SAVOY – On Sept. 14, a 67-year-old St. Louis man was flying home alone in his Piper Seneca III when the plane went into a nose dive at 2,800 feet per minute.
It took all of Willard Nickisch's strength to pull out of that 15-second descent, which had brought him down to 5,000 feet above central Illinois, just after noon.
He pulled out a circuit board, hoping that faulty autopilot had been the cause of the dive. That didn't solve the problem, and now he had a new one: Most of his electronic navigation equipment stopped.
At the Willard Airport tower, there was a controller-in-training watching the blip that was Nickisch's 6-seater.
Yasemin Parker saw the plane drop hundreds of feet, so she alerted the pilot as well as her co-workers.
There was yet another problem. Willard Airport was coming into its busiest time of day.
And an even bigger problem: The longest runway at Willard was closed for repairs.
Nickisch said Friday that the reason he's alive on Super Bowl weekend is the collective work of the Willard tower, and particularly cool-under-pressure controller David Murphy, who guided him to "a beautiful landing."
Nickisch, who has been flying for decades, works for the Wyckliffe Foundation, a nonprofit organization that promotes Bible publication and translation.
Murphy, a Catlin man who spent 21 years in the Air Force as a traffic controller before retiring to the civilian side, says it was expected in the Air Force that he'd deal with dicey emergency situations.
But he said Friday he'd never been as nervous as on Sept. 14, where he could hear the stress and exhaustion in the pilot's voice as he pulled back with all his force on the controls.
"It is taking all of my muscles to just hold back on this thing," Nickisch told Murphy.
"I knew we had to get him down right away," Murphy said.
On Friday, Murphy returned from Washington, where he had received the Archie League Medal of Safety Award given out by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association for extraordinary skill in critical situations.
Earlier, he received a Federal Aviation Association award after being nominated by his supervisor, Larry Wixom.
Wixom said that award amounts to a few days off work.
"Those controllers are professional; they know what to do. They do this sort of thing frequently, but it doesn't make the headlines," the supervisor said, calling the work of Murphy and Parker "excellent."
Murphy's workday on Sept. 14 took him back to his own pilot training years before.
"They teach you three things: aviate, navigate, communicate – in that order," Murphy said.
"His instruments weren't working. It was my job to make sure the only thing left to do for the pilot to do was aviate."
Meanwhile, Parker, her supervisor Sheri Walsh and other controllers were diverting away all Willard traffic, including telling a large group of UI aviation students not to take off in the first place.
Willard crews also reopened the longest runway, and cleared the rest of the runways.
Well into the transcript of Nickisch's and Murphy's terse discussion, the pilot tells the tower he has concerns about a hard landing.
"It's taking everything I can to hold back on the yoke," Nickisch says. "They tell me if I release the pressure, the thing might let go. But boy, it puts me in a straight dive down, straight down."
Murphy defused the tension.
"We're in no hurry," he responded. "I have no other traffic, so you tell me whatever it is you need to do."
Murphy recalls that he and Nickisch were concerned about aerodynamic changes that could be caused by opening the landing gear.
But at the last moment, the landing gear did have to come down.
"I'm going to try dropping the gear. You got the (fire) trucks ready?" the pilot asked.
Murphy alerted his co-workers: "Local, verify the trucks have been rolled. He's going to try and lower the gear and he doesn't know what that's going to do."
The plane landed, with no injury to the pilot or damage to the craft.
The transcript almost sounds jocular at this point:
Nickisch asks: "Where may I park?
"November 48Quebec, you can just stop wherever you need to, sir," Murphy tells him.
TRANSCRIPT OF THE EMERGENCY LANDING
Here is an edited transcript of the Sept. 14 incident at Willard Airport:
WILLARD NICKISCH, PILOT: I've got an autopilot that won't release, and it wants to pull me down into a dive.
NICKISCH: I don't know if I can find the approach. It is taking all of my muscles to just hold back on this thing. ý OK, let's go for you ý You're going to have to radar vector me and give me some frequencies. ý OK, uh, one-eight-zero and I'm above the deck, so I'd like to stay up as long as I can, but ý uh ý uh ý uh ý OK ý yeah, 1-8-0.
MURPHY: November 8048Quebec, this is Champaign Approach. How do you hear me, sir?
NICKISCH: I hear you sir.
MURPHY: November 48Quebec, I'm going to vector you to an approach to Runway 32 Right. Are you capable of flying an NDB or a GPS approach, sir?
NICKISCH: If I didn't have to fight the autopilot I would, but no I can't at this time. I want to try the ILS.
MURPHY: 48Quebec. What I'm going to do is I'm going to provide a radar surveillance approach for you to Runway 32 Right. I'll provide all the vectors and I'll give you recommended altitudes on final. All you'll have to do is fly the airplane. Do you have any difficulty other than the autopilot?
NICKISCH: No, but it's a handful.
MURPHY: Yes, sir, I'm aware of that. I just want to make sure what else to maybe be prepared for. Just stay at your present altitude or whatever altitude you need to stay a VMC until we get you set up on final. I won't bring you down into the clouds until we have you lined up with the runway.
I'll take you out to about 10 miles, make a 12-mile final.
NICKISCH: OK, make it as short as you can.
MURPHY: OK, I can make it shorter, but I'm going to have to have you start descending. You're right now only 5 miles from the airport.
MURPHY: November48 Quebec, start a descent. When you're ready, maintain two thousand four hundred. Two thousand four hundred. When I see you start descending, I'm going to turn you toward the airport.
MURPHY: November48 Quebec, are you able to start your descent, sir?
NICKISCH: I thought I was going down. It's taking everything I can to hold back on the yoke. They tell me if I release the pressure, the thing might let go. But boy it puts me in a straight dive down, straight down.
MURPHY: We're in no hurry, I have no other traffic so you tell me whatever it is you need to do.
NICKISCH: The big question is how long can I hold her. I'm going to try releasing it and going down but let's see if I can pull her out.
NICKISCH: Yeah, she wouldn't let go. OK ý uh ý what do you want me to do?
MURPHY: Well, November 48Quebec, I want to vector you toward the airport but if you don't think you can control the descent, stand by I'm trying to get some other assistance.
NICKISCH: I'm controlling the descent. I tried to let go of the yoke so the autopilot would let go but it wouldn't, so ý uh ý continue with the approach, please.
MURPHY: November48 Quebec, roger. Continue in the gradual right turn. You are 9 miles from the runway and this will be a vector to Runway 32 Right. The wind is 3-2-0 at 1-0.
MURPHY: November48 Quebec, are you the only person on board?
MURPHY: November48 Quebec, you can start descent now to the minimum descent altitude. That is 1-1-0-0 descend at your discretion. You are 5 and one-half miles from the runway and I show you on course.
MURPHY: November 48 Quebec, report the airport in sight when you have it. You are now 5 miles from the runway.
MURPHY: November 48 Quebec, you are cleared to land on Runway 32 Right. Let me know when you see the airport.
NICKISCH: I have the airport.
MURPHY: November 8048 Quebec, you are number one. Cleared to land Runway 32 Right. Remain on my frequency for now.
NICKISCH: I'm going to try dropping the gear. You got the trucks ready?
MURPHY TO LOCAL CONTROL IN TOWER: Local, verify the trucks have been rolled. He's going to try and lower the gear and he doesn't know what that's going to do.
MURPHY: Local East, what do you got?
LOCAL EAST: Local, he's on the ground. Safe.
MURPHY: November 48 Quebec, contact Champaign Tower on 1-2-0 point four. Nice job, sir.
NICKISCH: Where may I park?
MURPHY: November 48Quebec, you can just stop wherever you need to sir.
Source: FAA-edited transcript