The corporate jet came into Alaska from Russian airspace last November — bound for Nome, headed into rapidly deteriorating weather and apparently lacking navigational aids for nearby airports.
By the time the Dassault-Breguet Falcon 10 carrying three people landed in Unalakleet, the aircraft was down to about five minutes of fuel.
But the jet was down, safely, with the help of two Anchorage air-traffic controllers who guided the out-of-state pilot to within sight of Unalakleet after convincing him not to turn back for Nome to try to land one more time.
The two controllers with 56 years of experience between them will receive an award from the National Air Traffic Controllers Association at the group’s convention in Las Vegas later this month.
Anchorage resident Ron Sparks, 51, and Mike Thomas, a 53-year-old from Eagle River, ultimately prevented a tragedy, said association spokeswoman Sarah McCann. The pair found an alternate landing location in Unalakleet, 100 miles to the east, when the weather soured in Nome, then encouraged the pilot not to turn back because they “knew at that point, the aircraft was running low on fuel and would not make it,” McCann wrote in an email.
“Sparks’ and Thomas’ calm and steady direction saved the pilot’s life that day.”
The two sat down on a break this week and recalled the details of the flight in a phone interview with Alaska Dispatch News.
“We’re just glad that everything turned out OK for this guy and he was able to get on the ground,” Sparks said. They didn’t know the pilot’s name, and still haven’t spoken him with him.
The jet is registered to Nick Gitsis at an address in the Philippines, according to a Federal Aviation Administration database. Gitsis is a Greek-American businessman who co-founded a Philippine airline called South East Asian Airlines (SEAIR), and also owns a restaurant in New York state, among other holdings. He did not return calls made to Silverlake Family Restaurant asking for an interview.
The controllers work at the Anchorage Air Route Traffic Control Center on Boniface Parkway outside the gates of Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. The center controls 2.4 million square miles of mostly high-altitude airspace — an area larger than that covered by the Lower 48. The sector this flight entered takes up a swath of Alaska sky nearly the size of Texas.
The jet emerged onto their radar in late November, coming from Russia about 150 miles southwest of Nome, Sparks said. It was flying at about 27,000 feet.
The pilot missed his first approach into Nome, unable to get the airport in sight due to heavy weather. He tried another approach and missed again, the men said.
“That’s where the weather really went bad in Nome,” Sparks said.
The pilot told them he was getting low on fuel. So the controllers looked up other approaches with enough runway — 3,500 feet — for the jet to land. Weather was bad all along the coast except for Kotzebue and Unalakleet, which was closer. Sparks, who was communicating directly with the pilot while Thomas worked the phones to gauge local conditions, suggested Unalakleet. They had called over a supervisor who was also monitoring the tense situation.
The pilot was reluctant to give up on Nome, Sparks said. “He wanted to do the approach again. About halfway to Unalakleet he wanted to turn around and do the approach again. We told him the weather was a quarter-mile. It wasn’t likely he was gonna get into Nome.”
The controller said it wasn’t clear just how much information the pilot had on other airports in the area. There was a bit of a language barrier that made communication difficult, he said.
The pilot said he didn’t have instrument approach procedure charts for Unalakleet that would give him detailed navigational information to find his way down even in low-visibility conditions. But he said he did have “the database” for the airport, according to a transcript of the conversation between the pilot and Sparks. Both controllers said this week they weren’t sure what he meant by that.
The pilot didn’t fly like he had detailed information about the Unalakleet airport, the men said. The transcript shows he made several requests for fairly basic information like the airport identifier letters and runway vectors.
Sparks tried to “steer” the pilot down to the approach path but had to repeat specific instructions after he appeared not to follow the directions, Thomas said.
About 45 miles out from the airport, the controller and pilot had a brief but dramatic exchange, the transcript shows.
Sparks, using the federal “N” registration number on the plane’s tail, asks for an update: “N256V, how much fuel in time do you have?”
The pilot answers: “We have maybe 15 minutes.”
Sparks: “N256V Roger. And how many souls on board?”
The pilot was looking at about 10 minutes flying time to Unalakleet’s airport at that point, Sparks said.
The plane was high — above 20,000 feet — when it started its descent. That may have been because the pilot was worried about running out of fuel and wanted to be able to glide down, Sparks said, though the two didn’t talk about that.
It’s unusual for a pilot to cut it so close in terms of fuel, the controllers say. Federal fuel requirements for flying in instrument conditions require a plane to carry enough fuel to fly to a pilot’s intended airport and an alternate airport, and then fly another 45 minutes at normal cruising speed.
The controller continued to provide instructions on the right vectors and talked the pilot down to 3,000 feet, according to the transcript. The airport was straight ahead, 10 miles away. Then 5 miles away.
That’s where Sparks lost radar contact with the jet as it descended.
“We have the airport,” the pilot is heard saying.
“N256V, I understand you have the airport in sight?” Sparks asks.
“Affirmative,” the pilot replies.
Minutes later, the jet was on the ground.
“We were very relieved when the guy said, ‘We got on the ground’ and thanked us,” Thomas said. “It was a lot better than what could have happened.”
The two controllers immediately moved on to a growing list of other aircraft that needed their help.
Sparks said he had asked at least two pilots to stand by as he worked the jet’s approach into Unalakleet.
“All the pilots throughout that sector heard what was going on and heard the urgency,” he said. “They put off their requests … Those pilots were real patient.”
Sparks and Thomas will join 13 other controllers receiving the Archie League Medal of Safety Award on March 23. The award, named after the country’s first air-traffic controller, recognizes controllers who performed “above and beyond” under extraordinary circumstances.