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With a Business Aviation Assist, a Controller Saves a Life

Februrary 6, 2012

Al Kent didn’t go to work at the Atlanta Center Air Traffic Control facility November 10 with the idea he was going to save a man’s life. But he did.

Kent was controlling flights in Alabama when the pilot of a single-engine Cessna radioed he was in trouble.

“N813HY, got an emergency here, engine, uh, going out, uh…” he said in a shaky voice.

Kent wasted no time. With 22 years’ experience and a remarkable knowledge of the local area, Kent quickly figured out where the crippled plane needed to go.

“N813HY, roger, the Pine Hill Airport is at 12 o’clock in about five minutes, do you got that much time?”

The pilot wasn’t sure. Losing the engine to mechanical failure is one of an aviator’s greatest fears and for this man, it was coming true. On a flight from Meridian, MS to Dothan, AL, the pilot was headed straight for the Pine Hill Airport. Although abandoned, it still had a serviceable runway and was only nine miles away when the Cessna’s engine conked out. He would have to glide all the way, losing altitude with every mile.

Sitting in front of a radar screen hundreds of miles away, Kent watched the pilot’s progress intently.

The pilot was still trying to comprehend his predicament. “This is very bad; I don’t see the airport…about five minutes?”

Kent kept his voice calm and encouraging. “Five minutes, if you can fly for five minutes you will go right to it.”

“Okay I’m looking for it,” the pilot said dubiously.

As he called out the plane’s progress to the harried pilot, Kent realized that he would need help. He asked a passing controller to take over the other flights in his sector. Kent’s extensive knowledge of the area told him that he would lose radar contact with the Cessna once it descended below 1,000 feet. He would likely lose radio contact as well. So he radioed a business airplane about 20 miles away from the stricken Cessna.

“N7RL, uh, can you go back to (Pine Hill Airport), I got an emergency over there if you can help me out there a little bit,” Kent asked. The pilot of the business plane, a Beechcraft King Air, readily agreed.

More tense moments passed. “If I was in that plane,” Kent said Wednesday evening, “I’d have been sweating bullets. I don’t know if I could have done what [the Cessna pilot] did.”

But any nervousness Kent felt as he guided the Cessna toward the abandoned airport was not apparent in his encouragement to the nervous pilot.

“Right now if you keep what you’re doing, you’ll make it with no problem.  It’s nine miles away, N3HY, the Pine Pill airport runway is east-west and its about 4500 feet long,” he told the pilot. It was clearly working. The pilot’s voice sounded stronger.

“Okay, 4500 feet long, east west,” he replied.

The pilot was having trouble spotting the airport. With calm, clear instructions, Kent continued to guide him. Then, suddenly, the pilot radioed, “Okay, I’ve got a visual on the airport! I’m just about over it.”

Moments later, the Cessna was safely on the ground. The pilot never got to radio his thanks – he was out of Atlanta Center’s radio coverage. But that was just fine with Kent. His shift was over. Without fanfare, he simply went home.

Weeks later, Kent was informed that he had won the National Air Traffic Controllers Association’s (NATCAs) “Archie Award”, one of ten regional awards given to air traffic controllers who display the ideals of their profession and save the lives of those under their guidance.

Kent said he was shocked. He never expected to win any awards. He likened his job to that of an offensive lineman in football, who does his job every day, never expecting to be noticed.

“The only time you hear the offensive lineman’s name is when he’s penalized. The only time you hear us talked about is when we do something negative. So when we get something positive said about us… I’m very appreciative.”

Hear the audio from Kent’s award-winning job performance and learn more about the other regional winners as well as the air traffic control team that won the coveted Archie Award.

Learn more about the harrowing event, which received national recognition in this week's edition of the NBAA Flight Plan podcast.