Air Traffic Controllers Honored for Skill in the Tower When things go wrong in an airplane cockpit, a few words from an air traffic controller can save the day. Michele Norris talks to Ken Hopf and Scott Dittamo, who are among the 12 controllers being honored for helping prevent tragedies in the nation's skies.

Air Traffic Controllers Honored for Skill in the Tower

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

When things go wrong in an airplane cockpit, a few words from an air traffic controller can save the day.

(Soundbite of air traffic control recording)

Mr. DAN HEMENWAY (Air Traffic Controller): Cirrus Eight Delta Foxtrot(ph), low altitude alert. Check your altitude immediately. You're supposed to be at 2,700.

NORRIS: That's air traffic controller Dan Hemenway talking to the pilot of a small plane flying over Madison, Wisconsin. Last December 30th, an all-important word from controller Hemenway probably saved a pilot's life.

(Soundbite of air traffic control recording)

Mr. HEMENWAY: Eight Delta Foxtrot, climb.

NORRIS: Climb. That instruction alerted the pilot, who was flying in the clouds, that she was seconds away from crashing into the ground. Dan Hemenway is one of 12 controllers honored today by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. He will receive the Archie League Medal of Safety for extraordinary vigilance and skill on the job. The medal is named for the man who's widely believed to be the world's first air traffic controller.

Also being honored today are Ken Hopf, who works at an FAA radar facility in southern New Hampshire, and Scott Dittamo, who works in the control tower at Newark Liberty International Airport. Scott explains that last July 24th, he spotted a jumbo jet about to land with its landing gear up.

Mr. SCOTT DITTAMO (Air Traffic Controller, Newark Liberty International Airport): I was training on the local control at the time, and noticed about 10 miles out from the airport this 747 had no gear. And that's kind of common at 10 miles, because the gear isn't really lowered just then. But as he came closer, it still didn't look right. And I would say about five miles out, it kind of strung a bell in my head to say, `OK, keep an eye on this guy. It doesn't really look like he has gear down.' And, in fact, he did not have the gear down. I would say I had about 10 seconds to go.

NORRIS: So this was an Air India flight, Flight 145, and you placed a call to a pilot.

Mr. DITTAMO: Mm-hmm.

NORRIS: We have a tape. Let's take a listen.

Mr. DITTAMO: OK.

(Soundbite of air traffic control recording)

Mr. DITTAMO: Air India 145, have you checked gear down? Gear appears up.

Unidentified Man #1: Air India 145.

NORRIS: It was very concise.

Mr. DITTAMO: Yeah.

NORRIS: You just wanted to let them know, `Your gear's not down. I can't see that yet.'

Mr. DITTAMO: Correct.

NORRIS: A lot of pilots actually saw this transpire...

Mr. DITTAMO: Yes, yes.

NORRIS: ...and they got on the radio and...

Mr. DITTAMO: Yes.

NORRIS: ...gave you a lot of attaboys afterward.

Mr. DITTAMO: Yeah, exactly.

(Soundbite of air traffic control recording)

Unidentified Man #2: Good call, tower.

Mr. DITTAMO: Thanks.

Unidentified Man #3: Great catch.

Mr. DITTAMO: Thank you.

Unidentified Man #4: Good job, man.

Unidentified Man #5: Nice call.

Unidentified Man #6: He needs a raise or a day off for that one.

NORRIS: Someone said you need a raise or a day off.

Mr. DITTAMO: Yeah.

NORRIS: Did you get either one of those things?

Mr. DITTAMO: I got a day off, yes.

NORRIS: Boy, that's good. I hope that raise is coming.

Now, Ken, you're also receiving this award because of an extraordinary catch, if I can use that phrase...

Mr. KEN HOPF (Air Traffic Controller): Yes.

NORRIS: ...on August 9th, just a few weeks later.

Mr. HOPF: Yes.

NORRIS: Tell us what happened that day.

Mr. HOPF: Well, I was at work at the Boston Consolidated TRACON, and I was working a flight data position. I had just issued a clearance, and all of a sudden, this call came over the speaker, you know.

(Soundbite of air traffic control recording)

Unidentified Woman: ...(Unintelligible), this is November 9132 Victor. And the pilot of the plane is not well, and we have to go back to Laconia. Please, help me.

Mr. HOPF: November 9932 Victor, this is Boston approach. How you doing?

NORRIS: `How you doing?'

Mr. HOPF: It's what came to me, you know. And you can see, she came back. She said, `I'm fine, but you know, my father, who's the pilot of the airplane, is incapacitated,' you know. So I proceeded to figure out what her capabilities were by issuing her a couple of control instructions and seeing how she did with that.

(Soundbite of air traffic control recording)

Mr. HOPF: Do you have any experience at flying the airplane yourself, ma'am?

Unidentified Woman: I've flown a Warrior. I've never flown a Malibu.

Mr. HOPF: OK. They're very similar. We're going to do the best we can to help you right now. Are you familiar with the Laconia airport at all?

I never really felt as though there was going to be a problem. I mean, I just felt as though I had to do my best to try to help her through it, guide her back to the airport.

NORRIS: How long did that take?

Mr. HOPF: It was approximately 15 minutes. The part that was really kind of alarming was that now we're bringing her back to the airport, and all of a sudden, her mother passes out. So that really made it a lot more anxious.

NORRIS: And how'd you bring her down?

Mr. HOPF: Well, you know, I talked her right down to the runway. I reminded her several times, `When the airplane lands, do not forget to put on the brakes.' Unfortunately, the parents passed away about two weeks after the incident.

NORRIS: Oh, I'm so sorry to hear that.

Mr. HOPF: It was very sad.

NORRIS: I just wonder whether air traffic controllers are born or made. Is it a case where either you have the temperament for this or you don't?

Mr. DITTAMO: You know, that's a really good question.

Mr. HOPF: Yeah.

Mr. DITTAMO: I couldn't be in an office job. Put it that way. I couldn't sit behind a desk for eight hours. I would go crazy. I need something that's changing all the time. There's no exact same scenario when I go to work. I'm sure it's for Ken, too.

Mr. HOPF: Yeah.

Mr. DITTAMO: But everything is different. Every day is different. Every position that you work is different. You'll have routine things that go on, but everything is different. It's always changing. It's not a very monotonous job.

Mr. HOPF: You know, I just always--it's the same thing every day, it's just different.

Mr. DITTAMO: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: Well, thanks so much for coming in to talk to us. Ken Hopf, Scott Dittamo, congratulations.

Mr. DITTAMO: Thank you.

Mr. HOPF: Thank you very much.

NORRIS: Scott Dittamo and Ken Hopf are both air traffic controllers with the FAA. They're being honored today with the Archie League Medal of Safety for making great saves in 2004. You can hear audio of these and other air traffic control saves at our Web site, npr.org.

MELISSA BLOCK (Host): And you're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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