Save Story: Controllers’ Composure, Helpfulness, Knowledge Save Pilot

Potomac Terminal Radar Control Facility (TRACON) controllers guide a shaken pilot through the clouds to a safe landing.

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An aerial view of Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport

Story written by C. Troxell, FAA Office of Communications

Mark Dzindzio and Ray Hanson proved to be a dynamic controller duo when a pilot in distress required undivided attention on the cloudy night of May 20, all while Air Force 2 was flying through the other side of Potomac TRACON’s airspace.

Dzindzio and Hanson were working flights in the James River Area of Potomac TRACON, outside the D.C. Metropolitan area in Warrenton, Virginia. Dense cloud cover reduced visibility in the airspace from Charlottesville, Virginia, to points south, and strong east winds presented an additional flying challenge.

A Piper PA-28 was flying inbound to Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport, approximately 20 miles west of Charlottesville, when the pilot of the single-engine, club-owned aircraft found himself in a precarious situation.

Upon initial check-in with Dzindzio, the pilot did not sound confident on frequency while double-checking the weather reports at his destination airport. While the pilot was instrument-certified, it had been more than six months since he had flown in weather requiring navigation via flight deck instruments.

“What are the ceilings looking like in Shenandoah,” the pilot asked Dzindzio as he encountered clouds during his flight.

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The club-owned Piper PA-28 flown by the pilot aided by controllers Mark Dzindzio and Ray Hanson.(Photo: Mark Pasqualino)

Dzindzio was able to answer all of the pilot’s questions regarding the weather while accomplishing his other tasks seamlessly. He vectored him on the instrument landing system at Shenandoah, but the pilot was having difficulty staying on it.

“If you can continue to follow me I’d appreciate it,” the pilot said.

“He kept asking about his heading,” Dzindzio recalled in an interview. “He went through the [instrument landing system] twice. Then he was close to the final approach fix but off course, so I canceled the clearance and put him at a safe altitude.”

The pilot told Dzindzio he was “current, but not the greatest at this” and asked for some guidance. Dzindzio had the pilot maintain 5,000 feet and asked him if he wanted to try the instrument landing system again, a GPS approach, or try flying into Charlottesville instead. With the cloud ceiling at about 2,300 feet at both airports, the pilot opted to try Shenandoah again.

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Mark Dzindzio provided the pilot with weather and other guidance.

At that point, Dzindzio briefed Hanson on the pilot’s troubles and they split the sector. Hanson, a former instrument flight instructor, gave his full attention to the distressed pilot, with support from Operations Supervisor Chris Honikel. Meanwhile, Dzindzio switched duties and picked up several aircraft on the Richmond side, including Air Force 2.

Working the Charlottesville sector, Hanson reminded the pilot to check his compass and other instruments, and clearly explained what his intentions were for the pilot’s next approach attempt. He made sure the pilot wouldn’t have to execute any large turns while constantly reminding him about standard-rate turns.

“Just for your planning purpose, I’m going to take you pretty far out, give you plenty of time to get you established on the approach,” Hanson told the pilot. “I’m going to bring you pretty much to the end of the localizer about 18 miles from Shenandoah to give you plenty of time to get established.”

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Potomac TRACON’s control room.

Noticing the pilot’s standard-rate turns were “not so standard,” Hanson asked the pilot how long it had been since he had practiced with his instruments, and the pilot said he had performed three instrument approaches the previous week. Before that he hadn’t relied on instruments to fly since October.

Hanson made sure to issue changes in headings and altitudes as separate control instructions to reduce the risk of the pilot experiencing spatial disorientation in the clouds. He helped the pilot keep his turns small and wings level, and advised him of the strong wind as a factor.

On the pilot’s next attempt to join the localizer, he continued to struggle, making huge course corrections to the left and right.

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Controller Ray Hanson helped guide the pilot to Shenandoah Airport.

“From a flight instructor standpoint, you can see he has not done an instrument approach with a bunch of wind in a long while and he’s not comfortable with it,” Hanson said. “He would get on the localizer, and he would get off course, catch it and then back off. I was reminding him, small turns, small corrections.”

Hanson walked the pilot step by step through how to join the localizer and informed him that Culpepper Regional Airport was reporting higher ceilings (4,000 feet) than Shenandoah’s (2,300 feet). The pilot recognized the airport as a good alternative but decided to keep heading toward Shenandoah.

Hanson cleared him to final approach about five miles out, but the pilot began deviating from course. As Hanson was terminating the approach and suggesting that the pilot divert to Culpepper, the pilot reported the field in sight and was able to land safely in visual conditions.

“Reporting cancelation of IFR; I’m on the ground. … Thank you,” the pilot said to Hanson.

The pilot later called and stated his gratitude for the calmness displayed by Dzindzio and Hanson and for the expert service he received, while confessing that he was in over his head due to the weather conditions and his inexperience.

“He admitted he kind of scared himself and was just happy to be on the ground and appreciative we were there to help him,” Hanson said.

An aerial view of Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport, where the pilot landed safely.

Hanson recalled getting himself into a similar situation when he was an inexperienced pilot at the age of 19. “I didn’t realize how dangerous it was, but I learned from my experience,” he said.

“There’s a difference between being current and being proficient,” Hanson added. “He may have been current, but it didn’t seem like he was proficient in everything.”

Despite the pilot’s limitations in flying with instruments, he had made a safe landing at his destination airport with help from the Potomac TRACON staff.

“Mark and Ray’s constant composure, helpfulness and aviation knowledge helped to mitigate a potentially dangerous situation,” Honikel said. “They exhibited the same skill and work ethic they take to work every day.”

For more information about staying proficient while current, check out the Sept/Oct 2010 issue of FAA Safety Briefing magazine, and these other stories on Cleared for Takeoff.

For more information about flying in weather conditions, check out the March/April 2020 issue of FAA Safety Briefing magazine, and these other stories on Cleared for Takeoff.


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