Controllers speak on the King Air landing

I know this is not the major news story of the day. But it is what I find now jamming my email inbox, on reconnecting from the frontier of China, so I will note it for the record.

I have always liked, admired, relied on, gotten along with, and been a supporter of air traffic controllers. In the recent passenger-pilot landing mentioned here and here, I first noted that "the calm of all involved is incredible" and then, in a second installment, that the controller involved "was faultlessly calm, supportive, and reassuring, and for that he deserves great praise." I also quoted emails from two pilots about what they noticed in the exchange, including info that they as pilots would have expected to get.

I have received a very large number of responses from controllers who were anything but faultlessly calm. The majority of them take the quoted remarks as an outright slam on the controller, which was not at all the intent. One recurrent theme was: Well, asshole, I'd like to see how you'd have done under pressure! As I've made clear each time, I could hardly imagine handling things as well as the man who landed the plane, Douglas White. As for the controller: I respect people who do this job, and his calm played a very important part in this happy outcome. During probably the worst experience I've had aloft, which involved a thunderstorm over upstate New York a decade ago, the controllers from the Fort Drum site were an enormous practical and psychological help. As I called their supervisor to say, with gratitude, after I landed.

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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:

Read your recent blog entries about the incident in Florida, and a few of the comments you published deserve some info. [Very long dispatch after the jump, but full of interesting details.]

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 supervisor, etc.
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 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 program, , 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.
However, we often do managed to "talk 'em down" anyway.  Locally, we had Dave's fear happen; a guy I used to teach skiing with, fellow controller Dave Littlefield, did exactly that.  He talked a non-pilot through landing a seaplane when the pilot collapsed.  (
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 happening.