Air Traffic Controller Guides Troubled Harrier to Safety

Cpl. Justin McDaniel accepts the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal during an award ceremony at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C., Dec. 3, 2015. (Photo: Cpl. N.W. Huertas)
Cpl. Justin McDaniel accepts the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal during an award ceremony at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C., Dec. 3, 2015. (Photo: Cpl. N.W. Huertas)

MARINE CORPS AIR STATION CHERRY POINT, N.C., February 10, 2016 — Hunched forward in the dark radar room here, Marine Corps Cpl. Justin McDaniel focused on the small greenish symbol displayed on his radar screen and listened carefully to the disembodied voice in his headset.

The voice calmly reached through miles of nighttime darkness from the tight cockpit of a 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing AV-8B Harrier, and the pilot needed help.

Returning from a Dec. 1 mission, the pilot suddenly lost one of the primary features necessary for a safe return to the air station. His Harrier’s navigation system had stopped working, a problem that was compounded by low visibility due to weather and lack of daylight. He was, for all practical purposes, flying blind.

This was just the sort of situation that pilots and air traffic controllers constantly train for, and one of the reasons that the two share a special relationship. The pilot’s first job is to fly the airplane, regardless of the situation. The controller’s first job is to help to keep pilots safe in the air, whether it is by keeping them spaced apart to avoid collisions or by guiding them through situations where the extra set of electronic eyes can make a critical difference.

State of Emergency

Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Louie Cruz, the air traffic control radar chief with Headquarters and Headquarters Squadron, said the pilot declared a state of emergency and required guidance to safely land the aircraft. McDaniel’s actions were the product of extensive training and confidence in his own skills, Cruz added.

Like his fellow air traffic controllers, McDaniel communicates with civilian and military pilots as they navigate through Cherry Point’s 9,145 square miles of airspace. He also provides verbal guidance to pilots to assist with a safe landing during training and emergency landing procedures. The corporal also trains junior Marines on methods and procedures they must know as basic air traffic controllers.

“I joined the Marine Corps to deploy and help as many people as I can,” McDaniel said. “I have not yet had the opportunity to deploy, but I have been given the opportunity to assist many Marines with their training and during times of distress.”

Cruz noted that McDaniel has aided pilots in landing in both inclement weather conditions and during equipment failure. On Dec. 3, he was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal for his quick and precise problem-solving skills that led to the safe landing of the AV-8B Harrier that had experienced navigational equipment failure two days earlier.

“Corporal McDaniel took on the responsibility in a calm, but precise manner,” Cruz said. “His relaxed tone while handling the situation helped the pilot to make calm and logical decisions without panicking and diverting from protocol. The pilot had experienced a blackout of his navigational equipment under low visibility and relied on McDaniel’s turn-by-turn directions to guide him directly over the runway to a safe landing.”

Confidence in Training

If an air traffic control Marine fails, hundreds of lives potentially could be on the line. Confidence in the extensive training the Marines receive and the dedication to their practice are traits McDaniel has maintained and shared with his fellow Marines, Cruz said.

“The Marine Corps has allowed me to give back to others and live up to the beliefs I carry,” McDaniel said. “My grandfather taught me to never be afraid to give the shirt off my back to someone and walk away. He is the biggest role model in my life, and I carry his teachings with me in what I do both in and out of the Marine Corps.”

With his active duty service scheduled to end later this year, McDaniel has applied to continue assisting U.S. military and civilian air crews as a contracted civilian air traffic controller.

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