Thunderstorms spread across the region one April day last year as Joseph J. White stared at the radar screen in a darkened room in the lower level of the air traffic control tower at T.F. Green Airport.
“I was just sitting there,” White recalled on Thursday. “The weather was bad, so there weren’t a lot of planes flying around.”
But then he noticed a plane east of Hartford, Connecticut, on the screen that covers about 100 miles. Codes on the screen indicated the plane was headed to Providence. But the plane was flying south, toward Long Island Sound.
White tried to get the pilot to correct his flight path.
“Every new heading I gave him, he was off by 90 degrees every time,” White told The Providence Journal.
The pilot, flying a single-engine, four-seat Mooney M20K, sounded more and more panicked as time went by, White said. He was flying through storm clouds with zero visibility and heavy turbulence.
“My trim’s not working, my uh, GPS is not working, and my auto-pilot’s not working,” the pilot, the only person on board, reported to White, according to a recording of the incident.
With a plane flying blind through the clouds, White, a controller with five years experience at the time, declared an emergency. Luckily, it was the middle of the day, when commercial air traffic at Green is light, and the lousy weather kept most pilots of small planes on the ground. “I didn’t really have many other planes at all,” White said. “I wouldn’t have had anyone within 10 miles of him.”
The controller guided the pilot into the Providence area, where another factor complicated the situation: the low-level radar — for planes below 3,000 feet — for the Providence area was down for maintenance. That meant White could not see the crippled plane directly on his scope. A second controller was able to relay the pilot’s position to White.
They tried several times to line the plane up with the main runway at Green. “He couldn’t see anything.”
Finally, the controller directed the pilot to fly low, below the clouds, below the usual minimum altitude of 2,000 feet. “We try to keep them 1,000 feet above any obstructions.”
Descended toward 1,200 feet, the pilot broke through the clouds.
“He told me he saw Providence [Green], and then quickly corrected and said it was Quonset,” White said. The mistake is easy to make. Both airports have two runways that cross each other at the same compass headings.
The pilot wanted to turn around and head for Green, but White would have none of that. “I knew that would introduce more risk.”
Now White, of Riverside, 29, is set to be honored March 23 from the National Air Traffic Controllers Association for saving the life of the pilot, who has not been identified.