High over Southeast Alaska last August, 82-year-old Bill Bunten was flying blind.
The retired bank president from Topeka, Kansas, realized after leaving Ketchikan that the weather en route to Juneau was worse than he expected. Bunten dropped from 8,000 feet to 7,000 to lose the ice forming on the wings of his Piper Comanche. The autopilot wasn't working and the engine sounded choppy. Suddenly, the small plane's heading indicator and compass started spinning. Bunten remembered a note on his map about possible navigational problems in the area.
Now he was in the clouds and struggling to get his bearings without the two instruments he needed to do just that.
But the experienced pilot wasn't alone. Along with a non-pilot friend riding in the cockpit, air traffic controller Parker Corts was watching over the Comanche from Anchorage, hundreds of miles away.
The National Air Traffic Controllers Association will honor Corts next week for "heroic actions that saved the life of a pilot last summer," the labor union announced Wednesday.
Through the clouds
Corts was providing bearings for the Comanche to start its final approach to Juneau when he noticed something was wrong. The plane didn't appear to be following multiple headings provided by the controller, even after the pilot repeated them back. And the pilot had mentioned mechanical problems.
Staring at his control screen, Corts saw the Comanche making erratic moves -- basically, flying in a circle -- and dropping toward the steep mountains just outside Gastineau Channel.
Corts, a pilot himself, immediately radioed for help from another plane on approach to Juneau. Radio communications from the Anchorage tower to the Comanche were spotty, so he told the pilot to help relay messages to the pilot in distress, Corts said in an interview Thursday.
Then, he guided Bunten down.
"I'm going to try and take you southbound through a cloud break," Corts told Bunten, according to a transcript of their radio traffic provided by NATCA. "The ceiling's been reported at 5,600 feet, turn 30 degrees left, I'll give you a 'stop turn' when you need to stop turning."
A few moments later, Bunten radioed that he had "excellent ground reference right at this moment."
He could see Gustavus below. The controller cleared him to land there and gave him a different radio frequency to use.
The gratitude was audible in Bunten's response: "Thanks for all your help."
On the ground
Bunten landed safely northwest of Juneau in the small Glacier Bay National Park gateway community. He spent the next 30 minutes just walking around.
"I was trying to get rid of the pressure and the tense feeling. I was trying to relax," Bunten said an interview from his home on Thursday. "And felt very fortunate to be where I was."
The air traffic controllers association is awarding Corts the Archie League Medal of Safety -- named for the first air traffic controller -- on Wednesday during an annual safety conference in Las Vegas. He's one of several controllers from around the country receiving the award in an evening ceremony on the conference's last night.
Corts, 29, works at the Air Route Traffic Control Center, also known as "Anchorage Center," located near Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. The center handles high-altitude flights in an area stretching from the Panhandle to Tokyo and provides approach control to most airports outside of the Fairbanks and Anchorage areas.
Corts noted Thursday that he wasn't the only controller involved in bringing Bunten down safely. Two other controllers and a supervisor also monitored the situation.
"It's exciting to be recognized for this but it's also … I'm a part of a really big group of controllers who every day do amazing things that nobody hears about," he said Thursday. "It's just part of what we do."
The two men have never met or talked. They didn't even know the other's name until Alaska Dispatch News contacted both.
Each had high praise for the other.
Corts, an instrument-rated private pilot and Boise native, said he assumed the Comanche pilot was very experienced given the tone of the brief radio transmissions the two exchanged during the tense, 45-minute ordeal.
"He seemed very confident of himself during the whole situation," he said. "He didn't seem nervous."
Bunten, part of a well-known Topeka banking family, said he has about 5,500 hours of flight time in the Comanche.
He had only kind words for Corts.
"He was very patient. He didn't get upset with me. He kept his cool, which helped me greatly," he said. "I just thought he did an absolutely tremendous job."
Alaska Dispatch Publishing