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Potential Air Disaster Avoided

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A plane similar to the plane involved (credit: static.rcgroups.com/)

A plane similar to the plane involved (credit: static.rcgroups.com/)

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Written by Brian Maass
DENVER (CBS4) – CBS4 has learned that a near disaster in the skies over Colorado was averted May 17 after a 70-year-old pilot was stricken into virtual unconsciousness at the controls of his single engine plane, leaving only his wife, who does not know how to fly, at the controls.

“I was terrified — terrified,” the woman told CBS4.

The woman asked her name and her husband’s identity not be revealed.

“I am not a pilot. I could not have landed,” she said.

Longmont based air traffic controllers, along with the pilot of a Great Lakes Airlines passenger flight, are being credited with helping bring the harrowing flight to a safe conclusion.

“Our controllers did a great job and collaborated beautifully with the Great Lakes Air pilot,” said Ian Gregor, Public Affairs Manager of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Pacific Division.

Gregor said the FAA planned to release the tapes of conversations between controllers and the woman on Thursday. But CBS4 has obtained an internal FAA memo dated May 20 from the Denver Air Route Traffic Control Center that outlines the events of May 17.

It all started when the 70-year-old pilot and his wife left San Bernardino, Calif., bound for Colorado Springs. They were flying the man’s four seat, single engine Cirrus propeller plane. The high performance plane has a built in parachute that can be deployed in extreme emergencies to bring the aircraft safely to the ground.

At 12:14 p.m. the controller contacted the plane for some routine conversation but noticed the pilot did not sound “quite right.” According to an FAA summary of what happened, at 12:22 p.m., during a radio transmission, “It was clear that the pilot was having serious difficulty breathing.” Compounding the problems, the plane was flying through dense clouds and was being flown using instruments onboard the aircraft since there were no outside visual references.

“He was not right,” the woman said of her husband.

She said he was slurring and was incapable of flying the plane. She said he could not push all the buttons.

Controllers started to then notice the plane “display erratic vertical maneuvering,” according to the report obtained by CBS4. “The controller continued to attempt to communicate with the pilot but received no coherent response.”

At 12:24 p.m. the pilot’s wife came on the radio saying, “I’m trying to help hang on.” The pilot was apparently incapacitated, unable to fly. At that point, the pilot of a Great Lakes Airlines flight headed for Farmington, N.M., got involved, flying toward the stricken aircraft to offer assistance.

Three minutes later the woman on board the stricken craft came back on the radio saying, “… hang on, hang on, I’m trying to get him to put on auto autopilot — I don’t know how to do this.”

The pilot of the Great Lakes flight then began coaching the woman on how to use the autopilot to descend in a controlled manner. The single engine plane was at about 16,000 feet.

Suddenly though, the Cirrus, which was supposed to be heading toward Cortez for an emergency landing, began heading north toward mountainous terrain. “The controller understood the danger this presented,” the memo states.

At 12:36 p.m. the Cirrus began descending at a rate of 1,000 feet per minute and was heading northbound toward higher terrain. Controllers continued to press the stricken pilot’s wife to turn the plane away from the mountains but they received no response.

“Finally,” says the memo, “the passenger spoke to the controller again and was able to make the turn towards lower terrain just as they were approaching the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. By now, the aircraft had been in the clouds for some time and was still flying on instruments only — with a non-pilot as the only conscious person in the aircraft.” At 12:38 p.m. the controller asked the woman if she was flying by hand. “I’m sure trying,” she responded.

“I was pretty scared,” the woman told CBS4.

But she said the Longmont based controller, Charlie Rohrer, was a soothing voice.

“I think he did a great job,” she said. “They knew we were in trouble. He was very calm. I was on the edge. I didn’t know how it was going to turn out.”

She said she was considering cutting the plane’s engine and pulling the parachute on the plane, going so far as to read the onboard directions on how to operate the parachute.

As the single engine plane descended to about 10,000 feet, the 70-year-old pilot began to improve and become more coherent. At 12:59 p.m. the pilot reported to controllers “he was ready to land.” Emergency equipment was standing by as the pilot landed safely at the Farmington, N.M. airport. The pilot was briefly hospitalized then released.

The pilot’s wife said she wants to say thanks to the air traffic controller and the pilot of the Great Lakes flight.

“I was thankful he was back there,” she said. “It was 40 minutes I don’t want to live over again.”

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