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Cliff Murdock, Pensacola TRACON

Cliff Murdock is a hurricane veteran and, as such, emphatically states, “I do not take hurricanes lightly.” As a child growing up in Pensacola, Fla., he saw the before and after of what Hurricane Camille did to Pass Christian, Miss., in 1969. As a teenager, he experienced Hurricane Frederic as it devastated Mobile, Ala., in 1979. In 1995, he was in Pensacola for Hurricanes Erin and Opal.

But nothing quite prepared Murdock for a face-to-face encounter with the devastating eyewall of Hurricane Ivan during the harrowing overnight hours of Sept. 15-16. The experience, according to NATCA Executive Vice President Ruth Marlin, “sheds some light into the courage, dedication, and skill that Cliff showed in the face of an event that put a very busy air traffic control facility out of business until Cliff led a remarkable comeback effort.”

Because Murdock was part of a team of Pensacola TRACON controllers and managers who stayed close by in the event the facility reopened after Ivan’s landfall, he joined with them to gather their families at the facility to ride out the storm. He cooked hamburgers for the group and then toured the facility with the operations manager, making sure all windows were closed and latched.

By 11 p.m., winds howled at 90 m.p.h. Murdock could taste the salt water in the wind – and the ocean is two miles east of the airport. At 12:30 a.m., with the winds well over 100 m.p.h., Murdock and two other controllers scouted the building for a status update.

Then, Murdock said, “in the loudest crash I have ever heard, a large section of the roof peeled off the TRACON and landed onto a red Saturn in the parking lot.” He then watched as the wind lifted a Ford F-150 about six feet, rotated it 90 degrees, and set it down on the roof debris.

When the storm finally passed, the cleanup began and Murdock spearheaded a heroic effort to operate a patchwork air traffic control system that allowed for the safe and efficient flow of aircraft into and out of the local airspace.

The storm drenched computers, radar scopes, and communications equipment, but a team of controllers, airways facilities personnel, and other Federal Aviation Administration employees, led by Murdock, set about restoring the TRACON to near full operational status. The facility reopened just 20 days later, with nine of its 12 radar scopes back up and running, inside a building outfitted with a new roof and a handful of other repairs.

As is his style, Murdock has been quick to credit others for their efforts while humbly deflecting attention away from himself. He said of his colleagues, “It’s amazing. Our local airways facilities personnel worked 24/7 to ensure that our equipment was restored to operational condition.”

During the reconstruction period, Murdock and TRACON controllers worked a two-position operation from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., using an extra radar scope up in the Pensacola Regional Airport control tower.

In addition, Cliff and other NATCA members provided generators and supplies to controllers who lost their homes. While taking care of his own personal family issues in the storm’s cleanup effort, he was part of a team effort to repair a major air traffic control facility in the Gulf Coast region, working day and night to restore the operation of the air traffic control system.

Said Marlin, who visited the region after the storm, “Cliff’s dedication, not only to the safety of his family and colleagues, but also to the flying public was on full display in a way that best exemplifies the very best qualities of skill and determination that I believe this award serves to recognize.”

No audio or transcript available.

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