SAN DIEGO (CBS 8) - A local FAA air traffic controller is being honored for his quick thinking in preventing what could have been a deadly plane crash.
It happened last fall after a flight instructor and his two students ran into some trouble in the air. The small plane with three on board was heading straight for a mountain, flying so low it disappeared from radar.
Air traffic controller Quentin Baca, sitting in a Kearny Mesa control room, knew he had to act fast.
The pilot, Michael Esdicul, was heading to Montgomery Field, but flying in thick clouds and couldn't see a thing. He had no idea he was about to crash.
Baca says he's trained for this moment -- a mean trick by Mother Nature called a downdraft.
"The pressure system going through was going over the top of the mountain, and then on the other side of it, it pushed down right where the pilot was so as he's approaching the mountain, he's fine, he's fine, but then once he got close enough to it, it started pushing him down and pushing him down so he couldn't keep his altitude," he said.
Baca's plan: steer the plane out of the downdraft so it can start climbing. Baca got the pilot to head south out of the downdraft, but could he climb in time? The plane, gaining altitude, was back on radar and climbing fast. Now clear of the mountain, the plane was finally out of danger.
"It feels pretty good. I'm really grateful," Baca said.
Baca received a prestigious National Air Traffic Controllers Association award last week for his calm under pressure that day. He tells News 8 he was never nervous.