No matter what time of the day or night it is, or whether there are other people working in the control tower or not, air traffic controllers must always be alert and prepared for anything. Even if it is the middle of the night and the controller is working alone on a mid shift, that controller knows they must be ready for anything and everything.
This was the scenario facing Pensacola TRACON (P31) controller J.D. Smith when he reported for his mid shift on September 24, 2006. He was working alone in the TRACON while the actual Pensacola Tower was closed for the night. A late-arriving aircraft, a Northwest Airlink inbound to Pensacola from Memphis, was cleared by Smith to land on a visual approach to Runway 8/26 at Pensacola International Airport. Smith told the pilot to switch to an advisory frequency and to cancel IFR on the approach frequency after he landed.
After clearing the plane, Smith continued about his work in the radar room when he noticed on his radar screen that the Northwest Airlink was lined up to land on Runway 17/35 and not the stated Runway 8/26. Runway 17/35 was a closed runway at the time and had been for a few months. Half of the runway was torn up and heavy machinery and debris littered what was left of the runway.
Knowing he did not have the plane on his frequency, Smith grabbed a tunable radio from inside the TRACON and attempted to call the pilot to alert him to his mistake. The call went unanswered. Smith then attempted to radio the pilot on the approach frequency, hoping the pilot was monitoring it. The pilot was and radioed back to Smith.
Smith notified the pilot that he was lined up to land on the closed runway and advised him to shift to the open Runway 8/26. After a few seconds of silence, the pilot realized his mistake and turned toward the correct runway, landing safely.
The quick action on the part of Smith prevented a possible major runway accident on the PNS runway. His alertness and knowledge of the area through the eyes of his radar while alone in the TRACON in the early hours of the morning is a great example of the professionalism of the air traffic controller community.
"This save is remarkable for several reasons," said NATCA Southern Region Safety Representative Perry Doggrell. "First, PNS tower is closed. Second, Smith was alone in the TRACON, and third, the airspace covered by P31 is quite large. In order for him to see all the airspace, his range on the scope must have been set to the maximum. For him to notice a plane was lined up on the wrong runway, on a 2-3 mile final, from a radar screen is incredible. There were no windows, so he could not look outside and see the aircraft approaching. He only had his radar screen."
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