Two air traffic controllers at Dallas Love Field were working an overnight shift on Oct. 19 when suddenly, at about 3 a.m., the pilot of a small plane that had just taken off stopped communicating.
Controller Nick Valadez tried repeatedly to talk to the pilot on the radio, but there was no answer.
“Tried reaching out to him,” Valadez recalled in an interview Thursday. “He was just gone.”
The plane also stopped sending its electronic signature and appeared to have no lights.
Valadez and fellow controller Wade Martin weren’t sure what was going on, but speculated the plane had complete electrical failure.
The plane circled around the airport, but flew so low, it sometimes disappeared.
"We did lose his target a couple times, which did concern me, because out to the east we have homes, we have trees," Martin said.
After 15 tense minutes, the control tower received a surprise call.
It was from a Dallas 911 operator.
"We just got a call,” the operator said. “The guy said that he was trying to get a hold of the Love Field tower. He had total electrical failure and he was trying to land."
But he was calling from a disconnected cell phone. The controllers had no way to call him back.
A few minutes later, 911 called again.
“I have him on the line,” the 911 operator said.
"Please connect him,” Martin said.
"Hello?" the pilot said.
"Can you hear me?" Martin asked.
"Barely," the pilot answered.
But they could communicate.
The controller asked, "Do you have your gear down?"
The answer from the pilot was not reassuring.
"I have no indication."
The pilot wasn’t even sure how to get back to the airport.
"I'm having trouble looking at the maps to fly to the tower,” the pilot said. “Where is it exactly?"
Martin wasted no time.
"OK, from what we see on the radar scope, you're directly north of the airport," he said.
Step by step, Martin guided him in over the phone while Valadez worked the radio, coordinating emergency crews and keeping other planes off the runway.
"Do you have the airport in sight?" Martin asked the pilot.
The pilot flew low over the runway to see if his landing gear was down.
Another plane, which happened to be carrying the Dallas Stars hockey team, had just landed after a game in Colorado.
That pilot and emergency crews could see that the landing gear appeared down.
Martin told the pilot in trouble.
And with that, he turned around to land.
But there was another twist.
The pilot wouldn’t have any engine, either.
“I will land with the engine off just in case the gear is not locked," the pilot said over the phone.
"Not a problem,” Martin answered.
Martin and Valadez both sounded remarkably calm, according to recordings of the phone call and radio traffic.
"It's part of our training to stay calm to keep the pilots calm because if we're freaking out, they are going to freak out and they're not going to be able to fly the plane," Martin said.
With emergency crews standing by, the plane landed -- perfectly.
For their work, the two controllers have been nominated for the national Archie League Medal of Safety Award, the profession’s highest honor.
The registered owner of the plane, from Midland, did not return phone calls for comment.
But the two controllers said it was just another day at work.
“Another day. Another day,” they both said.