing the traffic control center during the call. He moved air traffic controller Nicole Suruins to assist Braddock. Meanwhile, Patrick Burrows began coordinating a sea of other air traffic, and Keith Tyus, a certified flight instructor, offered directions for how Lewan should land.

“You’re about five miles west of the airport now,” Tyus said over the radio. “We are going to touchdown and cut power immediately to the airplane once we touchdown. Do you understand that?”

“Affirmative, affirmative,” Lewan radios back.

As Lewan prepared for the landing, Braddock continued to calmly talk her through it.

“You can take more time if you need," he coached from the tower. "Or what we can do is a fly-by, kind of get a look at the airport and the runway. It’s totally up to you.”

After a single-practice run, Lewan felt confident and made a safe landing, which she now credits to everyone but herself.

“What I got was my own SWAT team – the super, wonderful, Atlanta team,” she joked. “Tremendous, tremendous comfort and guidance. I couldn’t have done it anywhere else without being here and with this team.”

The air traffic controllers and aviation officials that were involved in the landing are being honored at an industry event in Las Vegas March 22. The five controllers involved will receive the Archie League Medal of Safety, which is the highest honor from the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

Story, video and photo gallery:  http://www.11alive.com

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