- Associated Press - Sunday, March 13, 2016

FLIPPIN, Ark. (AP) - John Yates vividly recalled the events of that January 29 at the Marion County Regional Airport.

“Exactly nothing tragic happened,” he told the Harrison Daily Times (https://bit.ly/1pi7q2O ).

Yates, and many other people, have Elena Cheesman to thank for the non-event that happened on that Friday in Flippin. Thanks to Cheesman’s quick thinking and brave actions, a mid-air collision between two planes was averted.

Cheesman was not quite so steely-eyed and clear thinking on February 26.

What was initially thought by Cheesman to be a gathering of politicians (she was running around straightening up the terminal, she said), there to tour the airport, turned out to be a surprise honoring of her for her actions.

“I am just totally overwhelmed,” Cheesman said, dabbing at her eyes with a tissue. “Surprised and overwhelmed.”

Second only to Cheesman’s surprised and teary-eyed performance, in the opinion of the audience, was airport manager David Davis’ politician-tour ruse that had Cheesman completely fooled.

In addition to Yates and other members of the airport board, state Rep. Kelley Linck and Marion County Judge Terry Ott were present to honor Cheesman. Rebekah Hillmer, field representative of Sen. Tom Cotton, was also present, passing along the senator’s best wishes and congratulations.

Yates recalled that on that day, he and his wife were at an airport hangar, preparing their plane for a trip later that day. He remembered seeing a woman running toward a yellow Piper Cub sitting at one end of the runway, which is more than a mile long. Then he heard another plane, just over a rise at the other end. Yates then realized that the Piper Cub could not see over the rise, and the planes were heading for each other. Davis estimated that the Cub would have been going about 60 mph and the other plane, a larger two-engine craft, about 80 mph.

According to Davis, he had asked Cheesman to watch the runway, not as an air traffic controller, but just if she had a few minutes.

When she realized the situation, Cheesman’s eyes grew large and her reaction was, “Oh no!”

Cheesman went on to describe how she quickly got on the radio, shouting, “Abort take-off! I repeat abort take-off!”

Cheesman dashed outside and sprinted over one-half mile to the Piper Cub, giving the “cut” sign by dragging her hand over her throat.

“The pilot looked at me like I was crazy,” said Cheesman, explaining that she was doing her best airplane imitation, her arms held perpendicular to her body.

Cheesman dismissed any special quality to her actions.

“I was just doing my job,” she said.

Yates begged to disagree.

“The bottom line is, Elena was not required to watch the runway,” he said. “She could have been sitting at her desk, doing the national pastime, playing with her phone.”

In situations such as the one that Cheesman helped prevent, Yates went on to say, fatalities are certain. If not for her actions, Marion County airport officials would have been talking to the FAA and going to funerals. Yates presented Cheesman with a certificate of appreciation from the airport board.

Looking back on the incident, Yates said that if the universe had been only 30 minutes ahead, he and his wife might have been on that runway.

“An airport attendant can make all the difference in the world,” Davis said, praising Cheesman.

Cheesman has worked at the airport for about four years, and she was unabashed in her feelings for the place.

“I love this airport,” she said. “I’d be here 24/7 if I could. I won’t retire. David will have to drag me out.”

Ott voiced his appreciation for Cheesman’s actions, and assured her he had her back.

“If David starts to kick you out, call me,” Ott said.

Linck presented Cheesman with a framed citation from the Arkansas House of Representatives.

Her emotions once again overwhelming her, Cheesman embraced Linck.

“I’m not even running for re-election,” Linck said, as he hugged the star of the show. “This is genuine.”

Hillmer added to Cheesman’s collection of citations, presenting her with one from Cotton.

“You may say you were just doing your job,” Hillmer said, “but it was an act of courage. Don’t ever think it wasn’t courageous, because it was.”


Information from: Harrison Daily Times, https://www.harrisondaily.com

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