By JULIE HANSON Union Leader Correspondent
NASHUA — Chris Henchey of Nashua and Ryan Workman of Merrimack were named two of the nation’s 15 most accomplished air traffic controllers at a national awards ceremony in Atlanta.
“The controllers are a godsend,” said pilot Janice Peaslee at the National Air Traffic Controllers Association annual Archie League Medal of Safety Awards last week. “They’re there when you need them most.”
Peaslee had just fueled her Cessna 150 in Fitchburg, Mass., Oct. 9, and was en route to Caledonia, Vt., when she started having navigation problems.
Workman received her radio call at the Boston Air Route Traffic Control Center.
She told him she was headed to the Lebanon airport. Workman advised her to turn 35 degrees from her present position, then requested assistance from a controller with experience as a pilot.
Chris Henchey fit the bill. He’s a 2008 graduate of Daniel Webster College’s traffic management program and a former flight instructor who is familiar with Cessnas. He became a certified professional controller 10 months before the incident.
Henchey headed Peaslee toward Concord instead and returned to his duties. But it wasn’t going to be that easy.
“The navigation problem quickly turned into something more “an engine problem,” Henchey said.
The plane began running rough. It was later discovered that a mud wasp nest in the engine’s air intake manifold was starving the engine’s fuel supply.
As Henchey and Peaslee ran through a checklist, the Cessna began losing power. The engine failed.
“Sorry, there is no power. My prop has stopped. I’m just a glider, I guess,” Peaslee told Henchey.
Her plane was losing about 700 feet altitude per minute; landing at Concord was no longer an option. As Henchey checked on the availability of emergency personnel near the field where the Cessna would land, another controller took over traffic in Henchey’s sector so he could speak exclusively with Peaslee.
Recalling his time as a Cessna 152 pilot, Henchey asked Peaslee to try to start the engine one more time.
Radio contact was lost when the aircraft fell below 2,000 feet. Controllers were left to watch and hope.
Peaslee said when the engine quit, her stress level dropped. She tried to start the engine again. She pulled out the throttle, turned the key, and it sparked. At 1,800 feet Peaslee began to climb again. Air traffic staff watched the climb on radar.
“I’m sure they must have been really relieved,” Peaslee said. With radio communication restored, Peaslee made her way to Concord for a runway landing. Peaslee said that having a controller with pilot training and Cessna experience made all the difference. Henchey’s calm demeanor kept her in the proper state of mind, she said.
“I honestly don’t know if I could have done it without him,” Peaslee said. “These guys are worth their weight in gold. They save lives.”
Henchey has lived in Nashua for six years with his girlfriend, Brittany MacFarland.