close
close

Florida air traffic controller's desperate fight to save a pilot

GAINESVILLE – Disoriented and alone, a young pilot flying over northern Florida found himself in thick, dark clouds in pouring rain. In a panic, he shouted over the radio: “Please lost in the weather! Can you see me? Can you see me?”

More than 100 miles away, a Federal Aviation Administration controller at the Jacksonville Air Route Traffic Control Center responded to the pilot's request for help: “This is the Jacksonville Center on Guard.” Do you know your approximate location?”

What followed that afternoon on November 24th was a desperate rescue operation that spanned 36 minutes and two dozen miles of airspace over north-central Florida to save an inexperienced pilot in a life-threatening crisis.

This reporting is based on interviews and a recording of urgent radio communications that day obtained by the FAA under the Freedom of Information Act. They have never been fully described before.

The incident illustrates the behind-the-scenes exchanges between private pilots and air traffic controllers that take place across the United States, often without fanfare and out of earshot of the traveling public. For pilots, especially those whose lives are in danger, air traffic controllers are voices at the end of a lifeline, saviors of the skies. On the ground, these are average people who are at risk of emotional trauma and dealing with high-risk problems in one of America's most stressful jobs.

“We're kind of the behind-the-scenes heroes that no one knows about,” said Kerri Fingerson, a controller from Boston who has received a top safety award from the FAA.

Approximately 23,000 air traffic controllers in the United States direct more than 70,000 flights to their destinations every day. Air traffic controllers instruct pilots in every phase of the flight, from takeoff to cruise to landing – sometimes dealing with life-threatening emergencies and even speaking to pilots shortly before a crash.

Traveling on commercial jets is safer than ever, but the picture isn't nearly the same for general aviation pilots. It's a broad category that includes recreational flying, flight training, medevac operations and even firefighting and banner towing. According to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, the Frederick, Maryland-based trade association that advocates for general aviation, there have been nearly 1,000 accidents — and numerous deaths — involving private pilots and their passengers each year over the last decade.

The young pilot lost over Florida was Adrien Valentine, 21, of Melrose, east of Gainesville. About 45 minutes into his flight from Kissimmee, he called for help. Valentine dreamed of becoming a commercial pilot and had worked at the Gainesville airport refueling and handling small planes and jets.

The controller in Jacksonville gently instructed him in a measured and encouraging voice. He assured Valentine that he had personally experienced such frightening whiteout conditions: “I want you to know that I'm a pilot too,” he said. “I've been in the same situation and I know it's a bit scary but we'll help you through it. You’re doing a great job, just keep listening to what we tell you.”

Scores, even hundreds, of other pilots and aviation enthusiasts monitoring the Guard frequency in the region heard every word from beginning to end during the drama. At times, the pilots warned each other over the radio to avoid conversations so that the pilot in difficulty had the air traffic controller's full attention.

After the ordeal, the inspector's actions received widespread praise. Experienced pilots said he did everything possible.

The identity of the stalwart controller remains a mystery for now. The FAA and the air traffic controllers union declined to identify him by name or allow him to participate in press interviews until the National Transportation Safety Board, the federal agency that investigates such cases, releases its final report on the matter. The full report could be available in as little as five months.

Adrien James Valentine, 21, of Melrose is seen in this undated photo provided by his family on Thursday, November 16, 2023. Valentine died alone in the crash of a small aircraft on Tuesday, November 14, 2023, while flying in poor weather near Gainesville, Florida. His family said he died “doing what he loved, flying a plane,” and that he wanted to be a commercial pilot. (Jones-Gallagher Funeral Home/Fresh Take Florida)

At some point, Valentine knew—he was dizzy and had no reference points outside his cockpit other than miles of storm clouds in every direction—he literally didn't know which way was up anymore. He shouted into his radio, “I'm upside down, I think! I don't know where I am!”

The controller calmly replied, “They’re not upside down. I show that your height is level. If you were upside down you would fall,” he said. “Let’s just take a deep breath. It looks like you're doing well. I show that you leave 2,400 (feet) at this point. Looks like you're heading straight north. Now let’s just hold the aircraft in its attitude and we’ll work on that.”

Valentine had purchased the four-seat aircraft, built in 1964, two weeks earlier. He said over the radio that the turn coordinator and attitude indicator had failed, but it was not clear whether he was unfamiliar with the cockpit or whether he was panicking.

Valentine was a certified private pilot but only had about 66 hours of flying experience. When he took off that afternoon, he had just an hour of experience using his instruments. He did not have an instrument rating, an additional, optional certificate for private pilots that allows them to fly in low visibility conditions, when the weather can be so disorienting to a pilot that he cannot rely on his physical instincts to fly.

A 1991 University of Illinois study, still cited in aviation circles, estimated the life expectancy of pilots in such scenarios at 178 seconds before plummeting to their death.

“In any stressful situation, how you say things matters,” said Christopher “Chip” Flores, 40, of Fort Pierce on Florida’s east coast. He worked as an FAA air traffic controller at Treasure Coast International Airport.

Flores won one of the top FAA safety awards last year for his help saving the lives of a pilot and two passengers in May 2022 after the pilot collapsed unconscious during a trip from the Bahamas to Florida. One passenger landed the plane safely.

“You always have to have a calm tone of voice,” Flores said. “You can hear over the frequency when you get emotional, and that will make them emotional and unable to perform.”

A pilot rescued by air traffic controllers, Cathy Lewan, 65, of Madison, Georgia, said the calming voice and clear instructions calmed her when the throttle of her small Cessna 172-S malfunctioned during a flight in February 2016. Air traffic controller Mason Braddock on FAA approach control in Peachtree City helped her land safely.

“It can be very threatening and overbearing when you're in the middle of chaos and only have one voice on the other end,” she said. “But when you're in a crisis and you feel someone on the other end working with you – I felt that all the time. It was very calming.

That day on the radio, Lewan asked Braddock in a broken voice to call her husband and pray for her: “His name is Roland, and if you could ask him to put a prayer chain at my church and ask the whole church to start .” “We are praying and so is everyone else who is listening,” she said.

A small passenger plane takes off from Gainesville Regional Airport in Florida on Monday, April 22, 2024.  (Sydney Johnson/Fresh Take Florida)
A small passenger plane takes off from Gainesville Regional Airport in Florida on Monday, April 22, 2024. (Sydney Johnson/Fresh Take Florida)

Braddock reassured her, “We'll call him for you now and make sure everyone knows we're taking good care of you.”

Over Florida, efforts to rescue the 21-year-old pilot continued for 35 minutes after Valentine's first call for help.

The controller saw on the radar that Valentine's plane was heading toward the ground and asked him to gently adjust his wings: “I want you to pull the yoke back just a little bit, just a little bit,” he said. “Let’s get this descent rate arrested.”

Valentine again asked the controller to tell his parents that he loved them. In his last message directly to his mother and father, he said: “I love you.”

Seconds later, the plane disappeared from radar as it crashed into a state park south of Gainesville. The NTSB said its preliminary inspection of the plane's engine and controls revealed no obvious mechanical problems.

“We deeply appreciate everyone’s efforts, especially the ATC, on the worst day of our lives,” said Russell and Kathleen Valentine. “We miss him very much.”

The air traffic controller kept calling out to the pilot: “November Zero Six Whiskey, are you still with me?”

“November Zero Six Whiskey, Jax Center. How do you hear?”

There was no answer.

This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. Reporter Lauren Brensel can be reached at lauren.brensel@ufl.edu.

Anna Harden

Learn More →

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *