FW air traffic controller honored with top award for helping pilot make safe landing

Local News

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) A Fort Wayne air traffic controller was honored with his industry’s top award for helping a pilot navigate through a dangerous storm last May.

Eric Vanstrom noticed something strange while he was at work one day last May. A plane was circling Fort Wayne, almost hitting the ground at one point, in the middle of a dangerous thunderstorm. Kevin Knutson of Iowa was flying the plane with three passengers. He had no idea he was going in a circle and that his navigation system was failing.

“The gentleman who was the air traffic controller actually noticed us flying in circles before we did,” Knutson said.

That’s when Vanstrom got on the radio.

“Trying to get him down to the ground was the ultimate goal,” Vanstrom said. “After he lost his instruments he wasn’t able to maintain the localizer to get into Fort Wayne and since he started deviating so badly that’s when you could tell his instruments were not working correctly and we had to take him to a different airport.”

At that point Vanstrom, a 16-year veteran air traffic controller, took control. For the next two hours Vanstrom helped Knutson, who had zero visibility in the storm, navigate the skies.

“It was very emotional, but now it’s come to the point where I think back about it and just think I’m glad I could help,” Vanstrom said. “That’s the ultimate thing in what we do.”

Eventually Knutson made his way to a safe landing in Portland, Indiana.

“My opinion would probably be they probably should not have made it that night. It wasn’t just me, I think anybody else could have done it too but without help they weren’t going to make it,” Vanstrom said.

But they did and Knutson said he often thinks about that frightening experience.

“I look back at and I think he was a big part of saving our lives,” Knutson said.

Vanstrom’s actions that stormy day didn’t go unnoticed. Last month he traveled to Las Vegas and was awarded the industry’s top honor, the Archie league Medal of Safety Award.

“You talk about the dedication and not being able to spend time with your family because you have your job that you’ve got to do and hoping your family understands that the time you’ve spent is worth it by being able to save somebody’s life. That’s the whole point of what we do,” Vanstrom said.

Since that day, Knutson said he traveled back to Fort Wayne to thank the air traffic controllers and listen to the 2 hour long radio conversation. He said, while frightening, it was a great learning experience.

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