WADS, FAA, Navy pilots aid airmen "in the blind"

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Scott Farley
  • 1st Air Force (AFNORTH/CONR) Public Affairs
Roland Manarin pulled his Epic LT turboprop from the runway at Fairbanks International, climbing smoothly into what he hoped would be a memorable southerly sortie around Mount McKinley, and then on to Ketchikan, Alaska.

His co-pilot Harlon Hain, an Epic Aircraft instructor pilot, planned to take full advantage of the balmy August skies by helping Manarin, the Epic's owner, take his two companions for a rare view of the famed mountain before pushing on to Ketchikan, and then further south to Bend, Oregon.

After the rare clear skies around Mount McKinley, the approach to Ketchikan was quite different, entailing low ceiling and light rain.

The Epic LT, now refueled in Ketchikan, lifted off toward Bend. With his passengers looking outward, Hain instinctively looked inward and checked his instruments. The retired U.S. Air Force colonel, familiar with cockpits ranging from the L-5 to the SR-71, did not like what he saw.

"We were heading toward Bend after takeoff from Ketchikan, when at about 20,000 feet my airspeed indication started to bleed off," said Hain. "We'd lost indicated airspeed, indicated altitude and true airspeed on the glass cockpit, and also the standby instruments."

Hain took over as pilot in command and continued the climb manually with the altitude gyro, and had Manarin brief his passengers on oxygen use. Hain then radioed the Vancouver Air Control Center to brief them on what he was up against. Vancouver Center told Hain they could not pick the Epic LT up on radar, but they were reading his transponder at 23,600 feet. Hain informed Vancouver Center that his altimeter was frozen, and the transponder reading could not be correct.

Five bad instruments, three nervous passengers, and too close to congested airspace for comfort. Not good.

Then came a suggestion from Vancouver Center Hain says he'll never forget: "why don't you land and get it fixed?" Recalling the statement, Hain still chuckles today. "I'd love to have landed, but I had to have been at more than 30,000 feet then and, without altitude or airspeed information, and no radar reports due to the dead transponder, landing just wasn't an option right then."

After receiving a "last known" altitude of 23,600 feet from Vancouver Center, Hain worked to maintain altitude and pushed south toward Bend, the Epic Aircraft headquarters.

"We had just upgraded the software on the aircraft's glass panel, and I thought that might be the cause," Hain said. "I had (Vancouver Center) get a hold of (Epic Aircraft) Bend. Epic relayed they didn't have a chase plane to guide me down."

Hain attempted to troubleshoot the problems with Epic through Vancouver Center as he pushed south. While the airspeed and altitude indication failures might have meant a pitot-static tube or static port malfunction, the added transponder issue didn't fit the fix.

Epic had no immediate answers and Hain continued south, somewhere above 30,000 feet, on top of the cloud bank.

Russ Burks, an operations manager at the Federal Aviation Administration, received a phone call from his counterpart at Vancouver Center informing him of a southbound turboprop, flying without a functioning altimeter, airspeed indicator or transponder.

"We couldn't see this guy, and had no way of knowing his altitude," said Burks. "Luckily, we got him on the radio."

Burks, the shift manager at the Seattle Air Route Traffic Control Center that day, was immediately concerned when he heard the situation and declared an in-flight emergency upon hearing of the malfunctioning airplane heading toward mountains and the congested Seattle airspace.

"There were other airplanes flying in the area," said Burks, "and he would have cut across the busy skies between Seattle and Portland, so our controllers kept him west of the Seattle and Portland corridor."

Now west of Seattle airspace, the Epic LT faced no immediate danger, but remained above the heavy cloud cover. With the mounting instrument problems and no known fix, Hain knew they needed to land, soon. Burks and Seattle Center needed to locate the turboprop but, without a transponder, the FAA radar systems could not get an accurate reading of his altitude.

Enter Lt. Col. William Krueger, a mission crew commander at the Western Air Defense Sector, or WADS, at McChord Air Force Base. WADS serves as the "western eyes" of the 601st Air and Space Operations Center at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla. It is one of two air defense sectors in the U.S. that monitor the nation's airspace under Operation NOBLE EAGLE.

Burks knew that while the FAA's radars filter out raw data, the military radar systems use it to track aircraft not "squawking" a transponder code, which could indicate a potential terrorist threat. This raw radar data gives the military systems a way to measure an aircraft's altitude without a transponder.

"They can't pinpoint 9the altitude) exactly, but they can get it down to a very narrow range," said Burks, who called WADS for assistance in establishing Hain's altitude.

Lt. Col. Krueger listened as Burks explained the situation.

"When Russ said they had an aircraft with no altimeter or transponder heading toward the Olympic Mountains, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up," said Lt. Col. Krueger.

Lt. Col. Krueger called down to Master Sgt. Dave Cullins to get their "western eyes" focused on this aircraft. Air Surveillance Technician Staff Sgt. Steven Brock quickly found Hain on radar as he was crossing the Strait of Juan De Fuca, northwest of the Olympic Mountains and west of the Seattle/Portland corridor.

Lt. Col. Krueger stayed on the phone with Burks as Staff Sgt. Brock took height cuts to establish the altitude of the aircraft using the raw radar data, and Air Surveillance Officer, 1st Lt. Jason Jastillana, validated the information. WADS controllers placed the turboprop between 36,000 and 40,000 feet in the air.

With WADS now tracking Hain's position, Seattle Center made contact with an EA-6B Prowler flying out of Naval Air Station Whidnbey Island.

Lt. David P. Hurn, an instructor pilot with the Electronic Attack Squadron VAQ-129 at Naval Air Station Whidnbey Island, had just finished a local training flight over the Olympic Military Operating Area near the Olympic Mountains, and was returning to station when he heard Seattle Center on the radio assisting an aircraft in distress.

"The aircraft was heading toward Seattle airspace. I was concerned with him heading there," said Lt. Hurn. "I could hear Seattle Center talking to this plane, and they were separating him from other planes. It severely complicated the problem keeping traffic separate at all altitudes."

Seattle Center controller, Bob Moody, asked Lt. Hurn if his Prowler had equipment on board to check the altitude of the Epic LT. The electronic warfare aircraft was not equipped to check the altitude of the civilian aircraft, but Lt. Hurn offered to assist in getting Hain safely through the clouds.

Thus began a unique four-way conference call between two airmen in flight, and two seasoned air controllers, to attempt to bring Hain and his passengers' home.

WADS passed on their radar data measuring the altitude of the Epic LT to FAA controllers, who used the same information to vector Lt. Hurn's Prowler to Hain's expected position.

Based on WADS vectors, Lt. Hurn popped through the clouds and spotted the contrail of an aircraft at a distance of 10 miles off the nose, flying at nearly 35,000 feet and 300 knots over Tatoosh Island, Wash.

Lt. Hurn, flying at nearly 500 knots, closed on the single-propeller aircraft quickly.

With Hain now found and fixed, Seattle Center linked the airmen by radio on a discreet frequency where they formulated a plan that put the Epic LT in formation with the faster Prowler. They headed into the clouds and maintained radio communication until Hain found a hole in the cloud deck, and finally broke out of the blind.

"We started him west and he was able to find the hole," said Lt. Hurn. "When he spiraled down, his instruments came back. Seattle Center thanked us and relayed the thanks of the pilot, and we headed back to Whidnbey."

Seattle Center directed the Epic LT to 11,000 feet and, once Hain could see ground, he chose to continue on to Epic headquarters in Bend for evaluation and repairs. Even with functioning instruments Hain remained in visual flight rules, and made an uneventful landing, closing the book on a most memorable flight.

The following day Epic Aircraft technicians found that the static port had indeed malfunctioned, which shut down the pitot-static systems on the Epic LT. Technicians repaired the transponder, and the Epic LT is once again flight worthy.

Lt. Col. Krueger said it is rare that WADS receives this kind of call from the FAA, but the good rapport they have built over the years allows both organizations to freely call each other when they need assistance.

"It happened so quickly. It was only 20 minutes during our shift, but it was something we were very proud to help them with," said Lt. Col. Krueger. "Our people felt really good about themselves being able to help a pilot in distress like that."

"A situation like this is unusual, but I was glad to do it," said Lt. Hurn. "When someone is in trouble like that, we do everything in our power to get them back down to earth."

While the military radar systems were integral to locating the aircraft and guiding it out of the clouds, it was the shared radar systems and combined expertise of FAA and WADS controllers that brought Hain and his crew home.

"I knew our military counterparts had capabilities that we don't," Burks said. "They were very helpful and reliable, but we have come to expect that. We are all playing different positions, but we are on the same team."

As for Harlon Hain, it was indeed a memorable sortie, and one that he gives full credit to the people from several agencies who worked together to guide him safely out of the blind.

"I saw some Prowler pilots the following week at the Offutt Air Force Base air show, and I asked them to get word to those pilots that they saved our butts," Hain said.