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Georgia pilot recalls “terrifying” emergency landing at Hartsfield
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Georgia pilot recalls “terrifying” emergency landing at Hartsfield

Georgia pilot recalls “terrifying” emergency landing at Hartsfield
Photo Credit: Veronica Waters/WSB Radio
Mason Braddock (left), with the the Atlanta Terminal Radar Approach Control, and Cathy Lewan, a Ga. pilot, recall her emergency landing that occurred on Valentine's Day 2016.

Georgia pilot recalls “terrifying” emergency landing at Hartsfield

Her single-engine Cessna had smoke in the cockpit. Her throttle was stuck. And then, there were communications problems with the folks on the ground. Thirteen months later, the group of Atlanta traffic controllers who helped Cathy Lewan land her tiny plane at the world's busiest airport will receive their industry's highest honor. 

It was Valentine's Day 2016 when Lewan, a pilot of more than 20 years, had taken off from Madison, GA in her Cessna 172S, to do some aerial photography near Atlanta's international airport for an industrial project. It was a cold day, and Lewan had pulled on her heat, but got smoke in her cockpit. She got it isolated and as she turned over the problem in her mind, trying to determine where it was originating, Lewan went to push the throttle--and nothing happened. 

She likens it to being in a car with a gas pedal stuck. 

"Can't slow the plane down, and being in Hartsfield-Jackson's airspace, I knew I was a threat to them as well," says Lewan.  

>>To listen to audio from Lewan’s emergency landing, CLICK HERE.

No maneuvering of the throttle changed the speed of her plane, so Lewan radioed in her emergency to the Atlanta Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) and was quickly connected with Mason Braddock, as another controller took over other planes on a different frequency so Braddock could handle Lewan's emergency. 

Veronica Waters/WSB Radio
Braddock in action at the Atlanta Terminal Radar Approach Control.
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Georgia pilot recalls “terrifying” emergency landing at Hartsfield

Photo Credit: Veronica Waters/WSB Radio
Braddock in action at the Atlanta Terminal Radar Approach Control.

Over the course of 50 minutes, the midair drama played out as Braddock helped keep Lewan calm. Braddock says his voice was deliberately calm, because he felt it was his duty to keep Lewan calm and help her put her plane down the way he knew she could. Yet behind the scenes, he says, the team was scrambling. 

"We were putting our heads together and trying to pool all our resources and try to find out the best plan for her," says Braddock.  

The solution from pilots and fellow controller Keith Tyus was pretty simple, he said: to cut her fuel supply to the engine. It would be a different landing for her, they knew, but one she could handle--especially on the 9,000-foot-long runway at Hartsfield-Jackson. TRACON notified first responders, and the ARFF (aviation rescue and firefighting) emergency vehicles parked below as Lewan kept flying. 

"Alrighty, uh, can I ask you one more favor?" Lewan said over the radio. "Would you call my husband for me?" 

Braddock said they would.

"Ask him to put a prayer chain out to my church...tell him that I love him and call my mother," said Lewan. "I know I'm going to be fine because you're helping me and the good Lord is helping me, but I always need prayer."  

"We're going to call him right now for you and we'll make sure everyone knows we're taking good care of you," replied Braddock. "It's just gonna be a normal landing and all we're gonna do different is just cut power right before we touch down. It's gonna be fine."  

Lewan circled the airport to run down her fuel supply, making sure she didn't go so low and slow that she lost power while staying below the airbus and commercial jet traffic at the airport. 

 

The FAA says a short time later, with Lewan still very nervous, Braddock asked her if she wanted to do a practice fly-by to get the feel of a low approach and the look of the runway. She accepted, and the practice run seemed to provide her with the confidence needed to attempt the approach to a landing, although Lewan said seeing the emergency vehicles was unnerving. 

Veronica Waters/WSB Radio
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Georgia pilot recalls “terrifying” emergency landing at Hartsfield

Photo Credit: Veronica Waters/WSB Radio

 

"I should be able to knock this out. I'm so sorry for all those emergency people sitting down there waiting on me," Lewan said. 

"Number Six-Six Delta, that is absolutely the reason we're here. We're here for you," said Braddock. 

As she prepared to come in, Lewan radioed to confirm her frequency and to tell the controller she hoped to get his name later to say thanks. 

"And, uh, as I always say before landing, 'Dear Lord, please keep me safe. Thank you.'"  

Lewan landed the Cessna, coming in over the flashing emergency lights lined up below, and says once she rolled to a stop, she thanked God and the cockpit door flew open. A firefighter asked her if she need medical help, and she said, "No!" 

Braddock says when the tower called them at TRACON to tell them Lewan had landed safely, there were sighs of relief in the room--and some fist-pumping. 

"It was good moment," says Braddock. 

Lewan admits listening to the tape of their conversation today is still terrifying. She says, though, she never felt alone with Braddock and the team on the other end of the radio, and trusted that she'd get down safely. 

"It was amazing, and terrifying, and wonderful in every way," says Lewan.

Veronica Waters/WSB Radio
(L-R) Patrick Burrows, Nichole Surunis, Mason Braddock, Cathy Lewan, Clay Sutton, Keith Tyus
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Georgia pilot recalls “terrifying” emergency landing at Hartsfield

Photo Credit: Veronica Waters/WSB Radio
(L-R) Patrick Burrows, Nichole Surunis, Mason Braddock, Cathy Lewan, Clay Sutton, Keith Tyus

Exactly one week from today, in Las Vegas, the five controllers involved will receive the Archie League Medal of Safety, the highest honor from the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA).

Named for the first air traffic controller, the Archie League Medal of Safety honors air traffic controllers who have performed life-saving work in the previous calendar year.

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