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Disaster Averted – Feb. 22, 2012
by Leah Carey
It was a clear Sunday afternoon in October, 2011, when Rep. Janice Peaslee took off for an unforgettable flight in her Cessna 150.
Peaslee got her pilot’s license in November 2009 and loves flying. “I tried it and I got hooked on it right off,” she said this week. “There’s nothing like flying.”
During her flight training, she studied and practiced emergency protocols. “They need to be stressed over and over and over. They’re not fun, but they do pay off in the end.” Peaslee should know, because on that afternoon of Oct. 9, her engine quit and she had to contemplate an emergency landing in a corn field.
She was visiting family in Fitchburg, Mass., and took off from Fitchburg Airport, headed for Caledonia County Airport in Lyndon.
“One of my personal minimums is that I don’t take off without full fuel,” she explained, “so I knew I had full fuel, which is three hours.” Nevertheless, after only an hour of flying, her engine started to sputter and then died. She essentially became a glider. She called her plight in to the closest air traffic control center, which was Boston Center in Nashua, N.H.
“You’re supposed to say ‘mayday’ three times, but I couldn’t think of the word,” she laughed. “I wasn’t going to waste my time trying to think of the word, I just said what the problem was. That got their attention!”
Ryan Workman was initially on the other end of the call, but he quickly realized that Peaslee needed to be talking with someone who was familiar with the type of plane she was flying, which only has one engine. He put Chris Henchey on the line.
According to Peaslee, Henchey was a flight instructor who knew the Cessna she was flying. “He knew all the controls, knew how they handle and act and so on, so he was the right person for the job to help me.”
Henchey started running through emergency checklists with Peaslee, trying to diagnose the problem and get the engine restarted. The whole time, he sounded absolutely unflappable. “He was so cool, calm and collected,” Peaslee said with admiration. “He’s worth his weight in gold. You would never know what was going on from his voice. That makes a big difference.” She also noted that when she heard the emergency call recording for the first time, she was surprised at how calm her own voice sounded. “You’re too busy to get nervous. You’re recalling everything you know about something like that.”
During the incident, Peaslee had identified a corn field she could use for an emergency landing. “I figured it was corn and probably still standing, but that was okay. I knew I could land and everyone would be safe. I didn’t know how my plane would fare.”
As she lost altitude, Henchey warned her that they would also lose radio and radar contact with her. She had descended to approximately 2500 feet when she tried to prime the engine (releasing more fuel into the engine) as a last-ditch effort. Miraculously, it worked. The engine restarted and she began to climb again.
She would later learn that a colony of mud wasps had built a nest in her air intake, which caused fuel starvation and shut down the engine. “[The mechanics] saved it for me. It’s some sand and some little black things. That was the culprit.”
Peaslee credits Henchey with her success that day. “I called Chris and told him he was my hero. He really is.” She also learned later that he was even busier behind the scenes than she could have known while on the radio with him. “They clear the airspace for you. I didn’t know that at that the time, because [Henchey] has a team of people working with him while he’s talking to me.”
Henchey has now received both local and national recognition for his actions that day. Peaslee presented a plaque to him at Boston Center. It was the first time the two of them met. At the beginning of February he received the Archie League Medal of Safety from the National Air Traffic Controllers Association at an awards ceremony in Atlanta, Ga. “He’s only been with them for about three years, and only certified as an air traffic controller for about 10 months when it happened,” marveled Peaslee.
The incident hasn’t dampened Peaslee’s enthusiasm about flying at all. “I go just as often as I can!” she said. Of course, she hopes that she’ll never go through another experience like this one again. “Could I have done it without him? I don’t know. I wouldn’t want to have found out.”
You can listen to the full emergency call audio at http://www.unionleader.com/images/ul/2012/NewEnglandATCaudio.mp3.
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