Emergency at 580 feet

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Kelsey Owen
  • 20th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

It’s a quiet weekend afternoon, and there’s only one air traffic controller in Shaw Tower.

That controller is Staff Sgt. Samuel McLean, 20th Operations Support Squadron ATC watch supervisor, and he is currently discussing the single U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon on approach with radar approach control.

Everything, it seems, is routine. So, when the phone starts ringing - on an infrequently used line, no less - McLean gets his first taste of the unusual.

“I’m in a lot of trouble,” says the voice on the other end.

That voice belongs to a civilian pilot, an 18-year-old in a Cessna 550 Citation II who recently departed Sumter Airport enroute for Columbia, S.C., with his cousin on board as a passenger. His aircraft has experienced a total catastrophic failure - fuel is leaking at an unknown rate, and the radio and transponder have stopped functioning. While a normal aircraft in this area would be at an altitude of 2,000-3,000 feet, this one is only at 580, and descending.

“He sounded absolutely terrified,” said McLean.

With McLean unable to locate him on radar due to the malfunctioning transponder, the pilot, speaking on a cell phone, has to give McLean an approximation of his location based only on recognizable landmarks: just past McEntire Joint National Guard Base, about 20 miles west of Shaw, flying westbound with a heading of about 290 degrees.

He wants to return to Sumter, but he’s going the wrong direction. McLean gives him a corrected heading of about 110 degrees, which will bring him back east in the direction of Shaw and the Sumter Airport.

While on the phone with the pilot, McLean also has to coordinate with RAPCON to reroute the F-16 into a high holding pattern, since he is unsure of where the civilian aircraft is in the airspace.

Eventually, he does catch sight of the aircraft over the tree line, and proceeds to give suggested headings based solely on line-of-sight - a difficult feat to accomplish because vectoring relies heavily on the use of radar, which was not an option in this circumstance.

“I kept the pilot on the phone until he saw Shaw,” said McLean. “With his altitude being so low, he still couldn’t see Sumter.”

Thankfully, as he flies closer, the pilot is able to catch sight of Sumter Airport. McLean asks if he is able to make it there, and the pilot responds in the affirmative, though notes that he is flying too fast for landing.

“It was really good for me to hear that he was going too fast on final at first, because I knew he could slow down without using the gas he had left,” said McLean. “Once he said he was good to land, I told him to call me back so I could make sure he got down safely.”

McLean does receive a call back after the pilot lands, marking an end to an unusual and stressful event for the both of them.

“McLean’s ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking and his immediate reactions directly saved the lives of two civilians, and prevented the aircraft from crashing,” said Brian Egger, 20th OSS ATC watch supervisor.

“It was definitely the craziest thing that I’ve experienced, and hopefully the craziest thing I’ll ever experience,” said McLean.

McLean was awarded an Air and Space Achievement Medal for his outstanding performance in this highly abnormal situation.