Image by Tak Toyoshima
The lights over Logan Airport in Boston splash across the tarmac. Flashes of blue and white dot the blacktop as plane after plane plods through the darkness. It’s a September night in 2013, and craft from numerous airlines arrive and wheel through, as thousands of passengers prepare to traverse great distances inside the roaring fuselages.
Above it all, Logan’s air traffic controllers stand in their glass lair, the crown jewel perched atop a pair of concrete pillars with a panoramic view of Boston and its vast surroundings. The bright Hub skyline glows from the west, and nautical Winthrop shines to the east. Below, white jet bridges dart around conjoined taxiways. The 285-foot-tall structure anchors a complex mechanism. As massive chunks of steel roll across the game board, the controllers guide and sequence traffic, experienced improvisers. The pavement is a giant jigsaw puzzle, and Logan’s air traffic controllers are its masters.
Confident voices shepherd the aircraft forward, as do succinct radio transmissions, which instruct pilots about their routes and courses. The standard phraseology is heavy with jargon: “Hold short” means stop, while “squawk” is an aircraft’s transponder. For visual cues, taxiways are labeled with letters, runways with numbers. Planes making their initial climbs are instructed to “contact departure.”
As the air traffic controllers manage the congestion, pilots stay tuned to variations in the cadences in their headsets. Every intonation registers, and it’s noticeable when a voice cracks. There is little time to question directives, so cockpit crews must immediately comply. Confusion for even a matter of seconds can mean the difference between life and death.
Nunzio DiMillo understands this importance innately. The 48-year-old Sagamore Beach resident has been an air traffic controller for nearly 30 years, half of which he’s spent at Logan. On this evening he stands near the tower’s slanted glass and gazes out over the airport, keeping in mind, as he always does, that while some aircraft types and airlines have evolved through the years, Logan’s intersecting runways remain. DiMillo issues clearances and watches it all move. Multitasking is a key element of his job, and the stalwart controller takes pride in his ability to see all.
It’s a hectic night: Ninety-two aircraft take off or land within the hour. DiMillo speaks to the pilots flying all of them, pressing his left thumb against his headset’s “push-to-talk” button, which is clipped to the pocket of his jeans. It’s just after 7pm, and he’s already five hours into his shift. The radio transmissions are as constant and deliberate as his New England accent, which moves across the airwaves as planes pass through the matrix.
Despite his experience, DiMillo doesn’t anticipate what’s coming. No one could. Beyond the lights of Boston Harbor, a single-engine four-seat Cirrus Sr22 approaches from the southwest, descending from the sky over Dorchester. It’s the kind of civil utility toy that millionaires and hobby airmen fly on weekends, but the pilot is preparing to land at Logan with the big boys.
DiMillo scans the tarmac below, as JetBlue Airways Captain Thomas “T.R.” Wood readies his flight for departure. Wood’s trip to Buffalo is expected to be just over an hour long, and the 100-seat Embraer jet in his command is nearly full. Always focused on the customer, Wood, a New Hampshire resident, stands in the cabin and introduces himself over the PA. He gives passengers the flight time, explains the route, and updates all on the weather. “There are no anticipated delays out of Logan,” Wood assures them. He surveys the faces in front of him and lets his eyes linger on the first row. His girlfriend Alison, sitting in the 1A window seat, smiles back.
Being close to Boston has been Wood’s dream for some time. In past jobs, he’s flown Boeing 747 freighters around the world, often traveling for three weeks at a time. A former marine and part-time combative instructor for weapons and defense trainings, he’s enjoyed visiting cities like Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Still, for Wood, no place ever compared to Bow, New Hampshire, and working for JetBlue after a career crossing oceans meant being able to return home almost every night.
Wood’s deep New England flying roots are never far from mind. He often thinks of his aviation family when he straps himself into the pilot seat. His father was a Boston-based Eastern Airlines captain. Before that, Wood’s grandfather flew in the Berlin Airlift at the onset of the Cold War, and after his military service became the chief pilot for the Gillette Company. In his own time, Wood often flies for fun in his family’s four-seat Piper Cherokee. He treasures old pictures of himself with his head literally in the clouds.
The tires under Wood’s Embraer roll over the tarmac as the JetBlue flight is pushed back from the gate. The pilot monitors the start of the right engine as the jet bridge disappears into the dark horizon. No place like home—for Wood, Logan has a generational link, and Alison being aboard makes tonight’s flight that much more personal.
The Embraer isn’t yet under the control of DiMillo, who is busy issuing clearances on another taxiway, where aircraft higher up in the queue are trundling toward departure runways. His flight data strips—printouts and handwritten notes about flights—are stacked on a vertical board resembling a music stand. Wood’s outgoing flight is listed; so is the small inbound Cirrus, the latter given the radio call sign “Six Bravo Juliet.”
Due to the large and fast jet traffic, private propeller aircraft seldom fly into Logan. Imagine the difficulties of driving a moped on the interstate. So when the pilot manning Six Bravo Juliet establishes contact, DiMillo plans to guide the piston plane over Boston Harbor so that it can land on a runway pointing northward. The surface parallels a taxiway, but that shouldn’t confuse any pilot, private or commercial. Runway lights are white, and taxiways are always outlined in blue. They are separate surfaces.
Wood turns the Embraer onto his designated taxiway. His left hand holds the steering tiller by his knee. His right is rested atop the bulky thrust levers protruding from the center console. The complicated cockpit instruments hardly resemble the gauges Wood’s father turned, yet Logan’s taxiways seem impervious to time. Some say the ghosts of Eastern Airlines jets, which his dad once proudly steered through these same skies, pass over this asphalt.
Wood and his co-pilot conduct their flight control checks as they punch forward. They switch radio frequencies and monitor the new controller’s transmissions. DiMillo’s steady voice fills their headsets. Wood is comforted knowing that a pro is moving traffic, and that his life is in knowledgeable hands.
DiMillo weaves in and out of dialogue while peering down at the traffic below. The Embraer’s anti-collision beacon flashes through the darkness, its red pulses clashing with the taxiway’s blue edges. In the distance, the Cirrus’s lights glimmer as the propeller zeroes in on Logan. Its pilot radios DiMillo, who clears him to land on an open leftside runway. DiMillo turns to watch the aircraft make its final course corrections. It’s within a mile of the airport, scheduled to touch down in less than a minute.
DiMillo’s 15 years in the tower have taught him to calculate precise expectations about traffic flow. Several hundred times a day, landing aircraft follow identical approach paths, and cross the same geographic points within his line of sight. Every puzzle piece has its place. When one thing is amiss by even a fraction of a detail, DiMillo instinctively knows.
During an unexpected lull in radio chatter, DiMillo scrutinizes the Cirrus’s position. His gut tightens as the aircraft dips lower. DiMillo has watched thousands of planes land on this same runway over the years, and something is definitely awry. He quickly glances at the radar to cross-check his suspicion, and the electronic display confirms his fear: The aircraft is skimming above the ground.
DiMillo squeezes his push-to-talk button with his thumb. Decades of experience welled within him, he only has seconds to act. The Cirrus inadvertently lined up with the taxiway where Wood is readying for takeoff. The air traffic controller takes a deep breath, then begins to speak: “Six Bravo Juliet, go around; Six Bravo Juliet, go around.” Wood presses his toes against the brake pedals as DiMillo’s call echoes through the flight deck. “Six Bravo Juliet go around, please. Go around!”
The Embraer lurches to a stop. A pilot’s being told to abort a landing, which means there’s wayward aircraft somewhere near the airport. Wood searches through the front windows for any unwelcome traffic, and sees a bright light directly ahead. The beam intensifies, and Wood’s cockpit, otherwise dark save for the flickering control panels, becomes bathed in a blinding heavenly white. Wood stares into the aura and realizes he needn’t look any further. The errant aircraft, the rogue piece in Logan’s puzzle, is screaming directly at him.
DiMillo’s heart pounds. He’s seen aircraft crash and explode before, lives instantly lost amidst deafening fireballs. The microseconds pass as he begs the Cirrus to climb. Meanwhile, the Embraer remains frozen in the landing light, as jet aircraft can’t easily swerve. Taxiways are narrow, and turbine engines require several seconds to spool up to “breakaway” thrust. Chances are the Cirrus will impact long before Wood can reposition. Nonetheless, it’s incumbent upon him to try. His girlfriend and other passengers are his responsibility.
Wood shoves his right hand forward and slams the thrust levers against their stops. The steering tiller cocks hard-right, as grass off to the side of the taxiway is the only possible salvation. The engine needles slowly tick upward as the turbofans awaken from their idle slumber and rev toward maximum power. The fuselage shudders, the Embraer begrudgingly turning. Wood implores the Cirrus pilot with his own silent plea: Pull Up! Pull Up! Pull Up!
Finally, the Cirrus pilot responds, “Six Bravo Juliet is going around.” There’s a glimmer of hope that the taxiway will not become ablaze in fuel and fire, a chance the Cirrus will climb above the JetBlue craft rather than sear Logan with carnage. It’s going to be close.
As Wood forces his thrust levers forward, the Cirrus begins slowing in his mind. The light brightens. Studying combatives has facilitated in Wood a deep understanding of traumatic situations, and of the “auditory exclusion” principle, which explains why police officers often cannot hear their firearms discharging, and why automobile crash victims hear no impact. Facing death is frighteningly silent, especially as the Cirrus engine pierces the Embraer’s cockpit, rendering Wood’s noise-cancelling headsets useless. His eardrums throb.
Then, like a cool breeze, the painful buzz fades, and the light vanishes overhead. There’s no sudden jolt, as Wood had feared, expected. He retards the thrust levers, and the engines return to their idle rumble. The taxiway before him is dark and confusingly silent. Wood stares into the void. His fingers remain locked around the flight control grips.
The whole time, DiMillo watched the Cirrus slowly gain altitude. “You were lined up for a taxiway, Six Bravo Juliet,” he transmitted. “Fly runway heading and … climb and maintain … 2,000 [feet].”
Wood’s JetBlue flight was just one of many stacked along DiMillo’s board, but no pilot dared to interrupt the exchange. The evening push halted as the Cirrus, small as it is, became the most important aircraft at Logan. While the pilots remained pursed, only one voice broke the radio silence, as another controller yelled “Holy Cow!” in the background while DiMillo gave commands. Otherwise, as tape recordings show, DiMillo acted calm and professionally, his voice never faltering during those crucial moments. DiMillo knew the pilot of the small plane had to be rattled. Nearly impaling an airliner was one worry; almost landing on a taxiway was another. Pilots can have their licenses revoked for such infractions. The pilot’s mind was likely whirring with the daunting possibilities. Nevertheless, on his side DiMillo spoke evenly, knowing the shaken pilot was more apt to trust a confident controller. Plus they had a shared objective: Land the aircraft safely on the ground.
The Cirrus made its second approach under DiMillo’s gaze. Aligning with the correct surface, the pilot followed blazing runway lights. After the Cirrus landed, DiMillo handed the immediate control off to a coworker, and looked over at one of his supervisors standing near one of the tower’s numerous telephones. They had to talk to the pilot, who had been instructed to call after pulling into the general aviation apron.
Within the hour DiMillo purged his mind of the aircraft. It was on the ground and no longer his responsibility. He refocused on the other traffic, and began issuing clearances in his trademark cadence. He peered down at the JetBlue Embraer, still slightly askew on the taxiway, still full of passengers en route to Buffalo. DiMillo then instructed Wood to cross the runway and continue his departure. Just another day in the tower.
Months later, DiMillo was recognized for his exemplary conduct when the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) awarded him the Archie League Medal of Safety. This distinction, named for the first air traffic controller, is bestowed upon members of the trade who demonstrate paramount skill and judgment—qualities that save lives. DiMillo was honored with the President’s Award for the most laudable flight assist of 2013.
T.R. Wood attended the awards banquet in Las Vegas, where the captain captivated the audience with his experiences from that night. DiMillo’s actions and poise unquestionably averted disaster; the Cirrus passed within 30 feet of the Embraer. Even if Wood had managed to exit the taxiway, the Cirrus would have likely pierced the fuselage behind the cockpit—exactly where his girlfriend Allison was sitting. “I cannot thank Nunzio enough for what he did,” Wood said.
“[Nunzio] would just say that he was doing his job, and for that, I owe him everything … It’s an honor … to present this award to not just my hero, but to my future lifelong friend.”
These days, DiMillo still works in Logan’s control tower, peering through the slanted glass and watching aircraft align in his planned sequence. The puzzle pieces are organized, just the way he likes them, with precise coordination among the outstretched taxiways and runways that he knows so well.
Flight numbers and call signs blend together, but the wayward Cirrus is hard to forget. DiMillo holds no ill will toward its pilot or smaller general aviation aircraft, and believes safety is contingent upon airmen and controllers learning from errors. An airman’s caliber and experience does not necessarily coincide with aircraft size. Still, DiMillo felt mixed emotions the next time the same Cirrus returned to Logan. He held the flight’s data strip tightly as the pilot called over the radio, only to notice that the voice sounded different. Another person seemed to be flying the plane.
DiMillo pressed his push-to-talk button and spoke in a clear and concise tenor. When the Cirrus pilot acknowledged the instructions, DiMillo shuttled the flight data strip aside. There were numerous pilots on the frequency, and he was busy. The Cirrus was of no particular concern.
As for Captain Wood … he became an instructor on the Embraer, training new-hire JetBlue pilots. Teaching Logan’s operational nuances is a big part of the job, and also one that’s in his blood: His father passed similar knowledge on to young Eastern Airlines pilots in his day. Wood occasionally hears DiMillo’s voice when he finishes a trip, and takes comfort knowing that his friend is working in the sky over Logan.
Bradley Sunshine lives in Chicago, where he is based as a corporate pilot for a Fortune 100 company.