MONTGOMERY, Ala. — After a plane experienced pressurization problems which led to a few passengers passing out, Montgomery air traffic controllers helped the stricken aircraft make an emergency landing in Selma.

A PSA Airlines Canadair CRJ-700 flying from New Orleans to Washington, D.C., with 65 passengers and four crew members on board had just reached cruising altitude on June 21 when the crew reported cabin depressurization.

Over the next 25 minutes, as the situation grew more severe, the crew depended on Atlanta-area air traffic controllers in Hampton, Georgia, and others in Montgomery to guide them to safety.

“It’s very important that we all work together, with me and Atlanta, and the pilots working with the first responders, and making sure we are all on the same page,” John Leslie, a recently certified controller in Montgomery, said at a news conference Tuesday.

Leslie, who was assisted by 25-year veteran controller Lee Watson, said: “There’s a lot of moving parts that had to line up in order to get the best possible outcome.”

Atlanta Center initially diverted the flight to Montgomery when the pilot declared the emergency, but when things got worse — the smell of smoke entered the cockpit area — he decided to land the Selma airport, which was 30 miles closer.

Since the airport in Selma does not have air traffic controllers, Montgomery stepped in.

“When things became more distressed with the aircraft, and they had to change it to Selma, you realized that things were kind of compiling on the pilot’s side and the aircraft’s side with the issues that are adding up,” said Leslie.

When the aircraft reached 14,000 feet, a controller at Atlanta Center handed it off to Leslie and Watson.

At Montgomery Tower, the team worked together to get the plane right on course for a safe landing at Selma Airport.

Leslie had “to get the plane down to the airport” in Selma, said John Grablin, air traffic control tower supervisor. “The weather … was not good weather, so the pilot would not have been able to see the airport to visually guide himself down. So Lee is giving John all this pertinent information which John relays to the aircraft. John has got to basically (give) step-by-step to the airport and down on towards the ground.”

Leslie said the controllers have dealt with minor traffic issues in the past, but nothing like what happened in June.

“At this point, as a young controller, I was certified for 60 days when this happened,” he said. “It’s a very high-pressured situation, and you’re really try not to think about the worst case scenarios. You try to focus on providing the best service with the best outcome.”

The most stressful time, he said, was when they lost radar contact with Flight 5599, and the time when they made sure they landed safely. Those two minutes, he said, were hard. The disconnect is normal since the airport doesn’t have its own control tower.

PSA Airlines commended the traffic controllers, along with the first responders in Selma.

“PSA coordinated closely with local authorities in order to ensure the care of our customers and crew,” the company stated in a release. “Customers were bused to Montgomery Regional Airport where they continued on their journey to Washington, D.C., or other connecting destinations.”


Information from: Montgomery Advertiser, http://www.montgomeryadvertiser.com