On the 7th March we reported on the winners of the 9th Archie League Medal of Safety Awards in the USA. I spent a couple of hours listening to each award winners' recording on the NATCA page. It is always an interesting award ceremony and also we can learn a lot from the safety lessons learned in any incident in ATC.
One of the award winning controllers that jumped off the page for me was Lou Ella Hollingsworth. An incident where if she had not used her instinct and training the crew of the arcraft may have all not been able to recount that day's flight to the award selection comittee.
It is slightly ironic then that we hear from NATCA that Lou Ella is one week later subject to the work restrictions implemented by the 'sequestration furloughs' in the USA.
I was always taught in my ATC training: Safety first! Are we now losing this mindset in one of our most developed continental systems. I hope not. Please read further on how Lou Ella saved a crew's life last year. Should she be working less?
On Nov. 16, 2012, controller LouElla Hollingsworth was faced with a pilot flying a Piaggio P180 Avanti (N501PM) that was experiencing one of the worst and most unsuspecting conditions pilots can encounter when flying – extremely low oxgen levels known as hypoxia.
Hollingsworth first suspected something was wrong when she realized the aircraft was not climbing. She requested a climb, but the pilot did not respond. Instead, she heard just a ‘click’ sound on the radio frequency. She asked for a microphone check several times, thinking the pilot had a connection problem. When he did make verbal contact with Hollingsworth, his speech was slurred and he seemed to be incoherent. Hollingsworth had no previous flight experience herself, but knew this pilot was in trouble.
Hollingsworth: "November Five Papa Mike, I think you need to start a descent; can you do that for me? Descend and maintain flight level two four zero?"
Another pilot noticed the situation and contacted Hollingsworth, "I don't know if you can hear that guy, but he does not sound good... Oxygen... oxygen."
With no other options except to continue to keep communicating, Hollingsworth began to repeatedly advise the pilot to descend. She asked him to put on his oxygen mask in hopes he would soon respond and fly to a lower altitude.
Hollingsworth: "November one papa mike, if you got the oxygen try that and descend and maintain flight level one eight zero."
At some point, the pilot strapped his oxygen mask on and immediately seemed more coherent when contacting Hollingsworth. She continued to direct and advise the descent, and then asked if he was doing better. The answer came as a relief.
N501PM: "Yes we are, thanks for the help. For some reason the cabin altitude was showing okay but it uh we had some oxygen issues so, down to uh eighteen or lowest we can get."
Hollingsworth: "November one papa mike descend and maintain one four thousand, we’ll get you down there first and take a look at it and see. Let us know if you need to go anywhere else but you do sound a whole lot better. You were not sounding good at all earlier."
Hypoxia is a dangerous occurrence, and it's often hard to distinguish. But throughout this event, Hollingsworth maintained a firm, calm voice until she passed the pilot to the next controller. The pilot continued the rest of his flight and eventually made it to his destination with no further problems.