Friday, April 25, 2008

"Are you Declaring an Emergency?"


Today was the first time I'd ever heard that over my own headset.

I'd been working the usual arrival and departure T-34 traffic into NAS Whiting. Then I get this call on the radio.

"Pensacola Approach, Shooter 123 Solo. I'm returning from [Training] Area 2 and I've got a problem with my landing gear. It's stuck down and my speed's restricted. I'd like to get vectors back to Whiting."

Now, T-34s being 40 year old airplanes, it's not unheard of for one of them to have a gear issue. Normally they'll just fly their inbound routes like usual, with the only difference being that they'll fly much slower (120 knots vs. 190) so as to not damage the gear. However, I've only seen that done with an instructor on board. In this case, it was a solo student pilot, and I could tell by his voice that he was a little spooked.

I calmly acknowledge his transmission and issue him a squawk code. Usually it takes around 30 seconds to a minute for the pilot to punch in the squawk code, our radar to process it, and the datablock appear on our scope. However, I notice it's taking an unusually long time. I know that Training Area 2 is to the north, but I don't see him anywhere near where the T-34s are usually calling in.

Me: "SH123, say position?"
SH123: "SH123 is... uhhh....right near the power lines and south of the sawmill..."
That of course doesn't help me a bit. It was evident that he was looking at a detailed sectional chart, while our radar maps really only show obstructions, sector boundaries, and airports.
Me: "SH123, where are you in relation to Brewton [Airport] or Point Initial [Inbound Fix]?"
Both of those are a couple fixes in the northern part of our airspace that are known to all the Navy pilots since they use them for training.
SH123: "Uh, I'm about 5 miles east of Evergreen [airport]."
The lightbulb goes on. I know exactly where he is. I increase the range of my scope by 20 miles and see him wayyy out there by Evergreen airport, which is a little field the T-34s go to practice their training. Funny enough, I took a look at the sectional chart when I got home last night and saw the power lines he was talking about.

Now, Evergreen is about 10-15 miles past our airspace boundary inside Jacksonville Center's airspace. I can't legally radar identify him without getting a point-out approved from the Center. I key up the Crestview Low sector for ZJX.
Me: "Crestview Low, Pensacola Whiting, Point Out."
ZJX: "Crestview."
Me: "Point out, 5 miles east of Evergreen, squawking 1234. T-34 VFR inbound to Whiting."
ZJX: "Point out approved."

That gives me the green light to work him in the center's airspace. I reset my scope back to its normal range, but shift the view northbound a bit so I can keep track of SH123 as he comes in.

Me: "SH123, radar contact 5 miles east of Evergreen."
SH123: "SH123, roger, radar contact."

I can hear the relief in his voice. At this point, we usually ask the pilot if they require any assistance or emergency handling. My instructor keys up.

My instructor: "SH123, are you declaring an emergency?"
SH123: "SH123, affirmative."

Now, if there was a flight instructor on board, he probably would not have declared an emergency. The other "gear-down" T-34s I've worked have been dual training flights with both an instructor and student aboard. But being a solo pilot in an unusual situation, I think he did the right thing. There's no such thing as being "too careful" when your airplane's not working right, especially when you're an inexperienced student.

So, now it's officially an emergency. If you know the 7110.65, you know there's several things that we need from the pilot. Most of it has already been answered in this case, both within the pilot's first transmission and by the fact that we're familiar with the Navy trainers' equipment and aircraft.
a. Start assistance as soon as enough information has been obtained upon which to act. Information requirements will vary, depending on the existing situation. Minimum required information for inflight emergencies is:
  1. Aircraft identification and type. SH123. By his squadron (Shooter) and callsign, we know he's a T-34.
  2. Nature of the emergency. Gear stuck down.
  3. Pilot's desires. Wants radar vectors back to Whiting.
b. After initiating action, obtain the following items or any other pertinent information from the pilot or aircraft operator, as necessary:
  1. Aircraft altitude. His mode-C is indicating 4500 feet.
  2. Fuel remaining in time. Unknown.
  3. Pilot reported weather. VFR, but other aircraft along his route of flight were indicating that the ceilings were dropping.
  4. Pilot capability for IFR flight. All of the Navy pilots are IFR rated. It's one of their pre-requisites prior to training in the T-34.
  5. Time and place of last known position. He's radar contact on my scope.
  6. Heading since last known position. I can see him tracking southwest-bound.
  7. Airspeed. He's already told us his speed is reduced and I see that his groundspeed is 120 knots.
  8. Navigation equipment capability. The T-34s generally have GPS and VOR/TACAN.
  9. NAVAID signals received. Unknown.
  10. Visible landmarks. He'd indicated his position near Evergreen airport.
  11. Aircraft color. T-34s are orange and white, the standard Navy training colors.
  12. Number of people on board. He'd called himself a "solo", so just one.
  13. Point of departure and destination. Departed Whiting. Went to Evergreen. Returning to Whiting.
  14. Emergency equipment on board. Unknown.
Considering that the pilot was VFR, had reported no weather difficulties, and was navigating via visual references, the only question I really had for him was how much fuel he had left.

Me: "How many hours of fuel do you have remaining?"
SH123: "Errr... two hours."

In the meantime, my instructor has called the supervisor over. He also calls Whiting tower, giving them a heads up on the inbound emergency, including nature of the emergency and the fact that he was a solo. This gives them time to prepare the crash trucks and whatever else they need to do.

Now it's time to get SH123 back home. I type a * on my ARTS keyboard, click on SH123's target, and then click on the VFR arrival fix (Point Charlie) for Whiting, which is about 5 miles out from the runway threshold. It reads back about a 200 heading and about 35 miles flying distance. I take a look at our current wind - out of the southeast and moderate - and do a quick mental calculation.
Me: "SH123, fly heading 190. Vectors to Point Charlie."
SH123: "Roger, heading 190 for SH123."

While this is going on, I continue to work my other traffic. I keep an eye out on SH123 as he slowly makes his way in. To my surprise, the vector I gave him puts him directly over Point Charlie. I had expected to have to give him some tweaks, but it worked out fine. I give myself a silent "w00t!" and switch him to tower after he calls the fix in sight.

SH123 was plugging away at 120 knots his whole way in. Behind him are two more Navy T-34s about 7 miles apart, cruising towards the airport at about 190 knots. Rather than reduce their speed or give them delay vectors when they're 20 miles from the airport, I let them keep coming most of the way to see how things work out. When the first one is about 3 miles behind SH123, I go ahead and give him a right 360 for spacing. My instructor also reminds me to issue the second one a 360 just in case he closes the distance. I tell them both the reason: "A solo T-34 with an emergency." That lets them know I'm not just spinning them for my own amusement.

While those two were burning circles in the sky, I watch SH123 on his straight-in approach. As he descends below our radar's vertical range, his target drops off my scope and goes into coast track. After waiting for a minute or so, I call the tower to ask if he got down okay. "He juuuust landed." was the eager reply, and I tell my supervisor and instructor so my sup could log the event. "Can I send the other guys in?" I ask the tower. "Sure, bring 'em in." I get the other two back on course and switched them to tower.

And that was that. The planes keep calling and I keep working. The traffic doesn't stop just because another plane's in trouble, though pilots will be more accommodating when they hear someone in trouble on the radio.

The unexpected end to this happened when the land line from the tower rings a few minutes later. I pick it up. "This is the Whiting sup. Is this the controller?" "Errr, yes?" I reply, wondering what I'd screwed up. He continues, "Hey, listen, I just want to thank you for helping us out with that emergency. Also, holding those other guys out gave us plenty of space to work with him and get him on the ground. Good job." I wasn't expecting anything like that. "Hey, no problem at all. Anytime," I replied and unkeyed the line.

The sup's comments definitely lit up my day, although I didn't (and still don't) think I'd done anything special. Handling emergencies and such are part of the job description. The experience served as a good reminder of the basic purpose of ATC: controllers working together to keep people safe. I know for a fact any other controller here at my facility or anywhere else in the country would have handled that situation the same way. It's just part of the job.

In the grand scheme of things, a student pilot with his gear stuck down is not exactly a major emergency - unlike an engine fire, a fuel emergency, or landing gear stuck up. If there's such a thing as a "starter emergency" this was definitely it! However, it allowed me to get acquainted with the overall procedures involved in emergencies such as:
  • Taking care of the distressed pilot's needs.
  • Notification of the supervisor.
  • Notification of the tower.
  • Coordinating with other facilities.
  • Gathering information from the pilot.
  • Working other aircraft around the emergency.
  • Keeping your voice calm and reassuring to a distressed pilot.
Good experience. One more tool in that ever-growing toolbox.


Anonymous said...

hey WP... drop me an email if/when you get a chance.!


Paul (BEB)

Anonymous said...

I was a center controller for 30 years (ZJX, ZAU). Unless something has changed since I retired, there is no prohibition whatsoever in identifying an aircraft in someone else's airspace. That is actually a fairly common occurrence, especially when dealing with lost a/c or a/c who have a wrong frequency.

Further, your communication with CEW did not accomplish what you think it did. You told the controller that there was someone in his airspace that you were working VFR. From his perspective, that was an utterly meaningless exchange. Although, he said, "point out approved," which, if the a/c was IFR, would have given you control to do whatever you wanted, that wasn't really what he did. The most proper response probably should have been "traffic observed" although there's probably not one controller in 100 who understands the application and ramifications of that phrase.

And, since the a/c was VFR, you could not issue it an IFR clearance, even given the CEW controller's "POA," without a second conversation involving the word "clearance" or "IFR." That's a pretty big exception to the "do whatever you want" license.

In fact, I know you had no intention of giving an IFR clearance to the a/c, and maybe that's the perspective from which you wrote the piece. However, while nice-to-know information for the CEW controller, there really was no particular reason to involve him at all. Rightly or wrongly, VFRs to Center people have an entirely different significance than do they to Tower folks.

Good luck in your training.


Anonymous said...

FWIW, as a CURRENT center controller (of over 23 years) I think your PO to center was fine. Since it was an emergency, you didn't know WHAT the T34 was going to want/request/expect -- so you covered all your bases ahead of time. You may have wanted to mention to the center controller that the T34 was having a problem, however... BTW LRod, if you're going to assign a code to an a/c in someone else's airspace, and give that a/c services, you do need to let that controller know.

Paul said...


Nice job, btw. Both the handling of the emergency and the presentation here.

Please keep this up. Don't let a few idiots spoil the show.


Callsign Echo said...

Great post, very exciting. It was really cool to hear about emergencies from the controllers perspective. It is probably very lucky for that T-43 pilot to have a "starter" emergency like you said. I've had a "situation" or two occur in my training, and thankfully they were all just tame enough to give me the experience of dealing with the unexpected without permanently scarring my little pilot psyche. No emergencies yet (knock on wood). I'm so glad I found your blog. Keep the posts coming!

Wicked Penguin said...

I'm definitely grateful for this starter scenario. It's helped me with other situations as well.

The most exciting one was a T-34 with an engine fire light. These planes are pretty quick, but normally cruise at around 180-200 knots. This particular pilot sounded cool as a cucumber as he made his way in. He actually asked for permission to violate the Class C speed restriction (200 knots). I of course approved it and he came screaming in at 250 knots as I flushed everyone out of the way and told the tower he was coming.

Callsign Echo said...