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RAPCON Airman saves aircraft, crew

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Zoe M. Wockenfuss
  • 436th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
Flying from Saratoga Springs, New York to West Palm Beach, Florida should’ve been a simple flight for the seasoned pilot. Strong head winds called for lower altitudes during the trip, but in 22 years of incident-free flying, he was about to experience a first.

The flight was suddenly interrupted by a loud, distinct pop followed by abnormal engine roughness. His mind immediately started going through initial troubleshooting procedures, but after only a moment, he knew something was seriously wrong.

In that instant he keyed up his mic and declared an emergency.

On October 25, 2017, Jeff Woodard, private pilot of a Mooney M20J single engine aircraft, radioed in an emergency and was connected with Staff Sgt. Justin Stoudt, 436th Operations Support Squadron Radar Approach Control air traffic controller, who calmly communicated critical information to Woodard in order for him to safely land the aircraft.

For Stoudt’s impeccable composure and attentiveness during the emergency landing situation, he was awarded the Lt. Gen. Gordon A. Blake Aircraft Save Award on April 19, 2018.

Even now, nearly six months later, the emergency declaration still rings loud in Woodard’s head.

“The one statement that does repeat in my head was ‘can you state the nature of the emergency,’” said Woodard. “I had never declared an emergency before, and it hit me that I should have provided more information in my initial call, instead of generating another query or response.”

Having to describe something major that is happening to someone who isn’t there to see it can be very difficult, said Stoudt. He understood the importance of the situation immediately and provided the pilot with the vectors, frequencies and traffic reports he needed.

“When he said ‘severe engine roughness’ and ‘engine failure,’ that is when I knew we needed to get that aircraft on the ground,” said Stoudt.

After the initial report of the emergency, Stoudt assessed the situation and directed the Mooney to a nearby airfield for landing.

“He gave us all the information that we needed just at the times that we needed it and did so in a calm and proficient manner,” said Woodard.

Sometimes how information is relayed can be just as important as what the information is, said Stoudt.

“I feel relieved that I was able to help them,” said Stoudt. “Sometimes the best help you can give someone is just remaining calm and talking them through the situation.”

This type of emergency doesn’t happen every day; however, the training that the controllers go through is meant to prepare them for the worst.

“We train for anything from typical day-to-day operations, to severe and extremely rare emergencies, like hijacking,” said Stoudt. “During the training, however, you know the person talking to you is sitting in another room inside the facility. It takes it to another level when it is a real-life situation with someone who is actually in distress.”

With multiple things going on at once, it would be expected for tensions to be running high. Stoudt was the exception; his composure remained calm and cool.

“Hyper focused is a good way to describe what I was feeling,” said Stoudt. “I was talking to six or seven aircraft [at the time], but Mr. Woodard instantly became the priority.”

With enough focus and control, Woodard was able to safely land with partial engine power. The engine was in severe enough condition that it was removed completely and sent to an engine shop to be repaired. Mechanics later found the culprit, a failure in the number four cylinder that caused several of the mounting bolts to shear off. Had an emergency not been declared, the plane would not have likely remained airborne much longer.

With the engine fixed and the Mooney back in Florida, recognition was sought after for Stoudt’s efficient response to Woodard’s emergency.

“My wife and I consider ourselves to be very lucky, in no small part due to the quick reactions of [Stoudt] the controller that we were speaking with … he was literally a lifesaver and provided a calm voice for us in a situation that was anything but calm,” said Woodard.