A Life Saving Air Traffic Controller Story

I have a new friend. He saved my life once, a half-dozen years ago. Just recently we met because he wanted to get his tailwheel endorsement. Am I a lucky guy, or what.
I mean, how many times do you get a chance to do something for someone who once saved your life. What happened follows, anon.
I was flying approaches with a soon-to-be instrument pilot in a Cherokee – 8451R, if any of you remember it. We were doing the typical-for-the-time San Diego trio, – VOR-A OKB, ILS 24 CRQ, ILS 28R MYF – had finished the first two and were being vectored by the Lindbergh final air traffic controller, whom we’ll call “Bill”.
We were cleared for the approach, had intercepted the localizer and were on the glide slope inside DEORO, the old FAF and compass locator.
All was fine until “Bill” called and in a hurried voice said, “Cherokee 8451R, traffic at your 12 o’clock, your altitude, moving fast. If you don’t see it, do something. NOW.” (The quote may not be exactly correct, but you tend to remember, clearly, moments in which your life can end.)
I grabbed the controls from my student, jerked the Cherokee up and right and added full power – having never seen the oncoming traffic.
A moment or two passed.
“Bill” called up and said, “8451R, you still with me?”
I calmed and said, “What’s the matter? Did our blips merge?”
He said, “Yes, sir.”
“Well,” I said, “We’re still with you.” We were climbing and turning through a northerly heading.
“What are your intentions,” “Bill” asked.
“Let’s see … ,” I replied. “… Well … after changing my underwear, we’d like to be vectored back for another attempt at the approach.”
“Very well,” he replied. “Climb to 3,800 feet and turn to a heading of 090°.”
“3,800 and 090,” I had my student reply. The student wasn’t terribly shaken, since he was under the hood and, while he could feel the maneuver I’d performed, he had been focused on flying the approach and hadn’t had time to process what had happened.
After a minute or so on the easterly heading, “Bill” called again.
“Cherokee 8451R, the aircraft that nearly hit you is a Malibu, and he’s on final for 27R at Gillespie. I’ve already called the tower and they have instructions to have the pilot call me as soon as he lands.” He paused, then added, “Is there anything you’d like me to tell him?” I could almost hear a smile in his voice.
“Yeah,” I replied. “Could you get his address for me. There are a few things I’d like to share with him in person.”
“I can’t do that,” he said, this time with a chuckle, “But I’ll be happy to let him know how disappointed we both are in his behavior.”
“Bill” then apologized for the sudden, late traffic call, but he said the target had just popped up on his screen prompting the hurried “traffic alert”.
(Probably because the weenie jerk a’hole had just remembered to turn on his transponder. Frkn Malibu drivers.)
I told him that we appreciated the warning and, in no way felt that an apology was warranted from the saver of our lives.
“Bill” vectored us back around for another approach, then cleared us for the approach. We intercepted and tracked the localizer and glide slope and proceeded apace.
Inside DEORO, “Bill” made one last radio call.
“Cherokee 8451R, there are absolutely no targets between you and the airport. Contact Montgomery Tower on 119.2.”
I thanked “Bill”, again, for saving our lives and switched to Montgomery Tower.

After we landed and debriefed the approaches. I called SOCAL TRACON, asked to speak to the supervisor for the Lindbergh arrivals sector. When the call was put through, I identified myself as the instructor aboard 8451R.
“Bill” on the other end of the line, said, “That was me.”
He was filling in momentarily for the supervisor who had stepped away from his desk. We introduced ourselves and after thanking him, I asked him if this were a common occurrence.
He replied, “Unfortunately, yes. I’ll have to break airplanes off the Montgomery approach two or three times a week because someone has departed on a left downwind and, either crossed the localizer course slowly, or actually tracked the localizer out bound.”
We chatted for another minute or so, then the supervisor returned and I asked to speak with him. I told the supervisor what had happened and how “Bill” had saved our lives and asked if there were anything I could do for “Bill”. The supervisor told me that a letter would be a nice thing. FAA likes letters. He also mentioned that “Bill” had already received recognition for saving a number of lives, once talking a VFR pilot out of the clouds and away from the mountains he was approaching. “Bill”, among many other accomplishments, is a pilot also.
I wrote the letter and mailed it off, not knowing if it ever did any good. I tried to attend a number of club-sponsored safety meetings at which “Bill” was a TRACON representative (he belonged to the club, too), but circumstances always prevented me from attending, so I never had a chance to shake his hand and thank him in person.
Until last May. That’s when we got together to get him a tailwheel endorsement. “Bill” had asked the club ops manager for a tailwheel instructor recommendation and my name came up.
It’s not often you get to shake the hand of someone who saved your life. It’s a grand moment when it happens.
His flying skills were the equal of his controlling ability and we had great fun flying my Decathlon, and the club Champ. He got some time with Turner, too, in the J-3 Cub – and time with Turner in the Cub is a gift from the flying gods.
For a time, he had the misguided notion of buying a Cessna 195. “Bill” and his wife agreed that a classic 195 would be a great traveling airplane and Turner and I, and others, tried to explain that a 195, while a great airplane, was not an airplane to trifle with when you were a fairly new tailwheel pilot.
I think we convinced him.
In any event, “Bill” was nearing his retirement with Mother FAA and his wife, a medical emergency helo pilot had the opportunity for a great gig up in Seattle. “Bill’s” last days with FAA ended with 2014, and he and his wife headed northward on the New Year.
Laurel and I are planning a visit this year, in conjunction with our Super Cub sortie into Idaho. With a little luck, “Bill” will have a Cub to kick around the sky by the time we arrive. We look forward to our reunion.
Air Traffic Control suffered a huge loss on 31Dec14. Pilots flying in the system suffered a huge loss as well. So did all of his many SoCal friends – including the new one who owed his life to his new friend.
Blue skies and tailwinds, my friend. SoCal Skies will miss you.

Posted in Aviation Stories