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Not all stories have to have a political agenda, the following is one of them.

Having been a professional aviator for thirty years I have had countless opportunities to listen in wonder as an Air Traffic Controller(s) worked a multitude of aircraft, each of which only had to look out for itself. All intelligent pilots know that ATC is comprised of some very capable people who at times are asked and required to perform minor and major miracles.

Which explains how on the morning of 9/11 Americas Air Traffic Control system thought on its feet and by improvising, adapting and remaining icy cool, accomplished the impossible.

The following account (excerpted from an AOPA publication) is worthy of sharing with you all.


As a pilot those disembodied voices of Air Traffic Control that you hear over the radio take on a new life during emergencies. Suddenly they become comforting, if not your immediate best friends.

All it takes is some chilling words from a pilot, “I’m not having a good day,” for a controller to step up the game.

Often their heroic feats go unrecognized, even by the FAA. For the past four years, the standouts, divided by geographic region, have been honored with the Archie League Medal of Safety Awards, named after the nation’s first controller, and presented at a National Air Traffic Controllers Association safety conference. The 2008 awards ceremony took place on April 1.

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One of the more dramatic stories this year involved controller Paul Hiel at the Oklahoma City Tracon. On April 10, 2007, he heard several microphone clicks on his frequency, but no voice modulation. Hiel asked if there was an aircraft out there trying to contact approach, and he received more clicks. He knew the weather wasn’t good with ceilings between 400 feet and 800 feet.

“If you need IFR services, click your mike twice,” Heil said.

Two clicks.

Heil asked the pilot to squawk 0303 for radar identification. Once his position was known, Heil initiated a series of questions to determine where the pilot wanted to land and whether he needed IFR services. Over the next 15 minutes, Heil provided weather information for Norman, Okla., issued an IFR clearance, and coordinated with other personnel for vectors to the ILS.

Click, click. And so it went on.

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The airplane, which turned out to be a Beechcraft Bonanza 36, made a safe landing, all without any verbal communication with the controller. The pilot had gotten stuck on top of the cloud deck and had a malfunctioning radio.

“It was an honor to be selected as one of the three judges for this year’s awards. In reviewing all the submissions, it was wonderful to see how the controllers worked with pilots who had gotten themselves into life-threatening situations,” said Bruce Landsberg, executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation. “We also had some very tough choices to make. Every controller likely prevented an accident through their efforts.”


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