Controllers Aid Pilot In Distress

Controllers Aid Pilot in Distress  

Hypoxia Suspected in Near-Incapacitation

Bill Metzgar is an air traffic control specialist, not a doctor, but some diagnosing he did helped save a pilot's life. It was about noon on Oct. 27 when Metzgar, working at the Denver (Colo.) Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC), got a request from the pilot of a Cessna 425 to descend from 25,000 to 13,000 feet. The aircraft was enroute from Van Nuys, Calif. to Lincoln, Neb. He cleared the pilot to the lower altitude but saw no indication on his radar screen that the plane was descending. He also noted the pilot's speech was thick and slow. He radioed the pilot again and noticed hesitation in the response, seconds going by when the pilot's mike was open but the airman wasn't speaking.

Metzgar immediately suspected hypoxia, a condition caused by oxygen deprivation. Pilots flying at high altitudes need supplemental oxygen, and at 25,000 feet it becomes even more critical if there is a loss of cabin pressure. Without it, pilots can lose consciousness or become too incapacitated to fly.

J.C. Wilson, control room supervisor, was notified. Wilson listened in on the radio transmissions and also suspected hypoxia. Air Traffic Control Specialist Scott Sutherland, a certified flight who is rated on the Cessna 425, volunteered to help. Sutherland urged the pilot to find his oxygen supply and don his mask. Then he coaxed him into maneuvering the plane to a lower altitude while tracking the aircraft on radar. The pilot responded very slowly to Sutherland's instructions, and tension increased as Sutherland had to repeat instructions over and over before he heard a hint of recovery in the pilot's voice and detected faster responses .

As the plane descended, the pilot became clearer in his transmissions, and his responses grew sharper until he appeared to regain full faculties. The pilot was finally cleared to a safe landing at Grand Junction, Colo. Don Smith, air traffic manager at the ARTCC, believes his controllers saved the pilot's life. "Our controllers work complex terrain," Smith explained, "and there's not a better group of controllers anywhere. This flight assistance was typical of the fine work they provide all pilots."

The Denver ARTCC handles air traffic on instrument flight rules over most of Colorado, eastern Wyoming, western Nebraska, and parts of South Dakota, Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. It is located in Longmont, northwest of Denver.
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