Column: Catching Up With Bevin Bixby, Nantucket Air Traffic Controller

Chris Perry •

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Chris Perry is a contributing writer and columnist for Nantucket Current

“Nantucket Tower...Air Force One on the I.L.S. runway 2 - 4....”

“Air Force One... Nantucket Tower... Clear to land runway 2 - 4....”

It must be pretty cool to hear something like that. Nantucket’s Bevin Bixby did even better.

“I knew the President’s arrival for Thanksgiving was going to fall on my shift”, said Bixby, a local air traffic controller at Nantucket Memorial Airport. “But I wasn’t 100 percent sure if I would be in direct communications with Air Force One”.

She added, “It’s not every day you help land the President’s plane. I am not a supervisor and there were plenty of others in the tower that day but it was pretty exciting.”

Bevin took the circuitous route to get to her present position as a F.A.A. air traffic controller on Nantucket. The self-described “problem middle child,” you’d be hard-pressed to find someone on Nantucket who does not know the Bixby family. “My dad, Paul, worked at the Post Office Annex for many years and my mom, Jacquie, was a flight attendant based out of Philly and Boston working for Mohawk, US Air and American. Plus, they ran The Sconset Bookstore. I am very close to my older sister, Amanda, and everyone knows my younger brother, Colin. But growing up in Sconset, I actually had another family too”.

Bevin fondly remembered how “every Sunday during the summer, mom and dad plus me, Amanda and Colin would pack up and head to Dionis where we would meet up with Roberta and Tommy Santos, Brenda Knoll and Kevin Martin, Cheryl and Kenny Coffin, Brenda and David Dunham and others at the beach. Growing up on island, that was my Nantucket family.”

For a young female on Nantucket, interest in the aviation world is a unique slice of life. “When I was 15, my dad gave me an Ocean Wings flight lesson as a Christmas present. At the time, I was learning how to fly before I was learning how to drive,” Bevin recalled. “I never got my pilot’s license, but ever since that day, I knew I wanted to be in the aviation field. Eventually, as a senior at Nantucket High School, my mom started to drill down on what I wanted to do in college. No one else was interested in aviation but I knew that’s what I wanted to do”.

After graduating from Nantucket High School, Bevin went onto Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Dayton Beach, FL.

“With a grandmother 40 minutes south and my godmother 20 minutes north, it was a no-brainer,” said Bixby. “Briefly, I was thinking about becoming a flight attendant like my mom; but once she reminded me that I don’t handle sick people very well - and people often get sick on planes - I thought it best to try another line of work.”

Once at Embry Riddle, Bevin initially focused on aeronautical science, but when 9/11 hit and travel was significantly restricted, Bixby changed vectors and went into aviation communications.

With some frustration, Bixby recalled, “At that time, the 9/11 attack hit the aviation world hard. Pilots were laid off and jobs were hard to find. Plus, if you wanted to be a commercial pilot it was an extremely expensive path to follow. Even when I graduated, I wasn’t 100% sure what I wanted to do.”

For most parents, that certainly sounded familiar. So, over the next few years and after unsuccessfully trying to convince her parents that she should "spend the next year or two traveling the world,” Bevin went from being a real estate agent in Florida to substitute teaching to retail sales to rental car agent to bartender than a travel agent at Swain’s Travel on Nantucket.

“I was all over the place”, Bixby said. “But my desire to be closer to my family brought me back to Nantucket”.

Two things worked in Bevin’s favor. The first was the fact that air traffic controllers must be under 31 years old when first hired. So, that moved things along. Secondly, there is mandatory retirement age of 56 for air traffic controllers. Consequently, those controllers hired by the F.A.A. due to President Reagan’s reaction to the Air Traffic Controller’s Strike in 1981 were starting to hit retirement around 2012.

With the F.A.A. in need of air traffic controllers, Bixby decided to apply online. She passed the initial parts of the exam which led her to the A.C.T.C. exam in New York. She passed that too leading her to a psych exam - three months of heavy training in Oklahoma followed by roughly one full year of training on Nantucket.

“I wish more young people would get involved in the field,” she said. “I always said that people who play video games would be great aircraft controllers”.

Bevin added with a smile, “There have been several other female controllers on Nantucket like Carrie Cassano, Cam Maltby, Carrie Blanda and Erin McMullen. But right now, I am the only one.”

“As I mentioned before, I wish some other young, Nantucketers would get involved,” said Bixby. “There is a very popular summer aviation camp that works with the Nantucket Pilot’s Association in an attempt to get some young aviators interested but I guess it is not for everyone”, she added.

“I have been blessed to work with some terrific mentors such as Fred Holdgate who recently retired, Ken Witt who is now over in the Hyannis tower and Bob Heintz who was my primary trainer and back on Nantucket after five years in Boston. Right now, we are incredibly short staffed; and in the summer, we must go to a six-day work week versus five”.

Bevin added; “You just never know what will happen. It could be a sunny, summer day then the fog rolls in. There might be a new pilot just learning or heavy inbound traffic. Right now, snow and wind are an issue. But I love looking down and seeing friendly faces getting off the planes”.

It is clear that her love of the aviation world brought Bixby to the ACK Tower. But, it was her love of the island and devotion to her family that brought Bevin back to Nantucket.

Bevin said with a smile, “I love my family.... In fact, this Christmas was the first time since I started working for the F.A.A. that I had both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day off. I went out to my parents’ on Saturday and did not return to my place until Monday. It was like being home from college...”

I love listening to the stories from Nantucket’s younger generation. For those of us who have proudly called Nantucket home for a long time, you know what I mean. The innocence of their tales are hard to match. I would like to think that we all have a “Bevin or two” in our lives - dare I say that I have been blessed with five. Especially during the holidays, hearing them fondly reminiscing about their days growing up on Nantucket before turning into productive, young adults in this crazy, chaotic world brings a smile to my face.

Our conversation rambled all over the place - and yes, we chuckled about Pat Sajak’s ill-fated final spin on Wheel of Fortune in 2010 that ultimately moved Bevin out of first place.

“That spin just killed me,” said Bevin. “But in the end, I won a trip to Canada and I went with my sister, Amanda, to Banff. We had a blast!”

With 6,123 days until retirement, Bevin is having a good time with her sister... Go figure.

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