Fortunately one extensive email did arrive from a senior controller who is in print the way I assume him to be in the control room: calm, systematic, etc. His name is Paul Cox, of the FAA Follies site. He is based in Seattle and stresses that while he is speaking as a controller he most definitely not speaking for the FAA. This is the approach I've always respected from controllers. (You other guys, read and learn!) His comments below. Let me say, again, everyone involved performed very well -- in the controller's case, through the combo of projecting an air of perfect cool and finding a King Air pilot to ask questions of. In addition, the pilot performed almost miraculously. Over now to Paul Cox, who says:
Reference Dave's critique of the controller not giving the guy the
answers quickly enough... I'm not entirely sure he understood the setup
that the controllers in both facilities (first in the center, then in
the TRACON) were dealing with. In both cases, there was the "radar"
(or "R-side") controller, who's the one actually talking on the radios
and seated directly in front of, and using, the radar scope.
There was also an assistant, or "D-side" (for "data") controller.
The D-side can hear the radios, but doesn't talk on them, and handles
the coordination with the other control facilities, other sectors or
control positions in the D-side's particular facility, talks with the
Finally, while the a/c was in the center's airspace, yet another
controller was helping out. Occasionally (very rarely here at Seattle
Center) we'll work with a "tracker", who is basically like a second
radar controller; their role varies by facility. In this instance, the
tracker also used the frequency to talk to Mr White; the tracker wasn't
on the position prior to the incident but came to help because she is,
in addition to being a controller, also a pilot and flight instructor
with lots of time in a variety of aircraft. (That flight instructor
experience was key, because she understood the psychology involved in
calming a pilot who's feeling overwhelmed by the task in front of them.)
Once they got the plane under control and down into the TRACON's
airspace, the two controllers there worked very well as a team. But to
get to your commenter's criticism of the controller's response time,
it's important to understand that the controllers were both not pilots
(or at least didn't have time in a King Air!)
Instead, the D-side controller called up a flight instructor/pilot
that he knew, and kept the instructor on the phone. When Mr White
would ask a question, the D-side would ask the instructor pilot, get
the answer, give it to the R-side controller, who would then answer the
question for Mr White. If you can imagine the old childhood bus-ride
game of "telephone line", where everything has to be passed through a
couple of people, that's how these guys were working.
Dave's comments, about the things that someone thrust into this
situation would need, are right on. What Dave doesn't take into
account, or might not know, is that in the United States the vast
majority of controllers are not pilots. I've been a controller for
18+ years in Seattle Center, and my flying experience is about 10 hours
in a Cessna 152 when I was 17 years old. (I was on the verge of
soloing when I ran out of money for lessons.)
In some places (but not all, or even most), the controllers are
actually given full flight training through the equivalent of a private
pilot license. (See http://www.cad.gov.hk/english/atm_training.html
for Hong Kong- they farm their controllers out to Australia for training.)
And the notion of "patching" a King Air pilot directly onto the
frequency- sorry, but our telecom equipment doesn't have that
provision. (I've long giggled at fictional books involving flying that
have the controllers "patching" someone onto a frequency; it just
doesn't exist, at least not in the USA.)
Controllers used to be able to take "fam" (for familiarization)
trips in the cockpits of commerical airliners. We would ride in the
cockpit jumpseat, wear a headset, and observe the flight from gate to
gate. This program was killed after 9/11; as you can imagine lots of
people had concerns about how to properly identify people prior to
allowing them to ride around in the cockpit.
There are systems now that could allow for the fam program to
return for controllers (nearly all airlines now are members of the CASS
which allows this access) but there are other things holding this
back. Too many people within the FAA were eligible for fam trips
before, and those who were eligible- including, I'm sorry to say, some
controllers- abused the program. (After all, it basically got
controllers free flights from point A to point B; you did a "duty fam"
on official training time on the last work day of your workweek, then
took a week vacation, then fammed back on your first work day back...
so it looks like it's strictly for free travel.
But beyond that, there were some horror stories of people using it
for much more than its intended purpose. There's rumors that they're
going to bring the fam program back soon, although in the FAA's
PR-driven culture these days, we take that with a grain of salt.
(Early last fall they were saying they intended on doing it prior to
the end of the year, while Sturgell was still Acting Administrator.
Well, we're in mid-April now, and it's still not here.) And the
restrictions they're proposing for the program are such that I think
it's unlikely that many controllers will bother with it.
Oops, I'm rambling now.
The point is that I think Dave's criticism of the controllers
might be a bit unfair. They did an absolutely marvelous job, in my
semi-expert opinion, given the limitations they have to work with. The
controllers at Miami Center are very young and relatively
inexperienced, but stepped up to do a terrific job. The controllers in
the TRACON were, in my opinion, superb when you consider that they
found a way to make it happen.
In our control facilities, we don't have books that give us things
like airspeeds on descent or locations of controls in cockpits. Most
of us don't have flight training; we have basic aeronautical knowledge
but many would be hard-pressed to land an airplane if WE were suddenly
thrust into that situation.
As far as Jorge's comment about "contact ground"... remember that
Mr White is a pilot with almost 200 hours of experience. Old habits
die hard, and while controllers will often try all kinds of "out of the
box" things (believe me, there's no FAA order that says "call your old
buddy who's a flight instructor and has time in a King Air", but the
TRACON guys did it) we're also urged by the FAA to stick strictly to
the book whenever possible. (Litigation, liability, etc.) While it
does sound funny at the end of the tape, it also kind of makes sense
when you consider that's how those controllers do it over and over and
over again every day.
Sorry for what's turned into a long note, but that's a view from inside the system.
Oh, and Dave's criticism of the media coverage reading like little
more than NATCA press releases? NATCA did do some press releases, but
the media coverage was, by and large, more detailed and better, in my
opinion. Then again, I just like Mr White's comment that controllers
aren't paid enough and deserve to make more money! LOL
Seriously, you were right on about one thing, though- the real
hero here is Douglas White. He panicked a bit, but had done something
VERY smart at the beginning of the flight when he learned how to
contact ATC over the radio (the system in the KingAir is different than
the planes he'd flown), and when he was in trouble he was smart enough
to immediately ask for help.
Which, I'm proud to say, ATC provided him to the absolute best of their ability.
There's a lot of room for improvement here, but it would require
institutional changes in the thinking of the FAA that are far, far
beyond our present management structure, so I'm not optimistic about it