NAVAL AIR STATION WHIDBEY ISLAND, Wash. – An air traffic controller at NAS Whidbey Island responded to a mayday alert on Tuesday, March 4, when a pilot flying a small private aircraft experienced an inflight emergency about six miles from Friday Harbor airport.
At approximately 3:30 that afternoon, Harold Edwards received a mayday call from a single engine Piper Comanche flying south of Friday Harbor Airpark. The aircraft in question was flying through clouds and reported he was going down. Edwards promptly identified the aircraft and established communications with the pilot.
With the cloud cover obscuring his sight, the pilot initially thought he was going to ditch his aircraft in the water. Edwards was able to ascertain where the pilot was in relation to Friday Harbor Airpark, gave assurances to the pilot he wouldn’t have to land in the water and vectored him toward land. While Edwards was assisting the pilot in locating the shoreline he simultaneously contacted and diverted a Coast Guard helicopter toward the afflicted aircraft.
Meanwhile, the Piper Comanche aircraft managed to regain power briefly two times. That provided him with enough range and lift to ultimately reach the airport. The second incident was particularly important as it came when the pilot was at an altitude of 100 ft. over the San Juan Golf and Country Club golf course upon approach.
Edward’s supervisor, praised him for his professional demeanor throughout the ordeal, noting that his demeanor and solid decision making helped the pilot remain calm, which aided in the safe landing. His quick and concise transmissions to the aircraft aided the pilot in sighting the shoreline.
Edwards, said he was impressed by the pilot’s composure during this incident, “I could tell there was a sense of urgency in his voice. However, he did not sound panicked. His voice and his actions told me that he was very concerned but focused on saving his life.”
Edwards, who has been an air traffic controller for 22 years, 15 at NAS Whidbey Island, said he has handled hundreds of emergency situations in that time, with about a dozen involving life threatening emergencies such as crashes or near crashes.
“Those experiences make the responsibility that air traffic controllers have to assist emergency aircraft very real to me,” Edwards said. “The immediate change that occurs when an emergency occurs or starts to develop is an awareness of the importance in making the right decisions the first time. In an emergency there is not usually the opportunity for second chances. As a controller, I become a source of information to the pilot, so that he can make the best decision for him. As soon as I assess the nature of the emergency I began to consider what information and resources I have that can help the pilot in his situation.”
NAS Whidbey Island is one the most complex and air traffic control facilities in the Navy, controlling over 170,000 military and civilian aircraft operations a year. Many of these operations are unique and are not the routine style of operations repeatedly performed at other military-style airfields.