Air traffic control specialists James Hossenlopp, 36, (left) and Jason Harvey, 35, pose for a portrait in the Testing and Training Lab at the Atlanta Air Route Traffic Control Center in Hampton, Georgia, on Friday, Oct. 27, 2017. (CASEY SYKES / CASEY.SYKES@AJC.COM)
Photo: Casey Sykes
Photo: Casey Sykes

Local air traffic controllers help guide troubled airliner to safety

Two air traffic controllers at a Federal Aviation Administration facility in Henry County are sharing the story of how they helped guide a flight in trouble to a safe landing at a small airport in Alabama.

American Airlines flight 5559 took off from New Orleans bound for Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport on June 21 but encountered trouble.

The Bombardier CRJ-700 flight was operated by American subsidiary PSA Airlines as an American Eagle regional flight, with 65 passengers and four crew members on board.

While flying through the vast area of Southeastern airspace monitored by the FAA air route traffic control center in Hampton, known as Atlanta Center, the crew reported the cabin had lost pressurization. The crew briefly lost communications with air traffic control due to an electrical issue, then regained contact and said a passenger had passed out in the back of the cabin, according to controllers.

Soon, the crew reported a brake on the plane was overheating, according to controllers. Then there was a smell of smoke in the cabin and cockpit — making it even more of an emergency.

The pilots had wanted to divert to Montgomery, but with the situation worsening, the controllers found a closer airport at Craig Field, a small airfield near Selma that doesn’t even have a control tower. As a former U.S. Air Force pilot training base, it does have a long runway, fortunately.

During an emergency situation like Flight 5559, “there’s a lot of controlled chaos” at air traffic control, said Jason Harvey, one of the air traffic controllers who handled the flight from Atlanta Center, which is the busiest air traffic control facility in the world.

“This one just kept escalating,” said James Hossenlopp, another air traffic controller in Hampton who helped handle the flight and talked about it with media Friday. “You just go back to your training and your experience.”

The flight also had to navigate through rainy and cloudy weather that day.

“That many things to go wrong, with that kind of weather — it’s like your worst-case scenario,” Harvey said.

Controllers in Montgomery helped the plane land safely at around 11:40 a.m., with medical assistance and a local fire crew waiting on the ground.

“It’s a great feeling. But, as soon as we finished with that, we keep doing our job,” Hossenlopp said.

Passengers were taken by bus to Montgomery’s airport to continue their trips. Two passengers were transported to a local hospital for minor injuries.

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