RENÉE MONTAGNE, host:
The National Air Traffic Control Association honored its own this week for quick responses to emergencies. We bring you now one of those stories. Last September near Willard Airport in Savoy Airport in Savoy, Illinois, a pilot radioed the tower to say that his controls were stuck and its autopilot was forcing him into a nosedive.
Unidentified Man #1: I have an autopilot that won't release and wants to pull me down and into a dive. It's taking all my muscles to just pull back on this thing.
MONTAGNE: The small piper aircraft was miles form the airport. Only the pilot was on board in the tower. Air traffic controller Dave Murphy had just started his day. He came into our studio to tell us what happened next as the pilot held on. Mr. DAVE MURPHY (Air Traffic Controller, Savoy Airport): He was asked if he was declaring an emergency, and he responded in the affirmative. That yes, he was declaring an emergency.
Unidentified Man #1: I see who one - yeah, OK.
MONTAGNE: He sounds exhausted and he sounds, frankly, scared.
Mr. MURPHY: That's exactly what I heard. And some of these instruments had going out. Normally, the best course of action would be to keep him above the clouds so that he could see where he was. But you can hear in his voice, taking a lot of time up above the clouds to troubleshoot the airplane didn't' seem like it was one of our options.
Mr. MURPHY: November eight zero four A Quebec, this is champagne approach, how do you hear me, sir?
Unidentified Man #1: I hear you sir.
Mr. MURPHY: November four eight Quebec, are you capable of flying a GPS approach, sir?
Unidentified Man #1: If I didn't have to break the autopilot, I would. But no, I can't. Is this want to...
Mr. MURPHY: OK. 4-A Quebec. What I'm going to do is I'm going to provide all the vectors. All you have to do is fly the airplane.
MONTAGNE: So, what were your options?
Mr. MURPHY: Right. He had pulled some circuit breakers to try and disconnect this autopilot because he thought that's what was wrong with it. So he couldn't navigate on his own through the clouds. I explained to him to turn left, turn right, go up, go down, and I can actually get him within 400 feet of the ground an, if I'm doing well, right on the center lane on the runway.
MONTAGNE: You know, I have to say, thinking about this as a passenger, never a professional pilot, but coming out of the clouds suddenly seems like a scary idea.
Mr. MURPHY: Actually, it's one of the most dangerous parts of flying is when you're trusting your instruments in the clouds and then looking out the window at the runway.
MONTAGNE: Kind of coming right at you.
Mr. MURPHY: Takes some training. Yes, ma'am.
Mr. MURPHY: In November 4-A Quebec, are you able to start your D-sensor?
Unidentified Man #1: I'm controlling the descent. I tried to let go of the yoke so the autopilot would let go. But it wouldn't. So let's continue with (unintelligible).
MONTAGNE: Calm as ever you are. But what are you thinking?
Mr. MURPHY: I'm scared. I really am scared. At this point I don't know for a fact that it's going to be finish successful.
MONTAGNE: Now at this point the aircraft doesn't have its landing gear down.
Mr. MURPHY: That's correct.
MONTAGNE: Why would that be so difficult to do? Get the landing gear down?
Mr. MURPHY: When you put the landing gear down, it changes aerodynamics of the airplane. It will fly differently. So he doesn't want to put the gear down while he's in the clouds. He wants to wait until the last second until he sees the airport.
Mr. MURPHY: November 4-A Quebec, you are cleared to land. Let me know when you see the airport.
Unidentified Man #1: I hear you. I'm going to start dropping the gear. You got the trucks ready?
MONTAGNE: Now that was a little hard to understand, but I know he said you got the trucks ready.
Mr. MURPHY: Yes.
MONTAGNE: What did he mean? He knew what that...
Mr. MURPHY: Whenever we have an emergency in progress, we call the crash fire rescue people on the airport. And once he sees it and I clear him to land, there is nothing left for us to do.
MONTAGNE: OK. Well, we have the aircraft's final moments.
Unidentified Man #1: Local verify the trucks have been rolled?
Mr. MURPHY: Trucks have been rolled.
Unidentified Man #2: He's going to try and roll the gear. He doesn't know what that school do.
Mr. MURPHY: OK. Local East, what do you got?
Unidentified Man #2: Local, he's on the ground safe. November 4-A Quebec, nice job, sir.
Unidentified Man #1: Find me a park.
Mr. MURPHY: And November 4-A Quebec, you can just stop wherever you need to, sir.
MONTAGNE: That was great, sweet. You can park anywhere you want.
Mr. MURPHY: That's great.
MONTAGNE: Well, you know, I want to think in a way he came running up the stairs and gave you a big bear hug. Do that work like that?
Mr. MURPHY: No. I had to work for about another hour before I could take a break. When I went to introduce myself to him and congratulate him on a good job, he had already had his airplane fixed and was gone.
MONTAGNE: So, did he thank you?
Mr. MURPHY: Oh, yes. He did. He called the next morning and asked what can I do to recognize you? And I said, well, you can write a letter to my boss and say thanks, if you want. And the first sentence of his letter was I want to thank you for saving my life.
MONTAGNE: Thank you for telling us your story and this pilot's story.
Mr. MURPHY: Thank you very much for having me.
MONTAGNE: Dave Murphy. His work saving that plane would honor this week by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. You can read the pilot's thank you note at npr.org.