The Touch

The Weather these last several weeks was spectacular so I spent most of my days outside. With their spotless blue skies, balanced breezes and cool temperatures; these were the kinds of days when I never really minded being sent to the tower. Images and impressions remain, even though time eventually dilutes the adrenalin.

There was the sprawling airport to scan, rife with its hundreds of small and sizable dramas taking place all around. Dozens of airplanes could regularly be seen rushing along the runways and taxiways, slowing or speeding up in an effort to keep their promise with company timetables. Jam-packed traffic patterns raged and roiled around the airfield till you felt like you were in the eye of a hurricane. The immense energy of it all rocked and rattled the tower cab so relentlessly that, if you didn't hang onto the console with both hands, you could be thrown to the floor. Or so it seemed. All the while, a wide cityscape leaned against the distant sky like an angular mountain range; our backdrop to the continuing spectacle of Big Time Airport.Nah, I never minded a tower assignment on days like these. It wasn't just another day of rubber on and rubber off the runways. It was a sensation ~ and whether your option was terminal or enroute, the airport was where every controller's shift really began and ended. You just had to see it to believe it.

When weather was this good, Big Time would usually be on a favored runway configuration. There'd be no restrictions in or out so Approach would be cramming their traffic into the airport on visuals. Departures flowed freely in all directions ~ if your timing was good enough to squeeze them off between arrivals. The tower Supervisor could usually be found pacing around behind the local controller; glancing at the BRITE display, glaring at the stagnating departure queue and growling at his TRACON counterpart over spacing on the finals. The TRACON Supe would mutter something like "Let me know when the approach end goes IFR from rubber smoke and we'll back off a little." Us controllers would just hang on, hustle our traffic and hurl those great, good natured barbs at each other.

There was a comforting climate of normalcy to it all. We were busy all right but we were busy working airplanes rather than working out SWAP routes, calling for releases or emptying out holding patterns. It was an indefatigable exhilaration instead of the trying tedium that often awaited an incoming crew at shift change. It was pure, unadulterated air traffic control and the application of separation standards never felt so good. These were the days when there was no better job than ours; when the idea of leaving the boards for a staff position rarely occurred to anyone. This job was simply too much fun.

But some people were thinking about it. Who knows? It might have been the guy working Final who, when asked, would build me a gap between his arrivals so I could get a heavy jet off. Maybe it was the gal working Ground Control who'd ask if she could take a few departures to one of the designated arrival runways. It might even have been the Departure Controller who'd call me at Local when I had a long line of planes to go and say "Just flush 'em! I'll spread 'em out in the air! What ever became of those people?

A lot of them, like me, eventually ended up in Management. It took some of us longer to get there than others but, if that's where you wanted to be, you'd eventually get your chance. Far more important than how long it took was how the change affected those who made the transition. A few fled back to the boards after a year or so; disillusioned and disappointed by the realities of staff work and the "other world" atmosphere of the office. Some who stepped away from their headsets ultimately revealed an uncanny knack for transforming nearly everything they touched. Sadly, it wasn't the "Midas touch" kind of transformation that might have added value to the facility's operation or its staff or even the air traffic profession as a whole. It was more of a "minus touch," where the things they became involved in were somehow diminished ~ infected by arrogance, apathy and eventual conflict.

What outrageous alchemy is it that can turn a principled person perfidious or a masterful controller into a maladroit manager? The answer can be found somewhere in this seemingly innocuous little thing known as career progression. I think its an unregistered intoxicant. Some people I've known could handle a lot of it and remain upright, walking tall and leaving a trail of respect in their wake. Others fell quickly onto their bellies and began a career-long slither down the serpentine path that overlaps the line between right and wrong.

I wrote a variation on the issue several months back in a Post titled "Stepping Up Or Stepping Out." I want to know how someone you've trusted and relied on for years can change so profoundly when they're given a little authority. How does someone, who would once do almost anything to reduce your supply of stress, suddenly become its willing purveyor? There's something about this that always intrigued me. Take my old carpool buddy and teammate Richie for example.

Richie was a phenomenal controller who came to Big Time in the early seventies from another busy airdrome. He brought with him a depth of experience, a solid grasp of the rules and an ease of application that inspired many; especially the trainees such as myself. He ended up on my team where we became fast friends. As an OJT instructor, he would share gem after gem from what seemed to be a bottomless bag of tricks. To him I owed much for my relatively early Facility Rating. Beers after work eventually lead to a long social relationship between us and the wives. We even served together as officers in the PATCO Local; simultaneously shaking our fists at facility management.

There was, however, an unseen engine driving Richie ~ a latent force that no one saw at first. It was insecurity. If you listened carefully and watched closely you might have recognized the signs. Richie was skillfully glib and, even as a controller, would exercise his gift for gab on anyone who would listen. A consummate glad hander; he could charm the wits away from the unwary. Richie wanted...no...he probably needed everyone to like him. I wasn't perceptive enough to see it until it was far too late. I didn't have the time anyway. Nobody did; especially as the seventies were coming to an end. We were all too busy holding onto those quaking control consoles and fighting to keep a picture that was shaking apart before our very eyes. At that time; nobody really cared about Richie and, in spite of the perpetual PATCO rhetoric extolling unity, nobody honestly cared about anyone but themselves.

Richie started up the career ladder ahead of me; rung by rung. First came a staff specialist position in the front office. Although most were disappointed by what he did and did not accomplish during that time, I crossed it off as a situation beyond his control. We were, after all, dealing with a well entrenched and genetically stubborn autocracy in the management ranks that fancied itself qualified to create, consecrate and carry out everything from dress codes to traffic flows.

When Richie came to the tower or TRACON for a little currency time: I noticed some subtle differences in his behavior. There were still the smiling slaps on the back and the well aimed barbs thrown at other controllers when traffic permitted. But there was also an obvious tension in his voice when things got busy. Irritation greeted the ear when you needed to coordinate with a busy Richie. Gone was the steady, self-assured voice of confidence. Gone was the unsolicited offer of assistance when you needed it most. In their place came the terse irritability, manic impatience and refusal to get involved in another sector's control problems. He'd just spend his hour or two on positions then retreat to his office. This I crossed off as the consequences of a staff job. When you don't work airplanes every day, you lose your timing, situational awareness, an instinctive recall of the commonplace, like frequency and landline numbers, sector boundaries, critical provisions in a letter of agreement. In short; you lose your edge.

Richie's staff assignment was followed by his long anticipated return to the floor as a supervisor; where the "unseen engine" I mentioned became more evident. He was an excitable supervisor with an invasive attitude toward the operation. Rather than let the collective common sense and wisdom of the workforce guide his shift, he had to put his "touch" on everything. It was an early sign of the evolving loss of trust he held in us. Through it all we remained friends but, because of schedule conflicts, saw less and less of each other. He eventually left Big Time for an opportunity in the Regional Office. That's where his "minus touch" gradually manifested itself for all to see.

Richie achieved great success in the FAA, rising to heights that should have made me proud to say I knew him way back when. But I was not proud of my old friend. After I left Big Time and moved on with my own career, Richie would occasionally visit my facility in his capacity as Regional Royalty. He was nearly unrecognizable. If he ever deigned to acknowledge my presence it would be with a simple nod in my general direction.

My old friend was looking more and more like the enemy we once fought against together. In time, our relationship evolved from ammicable to adversarial. Was it because he knew that I well remembered the Richie of fifteen years prior? Can there be a danger in knowing too much about someone's past? Can this be perceived as a threat? If that person is rather high up in the organization; you bet!

The last time I saw Richie he seemed distracted and unhappy. In my eyes, he'd become a Judas to the profession and those who lived it. He came to our facility that day to put his "touch" on a particular initiative we had undertaken ~ a minus touch.

I learned long ago that unhappy controllers never really get any happier when they become management officials and that unhappy management officials can quickly scatter their discontent across those working below them. Unease is infectious; regardless of who the carrier is. I always hoped to see a positive change take place before I retired although I never held my breath. I would have liked to hold someone else's though ~ maybe Richie's.

© NLA Factor, 2010


Signs Of Trouble

There's something a little unsettling about a silent TRACON. Without any hollering back and forth between sectors, without the FDEP machines hammering out their endless scroll of flight strips, without urgent squawking from the overhead speakers, or alarms, buzzers and badgering pilots to unravel your nerves; the TRACON assumes an eerie aspect of serenity.

It happens sometime after midnight. That's when Big Time's normally hectic scarespace reverts back into what nature intended; more air than airplanes. By 3:00 AM you can almost hear the radar's circular sweep as, once every four seconds, it lights up the few targets creeping across sectors temporarily deserted by their regularly resident havoc.

The big jets were all down; tucked into their gates to await the morning departure push. These hours were for the box haulers and mail carriers. Mostly piston powered airplanes; they seemed to traverse Big Time's airspace at the speed of night. Like a few ants crossing a football field, they appeared more like permanent echoes on the radar than moving targets.

I was pulling a round of mids with four other guys. Two were upstairs in the tower, me and Jay had TRACON duty and, somewhere in the back, there was a Supervisor doing the daily paperwork. It was a warm night in August of 1982. Tired and bored, I sat tapping mindlessly on the "Enter" key of my ARTS keyboard and staring at the video map. Jay had just switched the only airplane he had to the Center and was off to the breakroom for a fresh cup of coffee.

We'd cleaned up all the backlog from the evening shift, released the ARTS computer to Airway Facilities for some routine checks and were now settling into the long hours of the midshift. These were the hours when air traffic control came down to the simple challenge of staying awake. Maintaining separation meant ~ don't let your eyelids come together for more than a second. Coffee helped but just barely. The only sure-fire way for me to to avoid sleep was through conversation. Fortunately I had a topic in mind.

Jay sat back down at his scope. "Damn." I muttered. "Its been a year already." I paused, unsure of the reaction to my upcoming question. Then; "What made you come back to work?" Jay turned his head about 20 degrees toward my direction but never looked up. The late night TRACON silence hung in the air like cobwebs.

One year ago, intoxicated by a sense of invincibility and the promise of victory, Jay had gone on strike with most of the other Big Time controllers. He shook his head, leaned back in his chair and raised his eyes to the ceiling. I made a handoff that I'd been waiting 25 minutes to initiate. Then, on that quiet August night in 1982, Jay spoke to me of how his job, his family and perhaps his life were saved one day in August of '81. I can paraphrase his story but you'll have to imagine the pensive, palling looks on his face as he spoke.

He and his wife were attending one of many PATCO sponsored rallies happening across the country immediately following the strike. This one took place at a small park just a few miles from Big Time Airport. These rallies, meant to impose unity and extol its surely "inevitable" benefits among the striking controllers, also gave Union officials a way of keeping track of everyone. Since this particular rally was being held within Reagan's 48 hour grace period, there was always a chance someone might lose nerve, turn tail and run back to work. Jay told me he'd been sitting at a picnic table with his wife and two kids; sweating with everyone else under the August sun. Although there were several reasons to sweat; the heat was good enough for the moment.

Nearly everyone was either drunk or about to be. There was a lot of shouting, chanting and Union rhetoric. Some talked of revenge and retaliation against those who stayed on the job. Others talked of how different things would be when they made their triumphant return to work. Jay watched, listened and took it all in.

Big Time's local Vice President was speaking to the crowd. Dick had been staunch proponent of a strike for at least the last year or so. Although a controller with above average abilities; Dick was a chronic complainer and, in the final few months preceding the strike, became perennially petulant and antagonistic. By Spring of '81 I saw Dick as a man who seemed to have opted out of evolution ~ an animal who growled and snarled at those of us who were either undecided or unwilling to strike.

Standing next to Dick was Sal. He'd been one of the PATCO Local's team representatives. Also known for his pre-strike truculence, Sal nodded his head in agreement as Dick preached the gospel according to Poli. Silent skies and abandoned control rooms would soon bring FAA and the aviation industry to their knees. That is; if the scab controllers and blundering supervisors didn't kill hundreds of people first in a spectacular midair collision. Everyone swallowed beer, hollered and cheered. Some even laughed. The air was filled with flourishing fists and fluttering signs. It resembled a kind of chaotic carnival.

The air was also filled with other signs. These were the signs of trouble for PATCO. In an ironic contrast with the rally's pitiful propaganda, big jets could be seen, nose high and climbing over the distant cityscape. Most rolled quietly into a turn toward some distant navaid but a few eventually roared over the little park; briefly drowning out the bombastic blather below. These skies were far from silent. But why? Jay sat sipping his beer, watching the evolving spectacle and worrying.

His wife was worried too. She peered out across the crowd with a look that reflected a darkening mood, disbelief in what she was seeing and growing doubts about the success of this venture. Two of Jay's teammates were throwing a frizbee back and forth. He said he couldn't help but see the irony in what had become of their aviation careers. Two air traffic controllers - working plastic departures and arrivals while someone's dog jumped and barked at the overflights.

Jay's wife turned suddenly in his direction, threw her arms out toward the crowd and said the whole thing was insane. He could see she was on the verge of tears as she continued. "This is not working. Everyone is going to be fired! You need to get your ass back to work!"

There was no argument. Jay told me he looked around, nodded his head in agreement and wandered off through the melee to find a pay phone. He called the TRACON, spoke with the Area Manager and was soon back on the schedule.

"Why did you go out to begin with?" Jay stood up, stretched and grabbed his empty coffee cup. He looked tired and uneasy. "Now I don't even remember. Everything was all messed up back then. Grievances, management bustin' our balls all the time and nobody listening to us. And in case you missed anything, you had PATCO kinda playin' it all back to you every day. If you weren't already pissed off; they'd get you there! You know; when they don't stop talking at you; you start seeing the things they're talking about." He sighed. "I guess I didn't know how bad things were till I really started listening to 'em. Then I got mad. I came to work mad every day. By August I thought there was only one way to get the FAA to listen."

He started off toward the breakroom; empty cup dangling from his index finger. "It was just all fucked up, you know?" I knew. I pressed one of the lines to the center. "Fourteen, Big Time, eighty-three line with another handoff." Silence. I tried again. It was about 4:30 a.m. The whole damned time zone was asleep and my traffic was creeping up on the boundary. The handoff line was dead silent. Jay walked back in. "Hey, somebody forgot to bring in more coffee! Pots empty and there's nothing in the cabinet." I wondered if I was going to have to spin this guy. "Sector fourteen, Big Time, eighty-three with a hot one!" Almost three hours to go, no coffee and now the center won't... "Whaddaya got Big Time?" The midshift headed slowly toward dawn. We resorted to drinking Coke for our caffeine.

Jay had made it back from the brink. Most people in the facility never even knew he'd been on strike. And now a year had passed. Much of the early, post-strike fervor had passed as well. Supervisors still worked traffic occasionally but were mostly back to supervising. PATCO had long since been decertified. The FAA was busy trying out various human relations initiatives in what would ultimately be a failed effort to convince controllers there was no need to reorganize. Everyone was fighting fatigue and some were losing.

It was the new Management by Objective. I thought of it this way... Management was a pistol and controllers were simply the bullets. Our target, or objective, was full recovery from the strike's impact. But the "bullets" had no say over what direction they were being fired in. Consequently there were ricochets, unintended casualties and collateral damage. People began complaining and were skillfully ignored by a management team that had years of practice at it. Furtive palavers were taking place behind the backs of those who were too busy fighting to keep a hold on their waning credibility to notice. It was the worst kind of deja vu.

There were signs of trouble everywhere.

© NLA Factor, 2010


Devil In The Detail

I was at a downtown gas station the other day when two tour buses went by. The unmistakable smell of that exhaust mingled with a suffocating level of humidity transported me right back to the Seventies; back to lunch breaks spent watching people in front of Big Time's Arrival Terminal. There; an endless procession of shuttle buses collected the overheated hoards of bushed and bewildered July travelers then hauled them over the horizon to one of the many distant parking lots.

Summer pressed down on Big Time like the scorched underside of a cast iron skillet. Heat radiating off congested taxiways made mirage-like images of the airplanes awaiting release. By late afternoon; thunderstorms would blossom on the BRITE display then go violently about their daily business of closing our most frequently used departure routes. It was the hottest time of day in the busiest time of year.

Heavy jets lumbered down the big city runways, struggling against high density altitudes. As we stood gasping, they'd eventually leave the ground somewhere near the departure end. Then, rising slowly over the outlying neighborhoods, they'd make shallow turns toward their assigned headings ~ fighting all the way to gain altitude. Even though you'd quickly lose sight of them in the murky Summer skies; the trail of smoke and sounds of straining engines lingered on for minutes after. It was, after all, the mid-seventies ~ when the old Convair 880 "water wagons" still roamed our taxiways and roared along our jet routes.

Airplanes never really wanted to fly in this kind of weather. Only people did.

Down in the TRACON; heat emanated from the radar scopes, drifted up from the ashtrays and oozed out of everyone's pores. The friction of discontent rubbed everyone wrong and caused another kind of heat. It started with the relentless air traffic demand and was fueled by widespread fatigue. Nobody wanted your airplanes and you didn't want theirs. Tempers flared frequently; consuming nearly all that was left of the available oxygen. Even the Watch Supervisor, a normally reticent kind of guy, was often seen angrily shouting into a telephone at his counterpart in some other facility. The atmosphere was altogether stifling and our aged air conditioning system simply couldn't cope with it all. We worked on; accepting our plight while maintaining our right to bootless bitching.

Summertime traffic was always ten to twenty percent higher than average. All of Big Time's radar sectors were usually kept open from the start of the dayshift till nearly midnight. Combining positions was risky; which meant you were often relieved for your meal break by a supervisor who'd tell you to hurry back.

My team was working a round of 3:00 to 11:00 shifts and I carpooled in with a few other guys. Between us; nobody had an operable air conditioner in his car. We'd weave through the suburban back roads, gossiping about other controllers, griping over the latest grievance denials, complaining about the latest office edicts and speculating over who might turncoat into the Chief's next staff hack. Discussions of this nature brought forth loud declarations of unity but also served to intensify the already oppressive heat.

Rolling onto the interstate highway, we could usually see enough sky to figure out the landing and departing runways at Big Time. If it was an airport configuration used during adverse weather conditions, we'd just have something else to talk about ~ like what kind of shift we were in for. So, by the time we reached the facility parking lot, everyone was usually on edge, irritable and sodden with sweat. That's the way it was on this particular day.

When we got into the TRACON we found an empty desk. Pete, the Watch Supervisor, was standing in the middle of the room, phone in hand, sweating and shouting at the Command Center. Pete was built stocky and square like a gas pump and, when provoked, was twice as flammable. He'd cut his ATC teeth at busy airports, knew the ropes and was skilled at knotting them around the necks of his adversaries. With a wild, Einstein shock of gray hair and matching moustache; he infused everyone with fear and awe ~ including the specialists at the Command Center. Having worked there himself a few years back; he still knew many of the guys he hollered at. Pete would make his point then hang up in the middle of their reply; refusing to answer when they called back.

Bobby, the TRACON Supervisor, was working at a handoff position ~ trying to keep track of the holding patterns for one of the arrival controllers. Me and my carpool mates stood in a cluster near the sign-in log. We just wanted someone to tell us who to relieve but everyone was too busy to notice us. Finally, Pete turned and told me to go relieve the Supervisor on the arrival handoff position. As I started to move, he grabbed my arm and said he wanted to talk to me about something later on. I shrugged and went off to work. It was going to be a hard working, high drama, headache of a shift.

Several hours later, exhausted from the time spent issuing countless EFC revisions, slalom vectoring around storm cells, working out clearances to alternate airports for the diversions ~ then attempting to hand them off to someone who was already busy enough sorting out his own little hell and didn't really need a part of mine; I shuffled out of the TRACON. It was time to sign out and shove off but Pete stopped me at the door. "The Chief wants to know if you'd be interested in a 90 day Area Supe detail."

My clock stopped. Pete had a way of smiling while making you feel like he was pointing a pistol at your face. It was all in the eyes. I probably shrugged; too tired to react with much more than a sigh. Just then, one of the mid-shift guys wandered into the TRACON. "Relieve the departures" said Pete, without taking his eyes off me. The guy turned and disappeared. "I dunno" I said. "I need to think about that one." The problem was that I had used up most of my thinking for the day and was ready to trade thinking for drinking.

You can't even swing at a curve ball if you don't see it coming. It would have been easier for me to pick out the vituperation among a speeding barrage of aspersions (a skill I was to become proficient at). And who knew it was my turn at bat? I was a loyal member of the bargaining unit. I went to most of the union meetings and was right there with the rest when it came to mocking our facility management. My personal views on that esteemed group, bolstered by experience, convinced me that at least half of Big Time's supervisors were either incompetent, arrogant, overly ambitious or an obnoxious blend of the three. Pete's lips were moving. "The Chief needs an answer by tomorrow afternoon."

The ride home with my carpool buddies was as animated as I've heard after a busy shift. We wheeled out of the parking lot; everyone singing the "poor us chorus" with verses about too much time spent on positions, too little time for our meal breaks and, of course, why the hell didn't the dayshift supervisor call in more overtime??? Then we all told our stories about how much more difficult some adjacent sectors or facility made the shift for us. We finally got down to recognizing a few of the evening's more memorable moments. "Did you see the mess Brad had on Departures?" "Oh yeah!" said another. "I was working Ground Control when everything got stopped." Our driver laughed. "See what happens when a Supe has to work positions?" I mumbled something about how he was just trying to help with lunch relief. "Some help!" said the driver, sarcastically. It was the usual post-shift banter ~ just another variation on a popular theme of the times.

I wasn't driving so I sat in the back; staring at a line of landing lights gliding through the night sky toward Big Time. It was after midnight but I was still thinking about Pete's words. "...an answer by tomorrow afternoon." I didn't dare mention the issue to the other guys. They'd only press me for my decision and I wasn't ready to make one.

Weighing the pros and cons of accepting this detail was easy because there were very few pros. I'd gain some character building experience and make a little more money for a few months. But I'd seen other controllers take such details. They were always moved to another team for the duration. My carpool would, at least temporarily, be history. My good standing as a trusted PATCO soldier would be jeopardized ~ perhaps permanently. Once it was over, the guys who took these temporary promotions were viewed with a jaundiced eye by most of the bargaining unit. It was thought they were now "spies" for the front office and therefore could no longer be trusted to hear the kind of spontaneous aspersions about management that were currently being cast about in the darkness of this hot, little car.

Some of us shared a more altruistic and clearly idealistic outlook. I often mused that an eventual move into management would be my way of helping to change their atrocious image. I mean; who raised these people anyway?

It would be difficult though. What I hadn't fully grasped at that time was just how deeply ingrained the contempt for and distrust of management was. The control room atmosphere innoculated us against anyone who didn't wear a headset and work airplanes for a living. The only people worthy of a controller's trust were other controllers ~ the guys we worked with across the room and across the handoff lines.

Further complicating matters was the fact this skepticism was carried with us into management. But once there, it reversed itself. Arriving in management; we would soon distrust anyone who did wear a headset and work airplanes for a living. I think it was because we knew from past experiences, just how profoundly controllers distrusted us. The whole paranoiac cycle would spiral ever upward into a rancorous and unremitting rivalry that neither party could ultimately win.

The more I thought about it, the more I wondered why I was even considering the Chief's offer. There would be hell to pay. The car bumped over a curb and we landed in front of our favorite, post-shift watering hole. Everyone was still chattering about things that happened during the last eight hours. Our driver got out of the car and looked up. The sky around the now distant airport was full of moving lights. He chuckled; "Don must be gettin' a real good workout in the tower!"

I was hot, tired and thirsty. Perhaps looking at my personal dilemma through a glass or two of beer would help. I knew there would be long term benefits in accepting the 90 day position. It would look good on my resume and fit nicely with my career goals. There was also no denying the extra money would be helpful. But I felt a sense of dread; a premonition that there would be an irreparable rift waiting when I returned to the rank and file. I knew things would be different. I knew there would be a devil in this detail.

The next afternoon, as I shuffled into the TRACON, Pete grabbed my arm again. "You gonna take the job?" Oh, what the hell. . .

© NLA Factor, 2010


OJT ~ A New Instructor

The transformation was swift. From uncertain trainee, I evolved through the unsteady journeyman phase and on to become a most unlikely OJT instructor. It took far less time than I expected and a lot less time than I required. After all; gaining confidence isn't like gaining weight. It takes time. Its more like growing. I'm sure I could gain five pounds in five days but growing five inches taller could take several years.

My guileless post check-out expectations were that I would spend a few years honing my skills, methodically acquiring some certainty in my abilities and establishing that all important credibility among my peers. But there I was; less than a year out from my facility rating and already being asked to work with the developmentals on our team. It seems I failed to consider that my expectations might differ somewhat from those of Big Time's supervisors and management staff. But why? Why the difference between their expectations and mine? The answer was shrouded in my callow naiveté.

The things we don't know at a particular time in our life will eventually catch up with us. Unfortunately, by the time they do, it usually doesn't matter so much. What was going on today would later be firsthand knowledge to me. For now though, I couldn't fathom that my being prematurely pitched into in the deep end of Big Time's OJT instructor pool was due in part to a document known as the Tracking Report. To this very day; the specter of this document still sends me off sweating and screaming. A little background may be in order.

The scourge of every new kid to the Training Department, Tracking Reports took days to complete. No wonder. Combining the most boring aspects of a spreadsheet with the irritating qualities of a skin infection and the incriminating evidence of a signed confession required a lot of time. But what was it really?

A distillation of the entire month's worth of OJT reports (there were hundreds); your typical Tracking Report detailed the status of every developmental (there were dozens) in the facility. It revealed what position each developmental was currently training on, hours allocated and hours used ~ plus a projection as to when certification was anticipated. Once compiled, the fresh data was whisked off to the Regional Office where it was perused and compared with previous monthly reports. This made it fairly easy for them to identify the trainees who were receiving the most OJT hours and the least. Comparing the most recent report from Big Time with previous monthly editions allowed the Regional Office to detect apparent trends and build mountains of data from which they could jump to amazing conclusions. Those jumps usually landed them in the middle of some very rough terrain, armed only with a pointing finger. But once they pointed that thing at us; they were prepared to use it.

To the facility staff ~ a discernable dip in the aggregate OJT hours could easily be attributed to annual and/or sick leave used, inappropriate traffic conditions, equipment problems and other routine factors. There were also the less tangible reasons; not the least of which was fatigue. If one of the better OJT instructors had just taken a beating on one position, it was hard for an empathetic supervisor to send them into an OJT session. To the regional office however, it often meant we were just goofing off over there at Big Time. That's when a phone would ring in the front office.

The Air Traffic Manager and Training Officer would be grilled by The Region's Training Branch Manager and one or two of his sycophants over why our OJT hours had fallen off. Such discussions usually afforded The Region an opportunity to showcase their superior knowledge of the way things are supposed to work in a field facility. A long, forensic debate would ensue, during which both hair and rank would be pulled. As the Regional Office always outranks any of their air traffic facilities, the home team would make their best case in the strongest possible terms; inevitably capitulating and promising to do better next month. Next, a caustic, morale-eating memo would be fired off to the Area Managers and supervisors, with a requisite copy to the Region's Training Branch. (Hey, they needed proof we were actually doing something besides working a hell of a lot of airplanes!) The memo was crafted to inspire everyone to get more OJT done.

One way to accomplish that was to ordain more instructors. This is where I stumbled into the picture.

Damn! I was still having to make excuses to the wife about why I got home so late from my checkout party, still trying to separate the good from the garbage I learned while training, still striving for consistently adequate personal performance, still masking my fear of floundering with a little flourish. Arguing with my Supervisor, who insisted I'd be a great OJTI, was not where I expected to be at this point. I countered his rationale with every reason I could think of why this wasn't a good idea. The discussion ended shortly after I said I wasn't ready and couldn't do it.

Later that day, as my new radar developmental and I shuffled off toward the TRACON, I wondered how my logic had failed, whether I could actually do this and why my mouth was so dry. Surprisingly, that day was the beginning of what would develop into a career-long interest in training. But there were obstacles.

At first; I felt like a paint-by-numbers artist trying to teach that "deaf-dumb-blind kid" how to draw like Leonardo da Vinci. I had my own lessons to learn ~ largely at the expense of those I was assigned to train. One of the most important lessons and probably the most difficult for me to master was to never preempt a good learning experience. Trainees needed to be given enough latitude to get themselves into a degree of difficulty that was commensurate with their time on the position. Low time trainees could become overwhelmed much sooner than ones who had several hours on the position but, regardless of where they were in their allotted hours, I had to let them make mistakes. As long as I could still see a way out ~ there was a chance they'd find it too. This required a lot of poise, patience and self confidence but I was short on all three. If I stepped in too soon (highly likely at my stage of development) I'd preclude an important learning experience. Step in too late and I'd end up listening to tapes and filling out paperwork.

I learned that making this work meant having to advise trainees ahead of time whenever I was going to let them dig holes for themselves. If I didn't at least do that, they'd usually assume, based on experience with a few other instructors, that I would likely step in and straighten things out for them.

There were also a few developmentals who liked to debate with me during the training session. While a civil debate could be useful during the debrief, it only got in the way during OJT, while the airplanes were flying thick and fast.

I also learned that my technique in a particular situation might not have been the best. A few trainees had some damned good ideas that I'd have never learned if I'd made them do it my way. "Out of the mouths of babes" as they say. I'd show them my techniques but never insisted they do it my way. Creativity is an amazing thing to witness and learn from. I believe I learned as much or more in the process of providing OJT than I did when I was receiving it.

So The Seventies rolled on. Planes flew in and out of Big Time's airspace as I joined with various trainees in their struggle to succeed. Most made it while others faded off into failure. Of those who failed ~ some were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time but went on to become impressive controllers elsewhere. Others departed in anger and bitterness. Blaming their shortcomings on everyone and everything that moved; they left ~ victims of an overweening ego and self-deception.

The ones who concerned me the most were those who couldn't make it as controllers at Big Time, yet eventually ended up working in the Regional Office ~ judging our monthly Tracking Reports.

© NLA Factor, 2010


OJT ~ A Caterpillar's Journey

On-The-Job Training, call it OJT, seems a daunting process. There are so many things to learn and so little time allocated to getting it right. While the academic environment gives you time to study, memorize and rehearse, often among others who are doing the same, OJT places you midst practiced professionals who know the job cold. You come across as the caterpillar slinking through a cluster of butterflies. And like the caterpillar, you are the one most likely to be stepped on.

Depending on who I was working for, the substance of hands-on training varied pretty widely. In the military, OJT was mainly an exercise in knowing precisely what to say and when to say it. Phraseology and procedure took precedence over the more practical skills needed to actually work the traffic. Tools like turning airplanes away from their intended course, delaying them in order to accomplish more pressing priorities, slowing them down or speeding them up to benefit a bigger picture were always there in the toolbox but rarely used. For example; nobody would instruct an F-4 pulling a drag chute to "expedite off the runway" for landing traffic. Nor would they risk raising some high-ranking eyebrows by clearing a flight of three for "immediate takeoff." It was understood they'd taxi onto the runway, line up in departure formation, finish their checklists and await word from the flight leader. They would roll in their own good time. So my initial OJT on Ground and Local Control was steeped in phraseology, procedures and learning the rules, both written and unwritten.By the time I was transferred to my next duty assignment at Desolation Air Base, phraseology was second nature to me. All I needed to do was learn the local rules and numbers. The idea of actually reaching into the picture and manipulating my traffic was still obscured behind a veil of military protocol. Fighter jets, transports and helicopters hustled in and out of the base at their own pace, their pilots taking the controller's traffic information under advisement as they decided the order of events. When the day came to step into my first FAA facility, it would be like stepping into a bathtub with an electric toaster.

Suddenly I was expected to muscle and hustle the traffic situation; pushing, pulling, bending it to my will then cramming it into the big picture, whether it wanted to fit or not. Waiting for things to happen was frowned upon and rarely tolerated. Trainees were taught the assertive art of making things happen.

For pure pushing, bending and cramming, there was no better place than Local control during one of Big Time's peak hours. Long lines of departing flights inched toward the runways while one arrival after another flashed across each landing threshold and touched down; leaving a cloud of burnt rubber behind as they rolled on toward a high-speed turnoff. If a Local Control trainee waited till all that happened before clearing the next departure into position there'd be hell to pay. That airplane had better be moving toward the hold line in time to continue right onto the runway just as the arrival went by. It came down to learning how long it took the various kinds of airplanes to reanimate after sitting, inert, on the taxiway. Not to worry though. There was always a red-faced OJT instructor standing ready to facilitate your learning process in a loud, demonstrative and often profane way. Once you got that piece down you could understand the timing of events. You could anticipate required separation and make it happen while quickly adjusting the tempo for different types of airplanes. These were the skills central to keeping Big Time out of departure delays and the OJTI off your back. Thanks to the Air Force, I already knew how to say "Taxi into position and hold." I just never guessed I'd be saying it while the next arrival was still somewhere out over the approach lights.

Dealing with intersecting runways involved similar skills. Being able to accurately anticipate just how soon an airborne arrival would roll through the intersection versus how long it would take your departure on the crossing runway to get there had important benefits. The Final controller could maintain an efficient interval to one runway while the tower kept a crossing flow of departures moving without delay. Getting it wrong would create some fairly intense consequences, such as a go-around, an aborted takeoff or both.

For even higher drama you might end up with both a departure and a go-around ~ who's trajectories would take them simultaneously to the same point in space. This was not simply a Kodak moment but one that could add years to your life in a matter of seconds. To a developmental it meant an immediate end to the OJT session and a training report that was so hot he'd have to pick it up with oven mitts.Training in the radar room was an even bigger challenge. Since my Air Force career never provided me the opportunity to obtain a radar certification; Big Time TRACON was as alien an environment as I could imagine. Just getting acclimating to the odor down there would take months. The stink of sweat, cigarette smoke, stale ashes, jet exhaust and flatulence (because farting was seen by some as hilarious) sometimes made the place smell worse than the bargain basement of a second-hand coffin store.

The TRACON even sounded bad. There was a nearly constant cacophony caused by the incessant chatter of flight data printers mixing with ringing telephones, chiming interphones, nagging voices amplified through overhead speakers and controllers shouting from one end of the room to the other. It was sensory overload. It was also the ideal learning environment because this was where I'd have to work.

Actual, practical learning in the TRACON had to begin with an understanding of the interrelationships between Big Time's sectors. None of them could function autonomously but were rather like a series of gears that had to turn and mesh with clockwork synchronization. During rush hours or times of rugged weather the room became a swiftly spinning mechanism that hummed and murmured along; pushing and pulling the traffic in what seemed an endless pageant of arrivals and departures. One after another, they hammered the runways or hurtled off toward some place known as "the destination airport." If any one part of the mechanism slowed or stopped it could eventually slow or stop the entire operation. This changed the sound of the radar room ~ an audible change in the pitch, detected immediately by the supervisor, who would soon appear at the source of discord. One or two controllers would then be extracted from their positions like bad teeth and replaced. Soon after, the gears would start whirling and humming again.

It was also about timing. You and I know that, in life, timing is nearly as important as it is in air traffic control. Its also a difficult concept for trainees to seize onto. Learning to recognize the moment when an aircraft must be turned, when speed control must be applied, new altitude assignments made or handoffs completed were just a few of the challenges I wrestled with. The timing of other, more subtle events was even more difficult to understand. When to initiate a pointout, when to stop departures or begin holding arrivals, when combining sectors was a good idea and when it was not were ambiguous junctures on an ever changing continuum. Learning to recognize them, however, was unequivocal.

Most important to the whole OJT experience were the instructors themselves. At Big Time in 1975, there was a veritable smorgasbord of talent ~ ranging from the mad and meticulous to the lax and lazy. I had my favorite. He was a perpetually angry little anal retentive named Charles. Charles's attitude may have been a bi product of his relatively short stature. I don't know but, at just over five feet tall, he looked up at nearly everyone ~ unless he was working radar. In that particular arena he was at least equal to but usually greater than his peers. A savant; he knew the books and could handle what seemed to be a limitless amount of traffic. To watch Charles at work was to witness the perfect synchronicity of knowledge and praxis.

Most of the journeymen resented Charles because of his low tolerance for anything less than perfection. Still ~ he was the guy they'd want working Departure Control if they were stuck on Local with dozens of departures that needed to get off the airport, around a few thunderstorms and up into Center's airspace. The trainees feared him because of his brutal frankness, impatience with inadequacy and eruptive temper. He also had no tolerance for excuses and if you were dumb enough to proffer one after screwing things up ~ you'd be talking to yourself.

Charles was just what I needed and he was usually available because nobody else wanted to train with him. I learned that if I came to an OJT session prepared and willing to listen, Charles would spend the ensuing hour or so working as hard as he could to improve my game. If, however, he asked a question or two that I couldn't answer ~ he'd shake his head, unplug my headset and tell me to get lost.

When I finished up my OJT at Big Time, the final check-ride with my supervisor seemed anticlimactic. I thought I was ready for anything the system could throw at me. Little did I know the Facility Rating was merely a licence to sink or swim. It was just another landmark on the map to my future; a jumping off point from which the truly hard lessons would eventually be learned. It was nothing more than my first solo flight around the traffic pattern was some years before. Landing the airplane safely didn't make me a pilot and this rating didn't make me a controller. That would take much more time.

© NLA Factor, 2010


Anticipating Separation

Every air traffic controller has days like this. Your timing is just a few seconds off or your judgment is just a hair short of sound. Planning any further ahead than the end of each transmission seems impossible and your attention span? Shorter than a two-degree turn.

I was in the middle of such a day when I had my first thought of retirement. That date would still be more than 25 years out but it flared in my mind like a flashbulb. Thanks to the short attention span it didn't linger longer than an instant but that was enough time for me to wonder; "Is it really that far off?" Then, quick as it came, the moment was gone. I blinked, readjusted my focus and resumed life's unrelenting odyssey into the unknown.

In fact, there were more days like this ~ plenty of them. None were awful enough to end my trek prematurely but the effects were cumulative. It reminds me of that wretched camel everyone refers to. If he doesn't feel the very first straw being laid on his back; he probably won't feel the second or third straw either. At some point though, there comes a nominal sensation ~ an inkling of the burdens being applied. Then one day the back breaker may fall; that renowned last straw. Its interesting how that last one can actually weigh far less than any of the others. Most times, the last straw isn't really the one that causes us to sink under the strain. Its actually the sum of all straws ~ big and small.

I was feeling the sensation of added weight on that particular afternoon when retirement first whispered to me. It was early Spring and I was a young, very inexperienced approach controller sitting at one of Big Time's arrival sectors. The winds were tricky as warm air and an advancing cold front fought over control of the skies. In addition to problems caused by scattered thunderstorms, my heading assignments weren't working well at all. As I vectored airplanes out of my holding patterns, they tended to drift gradually to the left. Corrected headings and lower altitudes made them divigate to the right. Winds aloft seemed stratified and omnidirectional. It wasn't a particularly unusual condition but at the time I just couldn't figure it out. It was like trying to vector shopping carts. Only twenty minutes into a two-hour session and the Final controller was already losing patience with my apparently arbitrary feed into her sector. If looks were straws I'd have had one stuck in my forehead.

Years later, a few more straws would be applied during the PATCO strike. The loss of friendships, hostilities, hectic schedules and stress prompted several thoughts of separation. What I found most disheartening about the strike was its senseless and futile nature. In June of '81 the Government made an unprecedented concession to a Federal employee union by offering PATCO some $40 million in compensation and improvements. That wasn't enough for PATCO and the rank and file was encouraged to reject the offer. They could have had a future. With patience, there could have been further gains made during subsequent contract negotiations but they wanted it all and they wanted it all in the Summer of 1981.

Maybe it was just another example of the need for instant gratification we've acquired though the years ~ and the blindness it can cause. PATCO's strike rationale must have somehow resembled the idea that jumping out of a window would get them to the street quicker than waiting for an elevator. The uncompromising cost of impetuosity didn't occur to them until it was too late.

Within my piles of straw were bad days among the airplanes, watching powerlessly as one flight fell onto the airport and shattered or another one dropped off my radar and died. Clashes with my peers, conflicts with management, joining management and having to brawl with the bargaining unit, incessant backstabbing among the management staff, a mostly apathetic and out of touch regional office, political posturing and power grabs...

Piles and piles of straw.

The career wasn't all difficulty and disillusion though. In spite of the occasional bad days, disappointments and moments of panic; I loved air traffic control and the people who did it. There is a particular euphoria that only those who've just finished an epic, eight hour battle with their traffic can experience. Its a withering sense of exhaustion with an underlying, ear-to-ear grin.

I also loved the technicians, the pilots and even those tangential to the trade like the guys who cleared snow from our runways or the girl who made my sandwich at the employee's cafeteria. I still love 'em. I loved every airport I worked at and even a few I didn't. There were no other places like them and no other people like those who kept everyone and everything moving.

In the years succeeding the strike I was able to spin many a straw into gold. There were opportunities, promotions, special projects and new friends waiting in my future. Several experiences actually offloaded some of the weight from this camel's back; enabling me to travel further along in my career than previously planned...but not too much further. Speculation over what awaited me after separation was too alluring. A moment would come, similar to that first flashbulb flare, when I knew it was time to move on. Besides, I couldn't see me in my later years ~ sitting at a long-forgotten desk in some self-aggrandizing FAA office, soaking my Depend For Men and saying "Yessir!" to some kid in a suit. Like all the other times I might have wet myself ~ it should be induced by high activity, challenges or excitement rather than boredom.

Retirement is a great job but it takes a while to get it. Don't lose patience. Anticipating your own separation can be an agonizing process. It took me over thirty years to finally see my personal course diverge from the FAA's and, as we went our separate ways, I never looked back. I doubt the FAA did either. Retirement, by its very nature, is a self-indulgent act. As it should be. When my time came I was done being the team player. It was finally time to act in my own best interest, thinking only of myself and my family.

My personal "last straw" wasn't even job related. It was just the gnawing curiosity over what else life might have to offer. I couldn't wait any longer to find out and, as every controller knows, the sooner separation is achieved ~ the better.

© NLA Factor, 2010


The Martinet

Pronunciation: \ˌmär-tə-ˈnet\
Function: noun
Etymology: Jean Martinet, 17th century French army officer
Date: 1737
1. a strict disciplinarian.
2. a person who stresses a rigid adherence to the details of forms and methods.

I knew this guy. Between the crest of his garrison cap and the soles of his spit-shined shoes stood a man who's mind was heavily laden with the laws of military life. He didn't walk ~ he marched. He didn't stand at ease ~ he stood at attention. He didn't discuss ~ he commanded.

He wasn't in touch with reality ~ he denied it.

August of '81 brought a kind of military surge to the airport. Lets just say it marked the beginning of our Fall offensive. Dozens of controllers from the Navy and Air Force were rushed into Big Time Tower after the PATCO strike, where they immediately found themselves in hostile territory. Their mission was to help us fight an adversary they couldn't have even imagined when they enlisted. We were glad to see them. Reinforcements are always welcome when the battlements are being stormed and the battering ram is knocking at the door.

Even on a good day, Big Time Tower was a combat zone of fast-flying projectiles, bold battlefield maneuvers and well hidden land mines. But these were not good days. With two thirds of our forces on AWOL and the remaining troops suffering from shell shock, there was talk of a retreat. That's when the military arrived.

Most were sent in from bases around the Country that, in terms of air traffic, saw little activity. Nearly all were just kids in their early twenties, low in rank and light on experience. They were accustomed to the hierarchy of military air traffic control; where controllers are enlisted grade and all pilots are officers. This was an overriding factor whenever professional disputes came up between a military pilot and, say, an Airman First Class. The controller usually deferred to the pilot. It was a powerful mindset among these controllers that would be absolutely necessary to change if they were to survive and succeed in their new environment. They were also astonished by a volume of traffic heretofore unheard of in their military world. They'd have to get over that as well.

Of all the quirks and qualities they brought to Big Time, the most important were their high spirits and eagerness to help. That was enough for us. We put them right to work in the Training Department ~ learning everything they would need to begin on-the-job training. They'd come to class in uniform, study hard and were anxious to work airplanes. Polite and respectful; if you happened to run into one, they would greet you as "sir" or "Ma'am." Accustomed as I was to being addressed in mostly disparaging terms, "sir" was a little disorienting. Such formality would quickly dissipate once they started working in the "Fight Club" control rooms of Big Time ~ unless The Martinet had his way.

Lieutenant Swift arrived at Big Time a few weeks behind the other military controllers. As the only officer in the bunch, he became their surrogate commander in lieu of whoever they would report to back at their home base. Unhappy with what he perceived as a total breakdown of military discipline and protocol, he began taking immediate steps to restore order. This involved checking the troops daily to ensure proper attire and yelling at them for any infractions. They were already being yelled at twice daily while traversing the picket lines with the rest of us at shift change. It made The Martinet's ranting all the more annoying.

Our military controllers were losing the spirit they'd arrived with and that's where The Martinet's utopian boot camp bullshit world conflicted with ours. The reality was that we needed a continuation of the momentum they'd built up before Swift appeared on the scene. Saluting might have been suitable and addressing Lieutenant Swift as "Sir" might have been seemly but we needed certifications more than ceremony.

In addition to bringing his spit and polish prospects to Big Time, his agenda also included checking out on a few radar positions. He made it very clear, however, that he saw no need to take the normally mandatory academics. That was something the inept enlistees might have needed but not an officer with an extensive background in military air traffic control. After much debate in the front offices, a decision was made to begin training Swift on the Final Control Sector. Since he purported to have radar experience (quantity and quality unknown) it was presumed that he could learn to vector aircraft onto an ILS with relative ease.

Several of us attempted to train him. The consensus was that he knew how to marshal his traffic into lines but there was a problem. He was not controlling a military marching band and everything was not moving at the same pace. Speed control was a concept he apparently never had to deal with. Perhaps it was a little used tool in the control of fighter jets. Unheeded instructor suggestions invariably lead to the loss of required spacing, unnecessary vectoring, late acceptance of additional handoffs and global turmoil in the TRACON.

His young wards who's rank was sewn to their sleeve rather than pinned to their collars would watch The Martinet do his daily battle with airplanes and instructors. I can only imagine how hard they must have bitten their tongues to suppress an otherwise audible snicker. Those of us working with him finally reached our breaking point. We petitioned the front office to arrange for a "Swift" departure; at least from the OJT process. His obvious failure to meet requirements on Final Control and the attending embarrassment caused him to become even more heavy handed with the enlisted troops; who, in turn, became even more demoralized. We needed all the help we could get and could have used Lieutenant Swift but, in this case, the cost was becoming far too high.

He lingered on at Big Time for several more weeks; barking and snapping at his subordinates like a rabid dog. His presence in the control rooms gratefully dwindled to an occasional visit. We eventually heard he was being summoned back to his home base due to mission requirements ~ or something. We weren't ready to believe he'd been involuntarily removed from Big Time ahead of the anarchy that was brewing within the ranks. It did seem odd though. He was the very first of our military allies to be called home and well ahead of the others. Just sayin'

I couldn't fault The Martinet for doing what he believed was the right thing. I worked under enough autocratic supervisors and managers to recognize the almost religious reverence they held for the written rule. It was the security blanket they wrapped their careers in. I could respect that. However, I could not respect arrogance, inflexibility and a stubborn unwillingness to recognize the extraordinary circumstances we were trying to cope with. Logic and compromise were key and the ability to bend a rule or few without breaking them was a survival skill.

There are many circumstances and applications befitting a Martinet. I don't believe an air traffic control facility is one of them. Like piloting an airplane; managing an air traffic operation requires, among other things, a light touch on the controls, close attention to attitude indicators and the willingness to change course when clearly necessary. In another venue, a military campaign perhaps, The Martinet's "rigid adherence" approach might have been the best tool for the task at hand. Not at Big Time Tower though and clearly not in August of '81 when rigid adherence to anything could lead to your undoing.

© NLA Factor, 2010


In The News

The last known photograph of Boomtown Barnstormers quarterback Sammy "Stretch" Wasserman (seated on the front edge of the trailer), was taken during the big victory parade, just moments before a fan along the route threw him a football. The pass was a little high and Sammy's attention span a little low.


A Quiet Sunday Morning

It was a sloppy setup. If there'd been a few more airplanes in the picture, I would have called it a bad setup. Two air carriers, a B-737 and an MD-80, on parallel courses, were headed toward an empty localizer on a 25 mile long left base leg. The Boeing was on the airport side of the formation and the MD-80 was at its two o'clock and five miles. Although the Boeing would turn final closer to the marker, the Md-80 was s couple of miles ahead. Both aircraft, level at 4000, were cloaked in a cloud layer that extended down to about 2000 feet. Two controllers had all sectors combined. It was a quiet Sunday morning at Small Time Tower.The arrival controller had taken the handoffs at different fixes; each about 45 miles from the runway. He assigned a couple of headings toward final and gave them pilot's discretion down to 4000. The sequence would surely become self-evident when they got closer to the airport ~ although they were running neck and neck all the way. A timely dash of speed control would have taken all the guesswork out, but no. They hurtled on with nose cones glowing. On the other side of the localizer; one lonely air carrier made its way along the downwind leg. Since it hadn't yet passed the airport, there was plenty of time to figure out who'd follow who. It looked like a possible three-way tie to me.

As the dayshift supervisor, I had just finished one of my periodic walking tours of the TRACON. Everything was accounted for. Three airplanes, two controllers, one supervisor and no problems. A countdown to disaster perhaps? Nah! It was a quiet Sunday morning.

I didn't like the approach controller's serendipitous sequencing strategy but he was an experienced enough guy. I knew he'd figure something out. I sat back down at the desk and began pondering Summer leave requests from my team members. Where the hell did I put that seniority list? Oh, I must have set it down on the TRACON Data position during my last walk-through. I got up and headed across the room. Passing the arrival controller again, I noticed the Boeing and Md-80 were now level at 3000, about four miles apart laterally and still in a staggered formation with the Boeing slightly behind. The localizer was only about ten miles ahead. That lone air carrier on the opposite downwind was now looking like the proverbial fly in the ointment. Something had to give but I knew the controller must have a plan by now.

He did. Instructions were murmured into a headset, the controller's voice was heard in the MD-80's cockpit and a plan was thereby set in motion. The plan was that the Boeing would be number one. The flight on the opposite side of the final had been given a speed reduction and would turn to follow. The MD-80 was assigned a right two-seventy for spacing and would be vectored back onto the base leg as number three in sequence. That was the plan. It was a bit extreme but that was because the controller let everyone get to a point where there was no room left for more subtle solutions.

I was back at the supe's desk when I heard the Conflict Alert alarm. Within seconds I was behind the arrival controller, leaning over his shoulder and gaping at his scope with incredulity. The MD-80 was well into a left turn and closing quickly on the Boeing. Since the MD had been a couple of miles ahead to begin with, it was practically turning into the other aircraft's nose as the two aircraft converged. The controller was transmitting excitedly but his words were just white noise. All I could hear was the Conflict Alert alarm which was nearly overridden by a loud ringing in my ears. Data blocks showed both aircraft level at 3000 as the radar targets merged.I stood, frozen in horror ~ unable to speak ~ unable, even, to exhale.You can rediscover an entire lifetime between two ticks of a second hand. A kid lying on the warm suburban sidewalk; watching a Super Constellation climbing away from some big city airport. Years later ~ boarding my first airplane at that same airport and taking off for a four-year hitch in the Air Force. I recalled every tale of aviation tragedy told by the old timers at Big Time Tower. I saw the mortally wounded PSA Flight 182 leaving a clear San Diego sky one September day in '78 ~ victim of a midair collision. All this and more was there between those two ticks ~ including a vision of the headline in tomorrow's newspaper. "Hundreds Killed As Two Airliners Collide"I was overcome by the sickness of paralyzing inability. Nothing could be done but wait and I couldn't even do that. Light-headed; I might have fainted but there was no time. Resigned to the situation, like someone strapped into an electric chair, I began wondering how the collision would appear on our radar. Would there be dozens of tiny targets? Would the wreckage hit a school? Would the Warden call with a last minute reprieve? Whatever the outcome, I knew the next second would represent a seminal moment in my journey. Hit or miss, this was a life changer.

The MD-80 was still in its left turn when, once again, we could discern two targets. The radio frequency was silent. Not a word came from either aircraft as they quietly headed off in nearly opposite directions. The controller issued a descent to the Boeing, then a turn to intercept the final approach course. The MD, now moving away from the airport, was given another turn. I told the controller to have the MD-80 crew telephone the TRACON when they got to the gate. I had him relieved, appointed a controller in charge then made a call to the Regional Office. Somewhere along the line I had to sit ~ so I could finish my heart attack without the risk of falling.

I asked the controller why he hadn't done something when the MD-80 began its left turn. His reply was that it all happened too quickly. There were, of course, a few ways to have mitigated the situation. It could even have been completely avoided if he'd put those two aircraft in-trail 30 miles from the airport. Water over the dam. By the time he realized what was happening it was too late. Thinking about the fact that I was seated at the supe's desk when this started only exacerbated my discomfiture. What the hell was I doing at the desk? Oh now I remember! It was a quiet Sunday morning.

The tape playback verified what the controller had reiterated several times. He'd decided the MD-80 would be number three in the sequence and, to make it work, assigned a right two-seventy for spacing. The pilot's response was vague and should have been questioned. Then the flight turned left. Why? It took a call from the Captain to understand. He'd missed the "right" and heard only the "two-seventy for spacing." This was understood to be the new heading. From where he was, the quickest way to two-seventy was a left turn. Unwilling to believe what I assured him was the controller's actual instruction, I invited him up to hear the tape. Astonishment ensued.

It wasn't even noon and I felt like I'd been inhaling paint fumes all morning. Sick and exhausted, I made log entries and filled out forms for the rest of the shift.

Supervising the TRACON was much different than the tower. Upstairs, I could see everything from the middle of the cab. I could hear each controller and keep a general idea of what was going on across their airport world. If needed, I was ready to help.The radar room was another story. Depending on the number of open sectors, there were as many separate worlds. Standing at a vacant scope and pushing "Quick-Look" buttons only revealed a part of what each sector was doing. I could get a much better idea by spending a little time behind each controller and listening. Even at that; I was seeing and hearing only part of a composite picture. At the supervisor's desk I was mostly uninformed and therefore pretty useless if trouble broke out. But who'd expect trouble to break out on a quiet Sunday morning?

© NLA Factor, 2010


The Go-Around

There are "so many people marching on the active runway" because that's the Base Parade Grounds! Now pull up you idiot!"



The bygone Superman was falling through the flight levels. Dropping out of the sky faster than a speeding bullet, he twisted and tumbled like an off-balance acrobat. The cape that once carried him aloft now fluttered and snapped in the wind as he plummeted toward a very hard landing. But this was the indomitable man of steel. What had gone wrong?

As it turned out, it wasn't Lex Luthor who laid him to rest or even the low spark of high-heeled boys. It was traffic though ~ lots of traffic. That and the sudden, shocking realization that he wasn't really more powerful than a locomotive.

For many years, Superman had worked as an air traffic controller at Big Time Tower. He pulled his shifts with a few other Supermen and Superwomen who arrived each day to perform their superhuman feats in the skies over Metropolis. Keeping those skies safe while saving people's time, money and occasionally even their lives was heroic work and Superman never shied away from the task. On the contrary, he espoused it. The challenge of bringing order to the chaos of modern air travel was what awakened him each morning and propelled him toward the airport each day.

Superman was always called upon to work the busiest positions and under the most difficult circumstances. You'd see him whenever there was inclement weather, inordinately heavy traffic, inoperative navaids and other system incapacities. Hunched over his radar scope; he curbed the chaos with unfailing confidence and flourish. It was an amazing thing to watch. Little did anyone know he was growing weaker with every passing day.

It was now late 1982. In Washington, the Vietnam War Memorial had been dedicated, the U.S. budget deficit reached more than $110 trillion and on December 1st, Michael Jackson released "Thriller." Over the months following PATCO's 1981 strike, Superman had sent his blue tights to the dry cleaners with increasing frequency. It wasn't always just for the perspiration rings either. Although the strike had faded into the back pages of a few aviation industry periodicals, its effects were still front page news at Big Time Tower. The picket lines were gone; as were most of the military controllers who had come to help us through the crisis. But airline schedules were expanding and Big Time's daily traffic count often exceeded pre-strike levels. Newly hired trainees and a few controllers from smaller towers trickled into the facility; taking that first step of their two to four year journey toward certification. Of the journeymen who'd stayed on through the strike, a few had recently transferred to the Regional Office or other, less busy places. No one could blame them but we resented it nonetheless.

Adding to the strain of long weeks and increasingly heavy traffic volume was having to provide on-the-job training several times a day. If you weren't punch-drunk enough after spending the first half of the shift on busy positions, another hour or two with an unnerved and intimidated trainee could knock you down for the count. But as the only path to a fully restored work force, training had to be done.

There was also a persistent rumor that fired controllers would soon be rehired and returned to their facilities. None of us truly believed it could happen but, since these were times of unbelievable events, we weren't ready to overlook the possibility. Just the thought of returning to those pre-strike levels of acrimony was demoralizing. Adding that to the escalating fatigue often caused controllers to exceed their limits. Maybe it was an attempt to prove we didn't need the strikers to help us rebuild the system.

These times called for Supermen and Superwomen. They appeared undaunted by the daily adversities and apparently unaffected by the prevailing exhaustion among their coworkers. Superman always arrived in advance of his assigned shift so he could relieve someone early. Superman always rushed into the TRACON to work Big Time's most hectic sectors. Superman always volunteered to train the crazy kid from Tiny Tower on radar. You'd also see him flying up the tower steps with another fledgling controller who still smelled like Oklahoma City. There he'd provide an hour or two of training on Ground Control during a nighttime departure push. If you needed a shift swap, Superman was always eager to take that 4:00 to 12:00 off your hands. But by the end of his day, Superman felt a Kryptonite kind of weakness spreading through both brain and brawn. Assuring himself the feeling would pass; he pressed on and spoke nothing of it to anyone.

Then one evening, as he was flying high over one of Big Time's most frantic sectors, Superman's cape came apart. The man of steel had lost control. That's when he fell ~ his confidence and competence going down with him.

He should have seen it coming but stubborn determination can sometimes obscure the obvious. In a mighty effort to rid Big Time of delays, he had missed the fact that two airplanes, heading in two directions, were getting too close. The emerging need to intervene was hidden behind a blitz of landline calls and less urgent vectors. Scanning the adjacent bay to locate a few more flight strips took his eye away from the picture at the last moment when something could have been done. He even missed the first call from one of two pilots who came very close to falling from the skies along with him. "Big Time . . . are you working that commuter that just went by us?"

Superman landed hard and in that hard landing he learned a lot about the fleeting nature of super powers. The incident was only a temporary setback but the lessons he learned stuck with him like that big red letter on his chest. In his later years, as a supervisor, he'd survey a potentially bad situation and tell the controller; "Don't try to be a Superman." Out of adversity comes empathy.

© NLA Factor, 2010


Just Between Us

I want to thank all four or five of you who actually read this Blog. I've enjoyed hearing from you and always appreciate the feedback. Since I have not posted anything new recently, you may suspect I've either lost interest or have finally run out of material. Far from it. I still have lots to tell and plan to get it all down in print before I forget. But Spring is finally here and I can no longer use poor weather as an excuse not to do all my outdoor chores.

I am working on a new posting but its just taking longer than it should. Its the old "Other duties as assigned" thing. Thanks again for reading and I hope to hear from everyone again one day. Meanwhile, enjoy the season.



Learning To Draw The Line

I had a big mess on my hands. It was only 6:15 on a sunny Myrtle Beach morning yet somehow I had become overrun with airplanes. This was normally the time during a mid-shift, when I'd be making a fresh pot of coffee for the incoming day crew, counting up the night's traffic and doing a little cleanup. Instead, I was holding a microphone and staring out at the runway with a look of complete bewilderment. If you could follow my gaze you'd immediately understand the situation. Out on the airfield and up in the traffic pattern was the specter of chaos.

It all began about thirty minutes earlier. Reclining on a chair, feet up on the console; I looked out over a quiet ramp and runway. The only thing moving was the Base Operations vehicle making a morning airfield inspection. Tired, I was well into planning what I'd do once I was relieved. A little breakfast at the mess hall sounded good. Maybe some pancakes. I was just getting to the part where I'd be back at the barracks sleeping when a call came in on the Local Control frequency. My feet hit the floor as I reached for a microphone.

It had to be an emergency. The entire Wing was still parked on the ramp and we never got any itinerant traffic this early in the day. "Calling Tower, say again?"

The reply was from "Cabot One-One." It was a flight of four Navy T-28 Trojans on their way up the coast from Jacksonville, Florida. On a VFR training mission, they wanted to enter the 360 overhead traffic pattern for some touch and goes. This sounded like a great way to keep me awake for a while so I reeled off all the necessary numbers and asked them to report initial. I saw them about five minutes later, out over the ocean at 1,400 feet and lining up with the runway.

The flight leader advised they'd be splitting into individual elements (Cabot One-One through One-Four) after this approach and would stay in the bounce pattern for several touch and goes. Music to the ears! I was newly certified in the tower so a little practice would be good for all of us. The flight went into the break and one-by-one did their first touch and go. In a few minutes, the four of them were nicely spread out on a right downwind and the first Trojan started his turn to base leg. That was about when I got another unexpected call.

This one was from "Cabot Two-One; another flight of four. They were also on the way up from JAX and wanted individual touch and goes. By now, Cabot One-One was over the runway. Cabot One-Two turned base while One-Three and One-Four were still on downwind.
I instructed the Cabot Two-One flight to report initial, figuring I'd shuffle them into the touch and go pattern between elements of the Cabot One-One flight. My plan worked well. As each member of the "Two-One" flight made their left break and descended toward a base turn, I exchanged traffic with the other flight of four who were in a right-hand pattern. Everyone had their traffic in sight and would follow. My plan was simple, effective, yet terribly flawed by a few small but growing problems. The first being the fact that all eight of these airplanes looked alike. White, with an orange nose and tail, it was impossible to differentiate one from another. It would soon be like playing Billiards with only cue balls ~ by trying to memorize their positions in the rack before the break.

Then there was the tactical callsign issue. Except for some very subtle differences in the numbers, they were all identical. Finally, the pilots were mostly all students in a relatively early phase of training. Their experience levels were nearly as low as my own. These little problems combined to form a very big one soon after each aircraft had completed its first touch and go. Fighting to keep the picture; I was pretty sure the aircraft turning base was Cabot Two-Three. The T-28 just lifting off the runway was Cabot Two-Four and the one on short final was Cabot One-Two. The rest were still on the downwind. I'd be able to verify who they were when they reported turning base.

Then a call came from ten miles southwest of the airport. It was, of course, Cabot Three-One; yet another flight of four clones looking for touch and goes. By now, one or two of the students in the pattern were using the wrong numbers and immediately correcting themselves. Not to be outdone, I began transposing two-ones and one-twos. Confusion spread through the traffic pattern by the numbers.

Cabot Three-One flight checked in on a long initial.

Every air traffic controller has their occasional moments of pain. This one was becoming more painful than trying to shave with toenail clippers. By the time Cabot Three-One flight began mixing in with all the others, it was a bloody mess.

Naturally, the first day-shift person to arrive was a breathless Tech Sergeant, who immediately gave me that "What the hell?" kind of look. He heard the droning of several piston-powered airplanes from the parking lot and had sprinted up the tower steps. The sky was full of little white airplanes with orange noses and I was feeling dizzy. The Local Control frequency squealed and squawked as everyone tried to report something or other simultaneously.

It was right about then that Cabot One-One advised they'd be departing the area and heading back to Navy JAX. As his flight left the traffic pattern, "Thanks Tower" was all he said. Was that a chuckle I heard? Oh yeah. Score one for the Navy.

Cabot Two-One flight immediately followed suit. That left just four Trojans in the pattern. I handed my microphone to the Sergeant. Having long since changed my post-shift plan from breakfast and bed to a bar and beer; I too departed the area.

Exceeding the limits of my capability was an easy thing to do that morning. I was too inexperienced to know where my limits were. It was probably my first lesson in learning to draw the line that falls between just enough and too much ~ a lesson I would occasionally forget over time.

© NLA Factor, 2010