Anchorage air traffic controller wins award for Bering Sea save

Jessica Earp, an air traffic control specialist, at the Anchorage Air Route Traffic Control Center on April 13, 2017 (Photo: Casey Grove, Alaska Public Media)

An air traffic controller in Anchorage has been honored for helping a pilot land his disabled jet on a remote Bering Sea island.

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Jessica Earp’s quick directions to get the Marine Corps F-18 pilot safely to Saint Paul Island in the summer of 2016 earned her the National Air Traffic Controllers Association’s highest recognition, Archie League Medal of Safety Award.

Earp was at her work station in the Anchorage Air Route Traffic Control Center when the call came in: The jet had lost one of its engines, it was low on fuel, and the pilot needed to land, quick.

“You can just tell, his voice was starting to go up in pitch, just a little bit,” Earp said. “He was very, very professional, but you could tell there was some panic there.”

The pilot was at first going to try to land at King Salmon, 550 miles away, but it was too far and the weather was socked in. That’s when Earp realized tiny St. Paul Island had a runway long enough for the fighter jet, and it was only an 85-mile flight.

Earp told the pilot to turn toward Saint Paul.

“Yep, needle in the haystack, I think, the only viable airport in the entire Bering Sea that he could’ve landed at that day, that had the conditions he needed to get on the ground,” Earp said.

The pilot, Capt. Jesse Simmermon, made it, avoiding a crash in the Bering Sea or the loss of an expensive jet.

Since then, Simmermon and his family have written Earp to say how thankful they are for her lightning-fast decision making.

Earp also recently won the Archie League Medal of Safety Award. Each of the Federal Aviation Administration’s nine regions nominates someone for the award every year, and there’s only one winner in the entire United States.

But Earp said the family’s thanks for her help is the best reward.

“His parents especially, that said we’re so glad that Jesse is here with us today because of you. there’s nothing more special than that, to receive something from the family that loves him,” Earp said.