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  • Rep. Janice Peaslee, left, and Boston Center air traffic controller Chris Henchey, following Henchey's Archie League Medal of Safety Award for the New England region (Courtesy photo)
Friday, February 10, 2012

Nashua, Merrimack air traffic controllers earn national honors for leading a safe landing

Two air traffic controllers from the Boston Air Route Traffic Control Center in Nashua have been honored with Archie League Medal of Safety Awards for their ability to think quickly and remain calm under pressure.

Chris Henchey, of Nashua, and Ryan Workman, of Merrimack, were recognized as two of 15 recipients of the national air traffic control honors for their roles in helping Vermont State Rep. Janice Peaslee, a licensed pilot, land her failing Cessna 150 on a trip from Fitchburg, Mass., to Caledonia, Vt.

Henchey and Workman control traffic for Boston Center’s Area B, which covers most of Vermont and New Hampshire’s airways. Area B is primarily responsible for arrivals and departures from Boston Logan and Manchester-Boston Regional Airport, as well as Albany International Airport, Burlington International Airport and Bradley International Airport. They received the Archie League Medal of Safety Awards for the New England Region.

“He is my hero,” Peaslee said of Henchey at the National Air Traffic Controllers Association’s eighth annual Archie League Medal of Safety Awards banquet in Atlanta on Feb. 1. “He did an excellent job. His patience, his calmness, helped me.”

“One of the first things they teach us is to remain calm,” Henchey said in a phone interview Thursday. “We train for it all the time, but it’s one of those things you hope you never have to use.

“I feel like I was just doing my job that day. Any controller will tell you that.”

On Oct. 9, 2011, Peaslee was on her way home to Caledonia after a visit with her family when she began having flight navigation trouble.

She radioed into Boston Center to inform them that she was headed to the Lebanon VOR airport.

Workman first oriented Peaslee, directing her 35 degrees to the left of her plane’s position toward Lebanon’s airport, then called on Henchey, a controller with pilot experience, to assist her. Henchey is a Daniel Webster College traffic management graduate.

Henchey, a certified professional controller for just 10 months at the time, was a seasoned Cessna 152 pilot and a former flight instructor. He got Peaslee going in the right direction.

But the problems had only just begun for the Vermont representative, who has been flying planes for two years.

“The engine is just is losing power, I guess,” Peaslee reported to Boston Center, according to a transcript of the radio call.

Henchey’s instructions quickly changed as he directed Peaslee to head for Concord Airport, 11 miles west of where Peaslee was flying.

“If you can just keep that power full and try and maintain your altitude as best you can,” Henchey said.

Henchey ran through a checklist with Peaslee to check her fuel selector and circuit breakers and instructed her to restart the engine to help regain control of the flight. But Peaslee began losing power just before the engine failed, even though she had filled up her plane with fuel before taking off from Fitchburg.

“I’m sorry, there is no power, my prop is stopped,” Peaslee told Henchey. “I’m just a glider, I guess.”

Henchey determined that Peaslee no longer could make it to Concord. He advised her to set up for a maximum glide as her plane began losing altitude at about 700 feet a minute.

“The engine was fluttering back and forth, up and down,” Peaslee said Thursday. “You try emergency procedures to restart and find out what the problem is, and nothing seemed to work.”

With an engine failure checklist and his experience flying a Cessna 152, Henchey instructed Peaslee to restart her engine and to keep a nearby field in sight for landing.

“Make sure as you get down close to the ground, you have your seat belt on and you pop the doors,” Henchey advised. “We will have an aircraft monitoring the frequency for you.”

Henchey then instructed Peaslee to call the aircraft emergency frequency when she landed in the field.

Peaslee’s plane descended below 2,000 feet before Boston Center lost all radio contact with her.

“What is it like to be in the cockpit when something goes wrong?” Peaslee said during the awards ceremony in Atlanta. “Well, it’s a little unnerving. But when you have a pilot, a controller, on the other side of the mic who’s cool, calm and collected, it makes it a lot better and so that your stress level is down.”

As Peaslee hit 1,800 feet, the air traffic controllers watched the radar as her plane began to climb again.

Peaslee eventually was able to restart her engine by pulling the throttle and turning the key again. She restored contact with the air traffic controllers and was directed to Concord for a safe runway landing.

“They save lives,” Peaslee said. “Time and time again, they keep us safe, and they’re there when we need them the most. I can’t say enough good things about them.”

The conversation “seemed like forever,” Henchey said, but lasted only about five to seven minutes. And while he remained calm on the radio, his fellow controllers worked frantically behind him to alert emergency personnel and plan for the worst.

“My mind was going a million miles an hour during that whole ordeal,” he said. “When I told her to calm down and run through her emergency checklist, I pictured myself sitting there in the cockpit and said, ‘Here’s what you need to do.’ I think maybe I even made the hand motions while sitting there, just to make sure I was hitting everything.”

Henchey said there were a few moments in their conversation that gave him the impression that Peaslee was rather good-natured about the situation, like when she said she was “just a glider” after her engine failed.

At another point, Henchey asked Peaslee to look around for any major highways as possible landing locations, and Peaslee told him, “I see one, but it’s in use.”

“I actually thought she had quite a sense of humor to the whole ordeal,” he said. “She doesn’t remember it that way, but it was something about the tone of her voice.”

Henchey met Peaslee in person about a month ago, and again at the award ceremony in Atlanta last week. Peaslee gave him a big hug and thanked him profusely.

“It was pretty cool … very rarely do we get the chance to see who we’re talking to on the other side of the radios,” Henchey said. “She seemed very, very grateful that the whole ordeal turned out the way it did.”

The cause of Peaslee’s engine failure later was discovered to be a mud wasp nest found in the engine’s air intake manifold.

“It’s one of those things nobody thinks could happen, but now that it did, hopefully someone can catch it in the future,” Henchey said.

Henchey said the awards ceremony in Atlanta was an incredible experience.

“It was a huge honor,” he said Thursday. “It’s really nice to be recognized by your peers like that, with air traffic controllers from across the country. It was a humbling experience.”

Maryalice Gill can be reached at 594-6490 or mgill@nashuatelegraph.com. Follow Gill on Twitter (@Telegraph_MAG). Cameron Kittle also contributed to this report.