EYE IN THE SKY: Quick-thinking naval air traffic controller honored; up for national award

Photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Chris Liaghat

Air Traffic Controller First Class Jonathan M. Epperson was recognized as the 2018 Navy Southeast Region Air Traffic Controller of the Year in January and is a finalist for Vice Admiral Robert B. Pirie Naval Air Traffic Controller of the Year Award. Epperson, a native of Columbus, Ga., is stationed at Naval Air Station Meridian.

The literal flip of a coin set Jonathan Epperson's naval career in motion.

In 2003, Epperson and a friend waited inside a naval recruiting station in Columbus, Georgia, and pondered over their soon-to-be military careers.

They whittled their choices down to culinary specialist and air traffic controller, and Epperson reached for a quarter for the final assist — heads for air traffic controller, tails for culinary specialist.  

George Washington’s face on the silver coin landed right side up.

“It’s crazy that something so simple can guide your fate,” Epperson, 33, said. “It was always destined, and that’s the thing my mom and dad always told me. Your path is laid out for you prior to. You get to make choices along the way, but your path is laid out for you.”

Last month, Air Traffic Controller 1st Class Epperson was named the Navy Region Southeast Air Traffic Controller of the Year. He’s in contention for the 2018 Vice Admiral Robert B. Pirie Air Traffic Controller of the Year award.

EYE IN THE SKY: Quick-thinking naval air traffic controller honored; up for national award

Dave Bohrer / The Meridian Star

Boyd Williams, left, a Meridian realtor and private aircraft pilot, met Navy Air Traffic Controller First Class Jonathan M. Epperson for the first time on Tuesday. Epperson, of Columbus, Ga., guided Williams to a safe emergency landing Oct. 5, 2018 on Highway 45 in Clarke County. 

Epperson last October assisted and guided Boyd Williams through an emergency landing on Highway 45 in Clarke County after Williams’ aircraft experienced engine failure. No one was injured during the emergency landing.

Epperson, who is married and has four children, said while the recognition is gratifying, the honor was made possible due to the contributions of those he’s met throughout his naval career.

“It really was a humbling experience,” Epperson said. “The way I took it is the way I hope my junior sailors will take it, and that is my actions on that day were nothing but the culmination of every person who has taken any time to explain anything about air traffic control to me. From teaching me how to vector, to teaching me what’s safe, to teaching me how to handle an emergency situation…"

Williams has accumulated more than 500 flight hours throughout different states as a private pilot. He said Epperson’s composure and unflappable demeanor that afternoon exemplify the traits of a model air traffic controller.

“An ideal air traffic controller is someone who thinks clearly, is calm and resourceful and respectful,” Williams said. “Someone who is accommodating and reasonable with requests… and he was all of those things. He was the calm, one person on the ground who could relate to what I was going through and knew what I was going through. He was my life line — a person on the ground to coordinate potential.”

Epperson’s 16 years of military service have taken him from the sun-splashed islands in Hawaii to the mild climate of Washington, where, coincidentally, he served aboard the USS John C. Stennis, a naval supercarrier. In addition to the USS John C. Stennis, Epperson served aboard the USS Nimitz when he was stationed in San Diego, California. He said serving aboard the two supercarriers enhanced his military experience.

“Being out there on the carrier, there’s nothing like it,” Epperson said. “It brings you closer to each and every sailor around you. It gives you a different appreciation for people. It gives you a different appreciation for your family, and it gives you a sense of why you’re in the military and what you’re actually doing. Generally, when you’re on shore duty, you’re training guys and getting them ready to fight and go into the fleet. When you’re on that carrier, you’re in the fleet. The guys who you’re talking to, they’re going out and they’re actually executing the mission that they have prepared for… It puts life into perspective.”

EYE IN THE SKY: Quick-thinking naval air traffic controller honored; up for national award

Whitney Downard / The Meridian Star

U.S. Navy Air Traffic Controller First Class Jonathan M. Epperson, left, and Meridian realtor and pilot Boyd Williams, right, chat during a podcast conducted by reporter Elton Hayes on Tuesday at the Meridian Community College studio. Epperson and Williams met in person for the first time at the podcast. Epperson guided Williams to a safe emergency landing Oct. 5, 2018 on Highway 45 in Clarke County.

Epperson will soon learn if he’s been named the recipient of the 2018 Vice Admiral Robert B. Pirie Air Traffic Controller of the Year award. Regardless of the outcome, he said training and providing mentorship to the Navy's future air traffic controllers is the most satisfying aspect of his job.

“Teaching the junior sailors — that’s what brings the most joy to me,” Epperson said. “You’re teaching these young guys and girls, these young sailors, to think about somebody besides themselves, to put somebody else first.”

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