Air traffic controller Steve McGreevy was puzzled. For some reason the pilot of the Piper Seneca under his direction kept veering off course.
It was April 19. A vicious spring storm swept the Midwest, meaning a busy day at the Federal Aviation Administration's Chicago Center facility in Aurora.
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"We're trying to figure out why at the last minute you're turning," McGreevy told the pilot casually as if discussing a team's losing streak.
But instead of sports, this involved a possible life-or-death situation. Ice coated the pilot's antennas, and he couldn't pick up ground signals. Just an hour's worth of fuel remained in his tank.
"He was trusting his instruments, and his instruments were lying to him at one point," McGreevy said in an interview last week.
Flight instructor and longtime controller Guy Lieser was walking out for a break when the strain in the pilot's voice caught his attention.
He sat down and started to troubleshoot with McGreevy, a fellow pilot Lieser taught to fly 25 years ago.
Their teamwork resulted in one of the highest honors in their profession -- an Archie League Medal of Safety Award they received earlier this month.
Back in 1974, Lieser used to ride his bike to the Federal Aviation Administration's Chicago Center offices where he worked as a summer aide.
The Aurora resident now has three decades of experience as an air traffic controller.
"What's not to like about it?" he says of his job.
Plainfield resident McGreevy comes from a flying family. His father was a Delta pilot, but poor eyesight prevented McGreevy from following in his dad's footsteps. "This is a great second opportunity," he said.
Twice on that April day, McGreevy lined the troubled aircraft up with the Dubuque Airport, and twice the plane inexplicably sheered away.
"You have your pilot heat on, correct?" McGreevy asked, referring to a heater that keeps ice off equipment.
"That's affirmative, sir."
"Can you navigate the rest of the way or do you need assistance?" McGreevy asked.
"I'll take all the help I can get," the pilot answered.
In normal circumstances, McGreevy would have handed off the aircraft to the Dubuque tower once it was 10 miles away. Not this time.
"I called the tower and said, 'This guy is having a lot of trouble -- I want to hang on to him,'" McGreevy said.
He and Lieser went through a mental checklist of what could be wrong.
"I tried to put myself in the airplane to get a picture of his (control) panel," Lieser said.
They concluded that the Seneca's antennas were frozen, meaning the aircraft had lost its connection with the localizer, a ground-based signal used to navigate. As a result, the autopilot followed faulty directions, unbeknown to the pilot.
"He was flying in the clouds, so he didn't see anything," McGreevy said.
"As his autopilot made a gradual turn, he didn't notice that," Lieser said.
They briefly considered allowing the pilot to attempt a landing at the Davenport airport but ruled against it after he informed them that just an hour's worth of fuel remained.
The only solution was to try Dubuque again, guiding the pilot step by step with his autopilot off.
"I'll call the marker for you," McGreevy said referring to a ground-based signal. "And you can start your descent. Don't make any dramatic changes in your heading or anything ... everything looks good."
The exchange started at 4 p.m. About an hour later, they heard "Invite me to your office, I'll give you a kiss."
The Seneca had landed safely.
"I thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you," the pilot said.
It turned out that another pilot had listened into their frequency, drawn by the drama.
"Good job, Chicago," he radioed.
And that was the end of that, the two thought.
Air traffic controllers are trained not to get involved with the pilots or "targets" they manage.
"You detach yourself from the emotional part ... you walk away," Lieser said.
And controlling aircraft with icing or mechanical or equipment issues occurs daily at Chicago Center, officially known as the Chicago Air Route Traffic Control Center. The center handles a six-state area running about 3 million flights a year.
But, "in my 28 years as a controller, I've probably seen four or five scenarios to this degree," McGreevy said. "Similar, slightly less dramatic things happen every day, and you try to be the co-pilot -- to be a soothing, calming influence."
Despite that professional detachment, you can tell from the big smiles on Lieser's and McGreevy's faces as they accepted their Archie awards from the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, this is one target they'll remember.
"I'm eligible for retirement, but I'm still working," Lieser said. "I sit in the same area every day, but what goes on is never the same. It never gets tired. It's always a challenge."
(Lest I forget, Lieser and McGreevy noted that the award isn't about just them. It was a Chicago Center "team effort," they said.)
As always, fabulous feedback from folks, this week regarding the Illinois tollway studying the extension of Route 53 into Lake County.
Jaynanne Ridder of Lake Barrington Shores writes, "I am so shocked that people are not discussing the possibility of taking Route 53 to Lake Cook. (Then) taking Lake-Cook Road west to Route 12. Taking Route 12 north all the way into Wisconsin. Route 12 already exists. They just need to widen the road and widen the intersection at Lake Cook and Route 12 to handle more traffic.
"I'm sure it would be much less expensive to widen an existing road than to build an entire new expressway through the beautiful towns of Long Grove and Hawthorn Woods."
You should know
Wow, that was fast. The Regional Transportation Authority on Wednesday hired some high-powered lobbyists for $425,000 a year to stop legislation in the U.S. House that would have decimated transit funding.
Thursday, House Republicans backed away from the transit hot potato and the bill undergoes a mega rewrite. So are those lobbyists still necessary?
"We need the lobbying and advocacy services that our new team will provide now more than ever," RTA spokeswoman Diane Palmer wrote in an email. "The legislation in the house now has the opportunity to be rewritten to benefit our transit system's 2 million daily riders."