Art Bridge: Having a heart in both the cockpit and tower

Submitted photo/Art Bridge ##
Submitted photo/Art Bridge ##

After a deep immersion in aviation, facilitated by military service, I moved on to raise and family and pursue a career outside the field.

After my family was grown, I stepped back into flying. And I initially experienced some the same sweaty palm anxiety of the new pilot, who stumbles on the radio, forgets what he is told, and freezes when given direction.

One day, I heard the following, “T-t-t-t-o-o-w-w-w-e-e-r-r. N-n-1-1-2-2—3-4-4, t-t-a-a-x-x-i-i.”

I thought, this sounds like me — overwhelmed.

The tower responded, “N1234, taxi to runway 35.”

A little later, I picked up this exchange:

“T-t-t-t-o-o-w-w-w-e-e-r-r. N-n-1-1-2-2-3-4-4, r-r-r-e-a-a-d-y f-f-f-o-r-r—t-t-a-k-e-o-f-f.”

“N1234, cleared for takeoff, runway 35.”

As it turned out, the the pilot was perfectly competent. He had dealt with his stutter all his life, and the tower controller knew this.

I thought the pilot and air traffic control set a standard for the flying community that day. And it wasn’t the only opportunity I got to be impressed.

A few months later, my wife and I stepped into a Bonanza A36. It was perfect for the Angel Flight missions we had in mind, with six seats and lots of speed for a piston-powered plane.

People living with cancer often find themselves having something less than a good day, and the A36, with its comfort, speed and windows would give them some relief on their way to a clinic.

One of our first flights saw us do a round-robin up to Central Washington, enabling us to learn the aircraft’s handling. But the return destination was to an unfamiliar airport in the KPDX Class C, at the Troutdale Class D airport.

We were still VFR pilots, and as we all know, the earth looks very unfamiliar from altitude. I was pre-Foreflight at the time, and hardly knew what GNS530 was.

Somewhere north of the Class C, I informed air traffic control of out destination in Troutdale. I was directed, “160 degrees, descend and maintain 5,000 feet.”

Approach control went on to ask, “Do you know Lacamas Lake?” I said, “No, not yet, and this is an unfamiliar airplane.”

Things were happening very fast. I didn’t yet know why some pilots called the throttles “event levers.” It was because you pull them back if you don’t want things to happen so fast.

In response, the KPDX approach controller’s voice lowered, his pace of speech slowed, and he said, “No problem. It’s coming up in about 10 miles.

“Maintain this heading. I’ll call you back when you are over it.”

A few minutes later, he came back on his own, saying, “Bonanza 46UM, the airport is five miles ahead. In a couple of minutes, a bit north of the river, turn 090 degrees, maintain 1200. You will be in an extended right base for Troutdale. Contact tower.”

I did just as I was told, and landed safe and sound.

That evening, I left a voicemail with KPDX public relations, telling the rep about the whole thing. To be honest, I was surprised as tears welled up in the telling, my gratitude for this controller’s help running so deep.

In the morning, the PR rep called me back and thanked me for the voice message. Right after listening to it, she told me, she called the FAA office in Oklahoma and recommended our PDX controller for “FAA Employee of the Month.”

Now settled in with Angel Flight, we began flying patients into Portland from Boise, Bend and Medford, and sometimes passengers from Portland to Boeing Field in  Seattle or Skagit Field near Whidbey Island. Along the way, I renewed my IFR rating to deal with the smoky skies in the Northwest and the frequent stratus weather.

By now, the reader may understand my fealty to air traffic controllers and the high regard in which I hold them. The following example was just another moment in their busy lives for them, but a veritable gift of life for me.

My wife and I had to bring a 1-year-old boy from Medford to KHIO, near Portland. The baby had been forced to endure a gastric feeding tube all his life thus far.

I filed 8,000 feet in my IFR flight plan: this would get us over the mountains, and through and over the clouds. And the air at altitude would be amenable to all on board.

I mentioned in the flight plan that we were bringing in a baby for medical care.

ATC gave us only two turns the whole way before our arrival procedure, and cleared us up to only one altitude — 8,000 feet. It was the smoothest, most peaceful ride for the baby and his mother one could ever imagine.

At every frequency change from Cascade Approach at Medford, to Seattle Center, to Portland Approach, and on to the Hillsboro Tower, the controllers said, “Good morning,” or “Have a good day,” or “How are things going up there?”

They knew. They all had seen the flight plan.

They all had a hand in bringing in a baby for care. The care and safety of our airplane and our baby were foremost to us and ATC by extension.

Art Bridge is a longtime military and civilian pilot now making his home in McMinnville. This piece was excerpted from a longer version published in the Air Facts Journal at https://airfactsjournal.com.


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