Nunzio DiMillo, a 1983 graduate of South Portland High School, was coordinating the comings and goings of dozens of aircraft from his position in the control tower at Logan International Airport when he glanced out over the sea of lights and spotted one that didn’t look quite right.

As a single-engine Cirrus SR22 was about to touch down, DiMillo saw that it was not descending onto the runway, but instead down a parallel taxiway headed toward a head-on collision with a passenger jet.

Moments later, DiMillo was quickly – but without any note of panic or impending calamity – directing the Cirrus pilot to abort the landing and circle the airport again before making another pass.

DiMillo was honored recently by the Federal Aviation Administration for helping avert what could have been a disaster, receiving the Icons of Aviation Safety recognition.

“We are all fortunate that Nunzio’s scan picked up on this very unusual situation,” Brendan Reilly, operations manager at Boston Tower, told FocusFAA, a publication of the aviation agency. “A small aircraft like the Cirrus is already very difficult to see at night in Boston, and for Nunzio to notice that he was not lined up with the runway is incredible.”

DiMillo grew up in South Portland and attended one year at the University of Southern Maine before opting to join the U.S. Air Force. He served six years as an air traffic controller in the service, then joined the FAA, directing civilian traffic and working his way up to serving at one of the busiest airports in the country.

DiMillo recounted the evening of Sept. 27 in a telephone interview Wednesday.

He was halfway through his shift, working the local control west position. He was standing, as is typical for the eight to 10 air traffic controllers who work the tower at any given time. Standing gives them a better view of the radar monitors hanging from the ceiling, the communications console and the vast network of runways, taxiways and access roads of the airport below.

He might have been sipping a coffee from the tower’s hard-working Keurig coffemaker, but he can’t be sure.

It was a busy stretch, with 92 take-offs and landings over the previous hour. DiMillo had directed the pilot of a small propeller plane, approaching from the southwest, to land on a particular runway under his control.

“When they get below 300 feet, from our line of sight they’re below the horizon and there’s a whole backdrop of lights – there’s the cruise ship terminal, ships in the harbor, of course the airport lighting itself,” DiMillo said. “Picking out an aircraft like that with one little tiny light on its nose is very difficult, as opposed to airliners with a huge array of lights that you can see 10 miles away.”

But at the same time, the human element is essential, he said. A controller can tell quickly that a given plane is slowing, as its nose starts to dip.

THE CALL TO ABORT LANDING

DiMillo said that when he noticed the light on the single-engine plane’s nose, he could sense something wasn’t right, but depth perception is difficult at night. He checked ground radar, which picked up the plane as it descended below 300 feet, confirming his suspicions.

“I looked at the ground radar and saw his target lined up over the taxiway and not over the runway itself. A Jet Blue Embraer was headed in the opposite direction from where this guy was about to land,” he said. The commercial jet had a full load of about 100 passengers headed for Buffalo, N.Y., and there was nothing the jet pilot could do to avoid a collision.

DiMillo says he’s not sure why the Cirrus pilot was on the wrong approach. The end of the runway is illuminated by two large, flashing bright lights, and the taxiway is lit much differently.

DiMillo spoke into his radio, rapidly but in a measured voice, without alarm: “Six Bravo Julie go around. Six Bravo Julie go around, please, go around.”

“At that point he was pretty low, 20 feet or so off the ground, which is not far from touching down,” DiMillo said. “I don’t know if he saw the other guy. It looked to me he was intent on landing.”

‘HE WAS THE GUY WHO SAVED IT’

The jet’s flight crew didn’t spot the prop plane until they heard DiMillo tell it to go around.

The plane pulled up, having narrowly missed a separate collision with another passenger jet that was about to cross the taxiway. It passed over the Embraer that was taxiing toward it.

Rather than hand off the pilot, DiMillo stayed in radio contact until he was able to land on the correct runway.

“He was probably shaken as bad as I was,” DiMillo said. The tower was able to turn up the lights for the correct runway, to be sure the pilot could see his route.

Under way to Buffalo, the JetBlue crew reflected on the incident.

“We came to a conclusion that there’s not much that we could have done to change the outcome, other than Nunzio saying to go around,” JetBlue Capt. T.R. Wood told FocusFAA. “He was the guy who saved it.”

The other controllers, though they didn’t see the incident, could tell immediately by the tone of voice that something out of the ordinary was happening. Controllers have a keen sense of their intense responsibility to safely manage heavy volumes of traffic.

As calm as he was in handling the plane, DiMillo’s adrenaline was pumping once the aircraft was down.

“That particular night they sent me home,” he said. “I was shaking for several hours after that happened, that’s how close that was.”

David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

dhench@pressherald.com