Portland air traffic controllers lauded for guiding pilot to safety during storm

Posted March 25, 2010, at 9:50 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — With the weather closing in, pilot Rich Townsend took off from Fryeburg with hopes of beating the clouds back to his home in New Hampshire. But the storm cut off his path, and the cloud ceiling dropped, leaving him disoriented over a landscape dotted with hills and mountains.

Confused and flying in circles, Townsend relied on a pair of air traffic controllers from Portland International Jetport to keep him calm — possibly saving his life — he said Thursday.

The hour-long ordeal had a happy ending as Kevin Plante and Chris Presley used radar and highway maps to help the pilot follow local landmarks and roads to the airport in October. They were honored this week by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association at the union’s awards banquet in Orlando, Fla.

“He was in a situation flying the airplane where he was in way over his head,” Plante said, recounting the tense moments while assisting Townsend.

Townsend said he hadn’t been instructed on flying using only instruments, and was certified to operate his Cessna 152 only under aviators’ visual flight rules.

The businessman from Barrington, N.H., said the weather was fine when he left the Fryeburg Fair on Oct. 9, but he knew clouds were coming in from the west. His backup plan was to land in either Portland or Sanford if overcast skies prevented him from making it to Rochester, N.H.

What he didn’t count on were the clouds descending from above, reducing his visibility to zero. He said shadows in the clouds created illusions that kept him off-kilter.

He said he briefly considered ducking through a hole in the clouds to land in a field. Instead, he chose to fly higher to make radio contact with the control tower in Portland.

Using his radar display, Plante was able to find the aircraft flying in circles near Limington. He attempted to give headings to Townsend, but the pilot was unable to follow them.

Townsend’s plane eventually dropped to 300 feet, and he emerged from the clouds over Windham. Using a road map, Presley fed directions to Plante. With darkness closing in, Townsend eventually saw the runway lights and piloted his airplane to a safe landing.

“The traffic controllers were awesome,” Townsend said Thursday. “I’d say they could not have done a better job. They were perfect.”

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