A small plane flying with a pilot who nearly passed out behind the controls could have ended in disaster.
It didn't, thanks to quick-thinking air traffic controller LouElla Hollingsworth from the Fort Worth Air Traffic Control Center near D/FW International Airport.
The incident happened last November, but it still gives Hollingsworth goose bumps.
“We knew it was that bad... that if we didn't get him to start to descend quickly enough that he could die,” said the controller with nearly 29 years of experience.
Hollingsworth knew something was wrong when the pilot wasn’t responding to her commands. She was repeatedly asking him to climb. She heard noise on the radio frequency and thought there was a problem with the pilot's microphone.
But when the pilot responded, his slurred speech signaled a big danger.
HOLLINGSWORTH: "November 5-0-1-Papa-Mike radio check, please.
N501PM: "I can hear you (unintelligible) Five-Zero-One-Papa-Mike."
The pilot was suffering from extremely low oxygen levels — a condition known as hypoxia. Another pilot checking in on the frequency also heard the pilot struggling to speak.
N501PM: (heavy breathing)
HOLLINGSWORTH: "November 5-0-1 Papa, if you can hear me, you need to uh, probably start you descent... descend and maintain flight level 2-4-0."
SOUTHWEST FLIGHT 980: "I don't know if you can hear that guy, but he does not sound good."
HOLLINGSWORTH: "Yeah, I know, and I'm trying to get him to start his descent, if he can, but he's not responding."
Hollingsworth told News 8 the incident continued for several minutes. She was worried the pilot was going to black out.
“You want him to start down, because if he doesn't, he may never answer again, and that was I was worried about... that he would never answer again," Hollingsworth said.
He finally did reply over the radio frequency, and on radar, she was seeing the plane flying at a lower altitude.
N501PM: "Oh one papa mike, we hear ya."
HOLLINGSWORTH: "November One-Papa-Mike, roger... you feeling any better?"
N501PM: "Yes we are, thanks for the help. For some reason the cabin altitude was showing okay, but it uh... we had some oxygen issues so, down to uh, 18 or lowest we can get."
The pilot who was heading from the Houston area to Michigan made an emergency landing in St. Louis. Hollingsworth was relieved when he was finally on the ground.
“They told me, 'He's right here,' and when he landed, I was like okay,” Hollingsworth recalled. “I’m just glad he’s okay.”
The pilot involved in the incident did not want to be identified, but he told News 8 that he appreciates the job Hollingsworth did to alert him.
“It allowed me to take action, and take the proper steps to get to a safe altitude,” he said.
Hollingsworth received an award for saving the pilot’s life last week at the annual Archie League Medal of Safety Awards ceremony in Las Vegas.
Eleven other controllers across the nation also received awards for their actions from the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.