This story was published in ATO* News. I have deleted names of other FAA personnel for their privacy.
*(Air Traffic Organization)
I’m just the proud wife.
Morristown Controller’s Diligence Saves Four Lives – written by Kyle Pearson (staff writer)
November 12 —
Morristown Tower air traffic controller Thomas Prestia makes a habit of watching VFR aircraft after they leave the tower’s airspace. This summer, that extra attention saved the lives of at least four people.
On the evening of Aug. 5, a medical helicopter departed Morristown Municipal Airport in New Jersey on its way to the company’s home base north of the airport. After pilot Rob Cooper cleared the Class D airspace around the airport, he checked in with Prestia for a frequency change.
Before issuing the new frequency, Prestia pointed out two southbound aircraft to Cooper. Both were small planes, and both were flying directly at the helicopter at the same altitude. Neither was on Prestia’s frequency.
Cooper saw the second plane but thought it was the first. He told Prestia he couldn’t see the other plane, and Prestia knew Cooper couldn’t see the aircraft that was closest to the helicopter. Prestia quickly called it out again, saying it was at Cooper’s 11 o’clock at the same altitude.
Seconds later, Cooper saw the first plane and told Prestia he was taking evasive action. “That was a first for me,” Prestia said. “I’ve never heard a pilot say ‘We’re taking evasive action.’”
Watching on the tower’s radar monitor, Prestia saw the two aircrafts’ radar targets merge as they passed each other. “On the radar they were one target,” he said. “All I could see was that and the other aircraft a mile behind.”
They certainly got close. As the two aircraft passed, Cooper later told Prestia he could see the whites of the other pilot’s eyes.
Without Prestia’s immediate and determined action, they probably would have hit—and quickly. Prestia estimates the southbound aircraft was flying at about 100 miles per hour, and the helicopter was going at least that fast.
“If he hadn’t said something, I’m fairly certain we would have been a pile of ash,” Cooper said.
But Prestia didn’t panic. He didn’t rush his transmission and confuse Cooper. “I tend to slow down,” he said. “I’ve found that if I say something once, slowly and clearly, pilots will understand faster than If I say something quickly twice. I can go faster by saying things one time.”
Prestia also keeps pilots on the tower’s frequency unless they ask to switch to the unicom frequency. That way he can watch them and issue traffic that they might not otherwise see. That definitely paid off in this case.
“If I had switched him at the border [of Morristown Tower’s airspace], he would have been gone,” Prestia said. “I wouldn’t have been there to help him.”
Cooper was definitely glad Prestia was there. He thanked Prestia on the frequency, called the facility after he landed to thank him again and sent a letter to the tower thanking him. The next day he stopped by to thank Prestia in person.
Prestia sent the letter to his wife when he received it. It brought tears to her eyes and Prestia’s. “I sent the letter to my wife, and she told me she was crying,” Prestia said. “I sort of was, too. It’s going up on the wall.”
In the letter, Cooper thanked Prestia for “his excellent handling of our situation and actions outside of his airspace. He, in my opinion, did save me and my aircrew from a collision with another aircraft just outside of Morristown Airport Class D airspace.”
After recounting the incident, and estimating that the plane was between 1/8 and 1/16 of a mile away when he turned left to avoid a collision, Cooper continues to praise Prestia: “He is truly a great asset to the Morristown Airport and the FAA. His dedication and professionalism were demonstrated to both me and my aircrew, and we thank him for his work.”
Prestia’s managers at Morristown Tower feel the same way. “Tom went the extra mile to make sure the pilot saw the other aircraft,” said ##### an operations supervisor at Morristown Tower.
“Tom is the type of controller who always goes outside his airspace and his normal duties,” said #####, the air traffic manager at Morristown Tower. “He thinks of a lot of different scenarios at once. He’ll call other facilities and verify information that he thinks is important to an airplane’s safety.”
Prestia is deservedly proud of his actions, but he’s just thinking of it as another day at a job he’s loved for the last 27 years. “It’s not anything different than I would normally do,” he said.