Approach controllers at the Jackson-Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport Tower in Mississippi recently helped a disoriented pilot land safely during inclement weather after he flew almost two hours in a pattern that resembled a kindergartener’s doodles, with an even less steady hand.
The pilot was heading to Hawkins Field Airport in Jackson through Memphis Center’s airspace. The handoff from Memphis Center came with a warning: "The Cessna 182 had not been in radio contact for a while." The initial task of establishing radio communication began a series of events that led Jackson Tower Approach Controller Eric Nodland to use unconventional air traffic procedures to ensure the pilot’s safety.
On an anxiety scale, Nodland, a five-year controller, said the assist approached a 10. "I didn’t know if it was going to come out successfully or not," he admitted. "My theory is he hadn’t probably flown under actual instrument conditions for a long, long time and just wasn’t proficient."
Jackson Approach took the handoff of the Nov. 23 flight around 8 p.m. Central time. Once radio communication was established, the pilot said he couldn’t see the ground because of inclement weather. He was supposed to be flying using the aircraft’s instruments, but he seemed to be having extreme difficulty flying in the right direction and maintaining consistent altitude.
The controller vectored the aircraft for an ILS approach to Hawkins Field Airport, cleared the aircraft for landing, and switched him to the Hawkins Field control tower frequency. Then, the pilot unexpectedly turned off the approach and returned to the Jackson Approach frequency.
When queried about the abandoned approach the pilot stated, "I just need to gather my nerves."
The pilot’s anxiety and inability to maintain assigned headings/altitudes grew as he attempted two additional instrument approaches at Hawkins Field, each unsuccessful.
"He started doing circles in the sky," recalled Nodland.
Recognizing the seriousness of the situation, Jackson Tower Controller-in-Charge Stan Waite declared an emergency, opened another radar position, and had all other aircraft switched to an alternate frequency so he could focus his attention on the Cessna and minimize distractions for the pilot.
Waite then attempted an ASR approach, a procedure in which the controller turns the aircraft toward an airport and aligns it with the runway by using the depiction of the aircraft’s position on the radar scope. This approach would have allowed the pilot to land at Jackson Airport without having to focus on using the aircraft’s navigational instruments.
The pilot was still unable to follow the controller’s instructions, which meant the aircraft would need to be guided to a safe area of the airspace while other means of assistance were considered. That’s when Waite called on Nodland.
"The controller in charge told him to keep flying straight and level," said Nodland. "When he was unable to do that, we just kind of looked at each other and said if there’s anyone who can help, it’s me," he added, referring to Eric's prior experience as a flight instructor.
Using a calming and reassuring tone, Nodland guided the pilot as he would a new student of aviation. He determined that the pilot was familiar with the location and use of the Cessna’s flight instrumentation and equipment. He then began issuing "no-gyro" vectors to the pilot, an air traffic control procedure that instructs a pilot to turn left or right for a certain amount of time and at a specific rate of turn, to orient the aircraft in the appropriate direction without the pilot relying on instrumentation.
Think of it as similar to turn-by-turn navigation on most GPS systems.
Nodland gradually guided the aircraft to a final approach course at Jackson International Airport, with incremental turns and reminders of aircraft orientation and attitude. He consistently updated the pilot on the progress of the flight and reassured him all was going well.
As the aircraft entered the initial segment of the approach, Nodland made sure that the pilot was lined up for the runway. He constantly monitored the course the aircraft was tracking on final approach, and relayed the distance from the airport and altitude information to the pilot. Nodland also coordinated with the tower controller to ensure that the aircraft was cleared to land, which allowed the pilot to focus on the immediate task and not add possible confusion to an unsure situation during a critical phase of flight.
The pilot emerged from the base of the clouds at about 300 feet, perfectly lined up with the runway, and reported the runway in sight.
After almost two hours of working with Jackson Approach, the pilot relayed his gratitude for a safe landing.
Nodland acknowledged Waite’s efforts before he took over, as well as assistance from the rest of the tower as they declared an emergency, tried to locate the nearest VFR airport for the pilot to land, and alerted the local fire department to deploy. "Everybody on that shift was really good at helping out," he said.