It is hot and humid early afternoon. I was working as an executive air traffic controller at Ljubljana Approach, meaning I was responsible for airplanes departing and landing from and to Ljubljana airport and all neighboring airports (Zagreb, Pula, Klagenfurt, Graz, and others). Traffic was a bit lazy, partially it was due to the cold front just passing over, causing havoc in the air. Huge swollen Cb clouds everywhere, strong winds and rain, occasionally with hail are not appealing for pleasure flying or flying in general.I had only a few aircraft on my frequency, all avoiding clouds and trying to find a safe passage through the walls in the sky. I was expecting an ATR72 to call in any minute when the phone rang. My assistant, whose role was to communicate via phone with colleagues in other sectors, our own and neighboring, and of course with controllers in airports Ljubljana, Maribor, and Portorož, picked it up.
This call was coming from Ljubljana…there was a guy, who wanted to take off for an IFR training flight, so the Tower was seeking authorization from us, as we would take him over from them. I was listening with one ear to the conversation, and I could hear my assistant, trying to persuade Tower controllers to bring this guy to reason, as the weather was not only far from optimal for training, but it was also downright dangerous. As far as I could comprehend, this pilot was stubborn and persistent and apparently had no real apprehension about how bad the weather actually was.
I was not going to have this…so I intervened and told my assistant, that I’m not authorizing this flight and that no take-off is to take place. Basically, I used my nuclear option – as an executive controller, I have final authority under what conditions I accept a flight from the previous sector (if I accept it in the first place), in this case, Tower. I was having none of this nonsense. By default, I rarely block people from using the airspace I’m controlling…for instance – if conditions are favorable for wave gliding, I will enable fellow pilots to enjoy them and will re-route other traffic around them, as waves can take them quite high. On the other hand, I have no fear of taking over when weather conditions are bad, ordering pilots to land at the nearest suitable airport, and giving as much information about the current situation in the air as I can get.
Too many pilots have lost their lives during my career because they disregarded the dangers of bad weather.While both of us were engaged in persuading this “mule” of a pilot to stay put on the ground and wait for a couple of hours while the cold front passes and the weather improves, ATR called in, reporting flying directly to DOL VOR for ILS approach in Ljubljana. I asked the crew if they have got the latest ATIS and told them that there were many avoiding actions by other pilots in the air. They confirmed and continued towards the airport. Some 30 nautical miles to DOL VOR, they suddenly asked to take a westerly heading to avoid a cloud on their way. I approved it and moved my attention to Austrian Dash 8 calling in near Golf of Trieste and immediately it was asking for permission to turn east for the same reason. There was some more exchange over RT (radio), and a few seconds later, the ATR called back, that they are now clear of the weather and that they would like to continue toward DOL VOR. I approved of course, and my attention again shifted toward a new aircraft calling in. Then I saw it.The ATR was not flying towards DOL, but continued turning eastwards and then southwards and when they entered in the third quarter of the full circle, I asked if everything was ok.I was not ready for the answer which came back.“
We have lost all instruments but the altimeter, speed indicator, and artificial horizon.”Even though I knew what the answer will be, I nevertheless asked: “Are you able to maintain the given heading?” No…” they answered bluntly.All the training, pilot experience, and common sense instantly kicked in instantly…There was no hesitation…I told them, I will guide them to landing by instructing them when to initiate and when to stop the turn. They agreed. And thus the dance toward the runway began. I would tell them: “Start your right turn”, and wait until they turned to the right and then stop them with the command: “Stop your turn now!”. To make things more interesting, I had to anticipate when to issue the command to stop, as we don’t have a raw radar picture, which would show the situation in the air in almost real-time. What we have, as the majority of controls all over the world do – is a synthetic radar picture, meaning, different radars take note of aircraft position, send the information to a so-called tracker, where data is extrapolated and position is calculated and plotted on the screen. Meaning the depiction of the radar plot on the screen is not in real-time and is lagging behind what is actually going on in the air. I had to use all my technical expertise and experience to anticipate and guess where the nose of the aircraft is actually pointing, not to be misled by what I saw on the radar. In normal circumstances, it would not be a problem at all, as the crew would have had the aircraft fully under control and would base their actions on what the instruments would tell them.
Remember, this one had almost no working instruments…The first goal was to bring them to the extended axis of the runway. But as easy as it might seem, I had to consider the weather, which was worsening by the minute. The phone rang again. I could hear my colleague negotiating with Tower controllers about that training flight again…and I just snapped. I barked, not even looking at him: “Tell them to tell him we have an emergency and if he calls in again, I’m coming to the apron personally to tell him NO!” I had more imminent things to solve…I remembered the approximate course they took after they reported returning to the airport after avoiding the thunderstorm. This was my gateway toward the runway. Our weather radar is rather good and integrated into a radar picture, the only problem being the age of data, as it is not refreshed as often as weather radar scans it. The dance with turning and stopping resumed. It was not long before I had them aligned and almost exactly on the axis of the runway. My eyes were glued to the screen, as any deviation left or right had to be picked up and corrected immediately. I had no idea what wind was blowing in the vicinity of the airport, I could only guess it was all over, as the cold front was passing with all the Cb clouds popping up everywhere.
The stage was prepared for the last part of the ordeal. Now I had to descend them, but there was a problem – we are allowed to descend aircraft only to prescribed minima, and in this case, they had to maintain 4000 feet almost until the outer marker, after which I was able to authorize descent to 3500 ft. When airplanes are following the glide path, flying either ILS or VOR approach, they would be at 2500 ft at that position. The 1000 ft difference was now eating my nerves, as the reported cloud ceiling was exactly that – 3500 ft. As they were unable to descend IFR, we had to wait until they were VFR, meaning they can see the ground and runway. 30 seconds have passed. The tension was so high, you could hear a pin being dropped…I was mentally preparing and was just about to push the button on the microphone to order the execution of the radar-guided missed approach procedure climbing and turning away from the airport when they announced with audible relief: “We can see the runway!” In agreement with the Tower, I cleared the ATR to land and transferred it to Tower frequency. The landing was uneventful, I never heard from the crew or their company commenting on the incident.
Later that year, I was awarded quite a substantial amount of money, as a reward for what I’d done. I politely declined, saying, I’m already receiving my salary and that this is what we were supposed to do anyway.
The happy ending of a potentially catastrophic event was a big enough reward for me. Hoping, that the ATR crew and all the crews that were listening to what was going on, could grasp our determination not to give up and to dedicate all the time and resources possible to find a solution when shit hits the fan. So should you.
(photos are symbolic)