November 29, 2013

For averting big disaster at Boston airport, high honors

An air traffic controller who grew up in Maine made an ‘incredible’ observation that kept a plane and jet from colliding.

By David Hench
Staff Writer

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.

Air traffic controller Nunzio DiMillo, a South Portland High graduate, says he was “shaking for several hours” on Sept. 27 after he kept two planes from colliding at busy Logan airport in Boston.

Federal Aviation Administration photo

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.


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.

(Continued on page 2)

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