Behind the scenes of a collision prevented over O'Hare: The conclusion
It's March 1 at the busiest airport in the nation and air traffic controllers have just noticed a disaster about to happen.
An Envoy Air regional jet has made an abrupt turn north and is heading toward an American Airlines Boeing 737 with 166 people aboard. Below them is the urban sprawl of homes, shops, businesses and two major expressways.
Air traffic controller Ryan Schile issues an order. "Envoy 3603, stop your climb," he says, then angles the pilot south.
Controller Andrew Rice also jumps in. "American 272, continue left heading 360," he instructs, sending the Boeing 737 north.
Ten seconds elapse with hundreds of lives in the balance.
Finally, "American 272, you can turn back to the right now," Rice resumes in a casual tone. "Thank you."
The American pilot plays it cool but notes, "We did get a TCAS-RA off the guy on our right," referring to a cockpit warning.
"Yeah, he's correcting now," Rice says.
A shaken Schile hands off his flights to file paperwork and review recordings of the near-miss with supervisors.
"The gravity of the situation was pretty evident once my adrenaline came down," he said. "I didn't sleep well that night."
At their closest point, the planes were about a quarter-mile apart and at the same altitude. The Federal Aviation Administration requires a minimum of 3 miles of separation or 1,000 feet of altitude between jets.
Authorities found the Envoy pilot mistakenly dialed a directional heading of 010, sending the jet north, instead of 100 -- or due east -- as Schile had instructed.
The FAA concluded it was a "pilot deviation," and "appropriate corrective actions were taken," a spokeswoman said.
During the crisis, Rice and Schile continued to monitor other arrivals and departures.
"I already had another (Republic Airways) aircraft cleared for takeoff rolling down the runway," Rice recounted recently. "So I not only had to get my American out of the way from the Envoy, I had to get (the other aircraft) turned immediately to stay away from everything else."
Similarly for Schile, "I had cleared the next departure for takeoff when I noticed the Envoy turning the wrong way," he said. "It seemed to take an eternity" for the departing pilot to read back Schile's directions, so he could turn his attention to correcting the Envoy.
Schile, of Arlington Heights, has been a controller for 13 years, 10 of them at O'Hare. Rice, a former Piedmont Airlines pilot from Wheaton, has been a controller for 12 years, five at O'Hare.
"This situation took us out of the realm of normalcy. Your training immediately takes over ... and you let your instincts tell you what you need to do," said Schile, who is married and has three sons, ages 5, 3 and 6 months.
This fall, the two earned the National Air Traffic Controllers Association's President's award and the Air Traffic Control Association's Andy Pitas Aircraft Save Award.
"Every day's a training day," Schile told his colleagues at a National Air Traffic Controllers Association ceremony.
There are two types of "good job" compliments, he said. One comes after "a busy head-splitting session. When you walk away and everyone knows you nailed it. And after a moment's hesitation -- to make sure they're not being sarcastic -- you say 'thank you' and smile, but only on the inside."
Then there's the potential catastrophe of March 1, "when you're rattled and come off the adrenaline high and your hands are shaking and someone looks you in the eye and says 'good job.'
"Those you prefer to never hear again. You simply lack the ability to feel worthy and hope ... never to receive it again."
You should know
Heading into Chicago with young ones or young-at-heart commuters? The Chicago Transit Authority's beloved Allstate CTA Holiday Train hits the rails Friday and runs through the end of December. The train is trimmed with a gazillion lights and features Santa and his reindeer.
But wait, there's more, including an Elves Workshop Train and the CTA Holiday Bus.
For schedules, go to transitchicago.com/holidayfleet.