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Air Traffic Controller Saves Pilots Life

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Here at ATC Memes, we like to take a break from the humor and share some amazing acts of professionalism in the field of aviation.  This next article is no exception…

I witnessed this save first hand and it was nothing short of miraculous.  I have attached the original story I wrote as well as a shortened version of the radar and audio replay and the video of the awards presentation which included a humbling speech from the pilot that was flying the aircraft.  Hugh McFarland went on to win the Archie League Medal of Safety for the Southwest Region, The President’s Award for best flight assist, the Andy Pitas Memorial Award, among a few other awards for his efforts that day.  Please enjoy this great story along with the videos that supplement this great save.

On November 16, 2014 Mr. Hugh McFarland working at Houston TRACON provided an outstanding flight assist to a pilot in very grim circumstances. The VFR rated only pilot departed Kerrville, Texas (KERV) en route to David Wayne Hooks (KDWH) airport in Tomball, Texas (just outside of Houston. After an estimated two hours of flying towards Houston, the pilot became stuck on top of solid IFR weather at 8,500 ft. The IMC weather the pilot was stuck on top of turned out to be almost 8,000 ft thick. The IFR conditions extended hundreds of miles around the Houston area and there was almost no chance the pilot could have flown his aircraft to an airport with reported VFR conditions with the remaining fuel he had on board. The decision was made to attempt a descent through the near 8,000 ft thick layer of solid IMC to the Houston Executive airport (KTME).

HoustonTRACONI want to take a break for a moment and point out some statistics about VFR pilots encountering IFR conditions. An article from Plane and Pilot Magazine dated in May of 2003 pointed to a study that was conducted some years back that put the average lifespan of a VFR rated pilot encountering IFR conditions at 178 seconds! That is less than 3 minutes a VFR pilot has to live after encountering IFR conditions. Twenty pilots were used as test subjects in this study. 19 of the 20 pilots tested entered graveyard spirals. The 20th would have whip stalled the aircraft had the instructor not intervened. Not one single VFR rated pilot lasted over 8 minutes in IMC.

Mr. McFarland talked this pilot through IMC conditions for 20 minutes. Let me say that again, McFarland talked this pilot through IMC conditions for 20 minutes. This pilot was not just trying to keep the aircraft stable and straight for some test like I stated above, the pilot had to descend and turn in these conditions in order to get him and his aircraft safely on the ground. Because of the efforts of McFarland, this pilot lasted almost 7 times longer in IMC conditions than the average VFR rated pilot would have lasted.

The pilot was able to descend through the IMC conditions from 8,500 ft down to 700 ft MSL before he made eye contact with the ground. During this time McFarland, a skilled multi engine instrument rated pilot, went above and beyond in assisting a fellow aviator. McFarland prepped the pilot for the descent, helped the pilot load up his Garmin 430 with KTME, constantly reminded the aircraft of his airspeed, bank angle in the turn, to stay calm, to breathe, to trim the aircraft, to ensure carb heat was on to prevent icing, you name it. Even after McFarland lost radar contact with the aircraft, he continued to provide the position of the KTME airport relative to the last known position of the aircraft. He utilized landmarks as well to help assist the pilot find the airport as the pilot was a bit unfamiliar. It is because of his actions and the actions of the other controllers assisting Hugh that, in my opinion, this pilot is alive today.

Others that assisted with the amazing flight assist were: Joe Hardesty, Ron Sorum, and Rich Davis

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