March 2, 2011

∴ No Drill

Reading Captain Dave's training account reminded me of an incident I had many years ago, when I was working as an enroute air traffic controller in New England. I was working the radar at a low-altitude sector of airspace over upstate New York one afternoon. It was a routinely slow time of the day. Air traffic control is a lot like being a fire fighter, without the fire. Long hours of general boredom punctuated by short spans of intense effort.

Anyway, I'm parked at a low-and-slow sector with another controller, and we're shooting the shit, as controllers often do. We have maybe four or five airplanes on our frequency, mostly slower prop jobs. Out of nowhere we hear "mayday, mayday, Boston center, this is N-----, emergency." You don't hear that very often, thankfully, but after years of training including that kind of call and the resulting workload, it wakes you right up. First order of business, ask the pilot the nature of his emergency.

The pilot is flying a small, six-person single propeller-driven aircraft. He's just a private citizen out for a flight from the Boston area to Toronto Island, not too far from Toronto, Canada. Not a pro, not making money off it, just flyin'. Probably has his family aboard. He explains that his engine is out and won't restart, and he's headed down. Down from about fourteen thousand feet, if I recall correctly. His voice is a bit elevated, and I can hear some commotion in the background. A controller can fall only as far as the floor from his chair, not so much a passenger.

The next order of business is to run a checklist of items I need to know from the pilot, things like fuel remaining in minutes, souls on board, his intentions. (we're not supposed to use the phrase "souls on board" anymore, I guess it's unsettling. Believe me, when a pilot has given a controller reason to be asking for that information, he or she knows damn well what's happening and any unsettling has already occurred. Not so much with the professional pilots, but the little guys...)

He tells me to stand by, and then something must have clicked in his head. Maybe he looked at his fuel gauge and the light came on. Most aircraft have two or more fuel tanks, one or more in each wing. It lets them evenly balance the load. It also helps make the aircraft more stable, having the weight cantilevered out on either side of the fuselage. This pilot had flown from the Boston area on one tank and had forgotten to switch to the other as he burned fuel. Some aircraft will take care of fuel re-balancing for the pilot, but not this one. His first tank had run dry, the engine had died, and now in the midst of a mild panic he saw his salvation. He reached down under the seat and threw the manual tank lever. Crank, crank, crank, and the engine re-lit. It was a long ten seconds or so, but he came back on the frequency to say he had regained engine power and was climbing back to his assigned altitude. He wanted to continue on to his original destination. I re-cleared him to Toronto Island and resumed my otherwise dull afternoon.

That was my only directly-worked emergency. The day ended well for everyone, and that pilot has a good story to tell over a beer.