Donuts for Fisk: FAA's Finest Calm Under Pressure as Emergency Develops at #OSH15

8:36 AM

Thomsen Meeks and his dad, Tom enjoy the view at FAA's Fisk Arrival "tower" during EAA AirVenture Oshkosh

It was a perfectly sunny morning at Fisk with an upbeat vibe, until an accident
at the Oshkosh airshow closed the airport to incoming arrivals

Cost of admission: While it is not officially mandated,
apparently the drill is that to visit Fisk and watch
some of FAA's finest controllers work the Conga Line
of arrivals, there MUST be donuts involved.

By Dan Pimentel,
Airplanista Blog Editor

(OSHKOSH, WI) A tragic accident early on day three of EAA AirVenture Oshkosh closed the airport to all arrivals and departures, and it is being reported that the aircraft involved was a Piper Malibu with five people on board. The Oshkosh Northwestern reported four people made it out before the plane caught fire but one person had to be evacuated by helicopter. We want to join the entire aviation family to keep the family of the injured in our thoughts.

When KOSH airport closes during AirVenture, it sets up a massive chain reaction that ripples out for miles, effecting sometimes huge amounts of inbounds in the air heading to this gigantic show. Many of those arrivals fly the VFR "Fisk Arrival" which is a well-known procedure that brings all VFR traffic over a tiny berg west of the show in a nose-to-tail "Conga Line" of all varieties of airplanes. The drill is pretty simple: 

You fly at a published altitude and airspeed to "Fisk" which is a temporary FAA "tower" set up to control the very high number of inbounds coming into Oshkosh. To prevent radio chatter, the controllers on the ground make a radio call based on color of plane and other features such as high or low wing, taildragger, biplane, etc. Based on type of airplane, these controllers give you a quick vector in two directions...east to make a left base to RWY 36, or down the railroad tracks to make a right downwind and base to RWY 27, with the inbound pilot instructed only to "rock your wings" as acknowledgement that they understand there assignment. It is an aerial ballet that is well-rehearsed and works very well.

What makes the Fisk arrival work so well is the high quality of the FAA controllers at the "tower," which is nothing more than an office trailer, a radio transmitter, and a giant bank of colored LED lights that flash to let inbounds ID the "tower" from the air. Working Oshkosh each summer is a coveted assignment for these controllers, who bid for the chance to come here and work traffic during the world's largest aviation celebration.

Today I had the opportunity to join my new besties Tom Meeks and his son Thomson for a run out to visit the controllers working Fisk. We first had to swing thru the Pic N Save for donuts, because as I understand it, the "unofficial" requirement to visit is to bring donuts. They were well received, and the five controllers polished off half a dozen pastries not long after we arrived.

To get to "Fisk," you head down a tiny country road, off of another country road. It sits in a non-descript field surrounded by farmhouses and grain. If not for the sea of bright pink FAA ATC shirts, this might be a cellular system work trailer, or a small construction site. You could drive right by and never know of the important work these controllers are doing. But when you stop - carrying donuts - you quickly see just how talented these controllers really are: 

We were welcomed (must have been the pastries) and every controller was more than happy to explain what they were doing, and how it all worked. I was instructed to look through a dip in a grove of nearby Maple trees to see a tiny speck with a landing light coming our way. That was one of a continuous line of inbounds these guys were working. This was a slow day because GA parking and camping at the show was already at capacity, and still, there was a new plane ever 30 seconds or so...non-stop. Two controllers ID the airplanes with binoculars, calling out the color and type. The lead controller stands and hovers around, calling out what that airplane needs to do. The last and maybe most important on the team is the radio operator, who relays the instruction via radio to the inbound. The vibe was upbeat, light, lots of joking and laughter, and it was clear these guys loved what they were doing.

Working Fisk is sort of a badge of honor for these controllers, and if you could measure their excitement level on a 10 scale, they were cruising along at a 3. Cool, calm and collected, it did not even ruffle their feathers when an unidentified plane came into view, flying southbound directly towards the inbound Conga Line. They just rolled with it, calling out the traffic,

But five minutes into our visit, the "no big deal" element changed as the crash at the show closed the airport. What that means is that Fisk now had to do something with their line of inbounds, you can't tell airplanes to just pull off to the side of the road. As the lead controller jumped on the phone to coordinate everything, the four other controllers simply started calling out holding instructions. For airplanes outside the City of Ripon, they were sent into a hold over Green Lake, while airplanes between Ripon and Fisk were sent to hold over Rush Lake.

The controllers worked maybe 20 arrivals, shoving them into these two holds, or releasing them out of the area at pilot's request. But what was surreal was the composure of these that needle on the excitement needle never budged. It was just another day at the office - or in this case, a trailer in a grain field - and these guys handled the closure of the airport without so much as one tiny bit of stress. That could be because they come from some of the country's busiest commercial towers, so this is just no big deal.

I have always held FAA's controllers in the highest regard...they do a tremendous job. But today at Fisk, standing five feet away from a crew working an emergency situation without one single drop of sweat made me realize that my respect for FAA's ATC team is well-earned, and truly deserved.

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