Choose To Be Happy

It was early 1974 and I was finally on my way. The Three Degrees were blasting "TSOP" from my car radio as I sped toward town. It was dawn for the Disco era and I was dancing! At long last, some four years after my honorable discharge, I was going to work for the FAA. Along with six other recently hired trainees, I would begin my air traffic control career at Big Time Tower. The challenge was both energizing and intimidating. Big Time was a busy place... a very busy place.

Back then, the Big Time controllers were a colorful assortment of personas. Some were WWII vets, many were former military controllers and most were PATCO (Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization) members. Together they'd ridden out a three-day job action (sickout) in 1969 and a three-week sickout that began in March of 1970. Subsequent disciplinary action, an imperious management team and ongoing operational deficiencies combined to anneal their on-the-job attitude. Still, they were a congenial bunch, albeit skeptical; trusting no one who hadn't proven themselves worthy in the crucible of the control rooms.

United in their disdain and distrust for management, they were somewhat divided in their views of PATCO as an effective counterpoise. One controller (a non-member) once told me PATCO couldn't do anything for him that he couldn't do for himself. Several others shared that view. These were generally the stronger controllers, held in high regard by management. Self reliant, they rarely ever complained or got into trouble. Their sole reason for coming to work was a fierce pride in what the did for a living. The ongoing union rhetoric was simply background noise and they ignored it. For many others, union programs and pursuits were their passion. Working airplanes was a distraction, management was the enemy and PATCO would take care of them; no matter what.

I was initially assigned to the facility Training Department for several weeks of classroom instruction. On my very first day at Big Time, the local PATCO President stopped in to chat with me and the other trainees. He enumerated the many benefits of union membership, pointing out the things we would like about working at Big Time. He put special emphasis on the many issues we were expected to be unhappy about. Eager for acceptance, we listened with rapt attention; nodding and muttering at the appropriate moments.

PATCO was nothing new to me. Having seen the pamphlets bearing F. Lee Bailey's image back in 1969, me and a few other Air Force controllers had signed up under an "Associate" membership program. Now, as a "real" controller, I was ready to sign on as a professional.

On leaving the academic environment, we seven trainees found a tower and TRACON infused with the stink of stale cigarette smoke. Half-filled ashtrays sat at every control position and nearly everyone needed them. Poorly ventilated, both tower and TRACON often smelled of jet exhaust from a nearby ramp. Most of the equipment was old and unreliable. Alphanumeric data-blocks would occasionally freeze on radar displays while primary and secondary targets ran off without them. Radio equipment randomly dropped off line and backup frequencies were scarce. Flight data printers seized up at the most inopportune times, leaving controllers to scramble for pens and phone lines to the ARTCC. Holding patterns filled quickly and emptied slowly. All the while, big jets, painted in long gone liveries like Pan Am, TWA, Eastern, National and Braniff, rolled in and out of the big airfield. I was both overwhelmed and exhilarated by it all.

As I began my OJT (on-the-job-training) the PATCO Facility Rep's earlier admonishments would be verified by my new teammates. The Rep's earlier portrayal of management was also corroborated by the mostly autocratic and insensitive management staff themselves. Discontent hung in the air like the cigarette smoke. Complaints were often dismissed out of hand and formal grievances invariably became the battleground upon which PATCO and the Tower Chief would regularly draw swords.

This was the backdrop to those early days of my career. In an atmosphere of disaffection, dissatisfaction and confrontation I learned I could still choose to be happy. I focused on my training, absorbed in the challenges and determined to succeed. Although I was now a card-carrying PATCO member; Labor/management issues took a backseat in my drive to become a fully certified controller at Big Time.

© NLA Factor, 2010


The Polite Way To Say . . .

Okay Bob, try to think of it this way. Let's imagine this is a map of your ass. The mark . . .uhh, right here, would be where your head is buried.

© NLA Factor, 2010


It was a small time tower but its time in the small time was running out. When I transferred into Small Time from Big Time Tower on my very first Supervisor gig; the place was like a rest home with runways. Not that the airport wasn't positioned perfectly for potentially high demand or lacked the capacity to handle it. No. The airport was vast and could easily have handled four or five times the number of landings and takeoffs conducted each day. Fortunately for Small Time's controllers . . . it didn't.

Air traffic procedures, for both tower and TRACON, were well suited for current airport volume but even the perception of increased traffic would upset the delicate balance. This would occur when delays in the system caused normally well separated arrival and departure periods to overlap. There weren't actually more airplanes per day, just more airplanes per minute. The results could be unanticipated arrival holding, in-trail restrictions, sudden stops on departure flows, calls for release and, well, chaos. When the dust settled; Small Time Tower would find itself reeling once again from the mockery and derision of neighboring facilities for not being able to take the heat. Pilots called to complain while controllers shuffled off to the breakroom feeling demoralized and defeated. There was a lot of friction, and here's the rub.

Small Time's procedures, both tower and TRACON, were running at the upper limits of their capability. A relatively small increase in demand would exaggerate these limitations, exacerbate stress levels and eventually cause traffic flows to seize up like an overheated engine. There was little incentive to change anything. Small Time had existed for decades and traffic never caught up with expectations. By now, nobody believed it ever would. Further, nobody saw a need for big changes based solely on a few, sporadic bad days.

I recall my first tour of the facility when someone gave me an overview of TRACON operations. The three primary areas of activity were the West Scope, North Scope and South Scope. I would come to think of these three positions as the Collideoscopes [sic] because of the many tripwires strung through each sector that could quickly trigger a disaster.Three sectors, like three wedges of pie, handled everything that transited that quadrant. Arrivals hurtled toward the airport, ducking under adjacent airspace, dodging overflights and evading departures. The departures, struggling to clear our area with enough fuel remaining to reach their destination, floundered around at low altitudes then step-climbed their way out from under airspace owned by another facility. First stop; four thousand feet. The tower (which didn't really have much better to do) was required to coordinate nearly every move they made with the appropriate TRACON sector. These frequent distractions often diverted the radar controller's attention from developing conflicts. If resolution became imperative, traffic flows would be stopped until the matter was sorted out.

It was puzzling. Having just left a far busier facility with highly structured sectors (defined by function rather than geographical quadrant) and comparatively flexible procedures; I couldn't understand why everyone was working so hard here. In time I learned it was partly due to a culture of apathy among controllers and management alike. The status quo was king. New ideas were dismissed as unnecessary or perhaps good but not feasible. Any ideas that hinged on a neighboring facility's involvement were, for the most part, out of the question. The other facilities were much busier and had little time or incentive to deal with Small Time issues.

All the while, invisible forces were at work. Plans were being developed in distant offices that would eventually change Small Time forever. The problem was; if it hadn't happened yet, convincing everyone of an inevitable reality and the dire consequences of inertia would be difficult.

Fortunately for Small Time, not everyone there was caught in a coma of complacency. A few brave souls enlisted in the forces of change while some were eventually conscripted into service. Others organized into a loyal opposition. Among them were the management of adjacent facilities and our regional office; none of whom could see an approaching future through the haze of what had always been. They marched in lockstep, often opposing ideas simply because there was nothing in it for them.

As with gravity, the laws of change are irrefutable. In time; impediments would fall and a more evenhanded spirit would rise in their place. Small Time was eventually able to take the steps it needed for survival and future growth. It wasn't easy and the costs were high. But more on that some other time.

© NLA Factor, 2010



Apologies to Edouard Manet.

Much has already been written, said and probably forgotten about the FAA's notorious conference in Atlanta last December. Never averse to flogging dead horses, I'll add my own impressions to the sum of all previous commentary.

According to agency propagandists, the gathering was all part of "a process of significant cultural change." Hmmm. Those of us who've lived among FAA's citizens and studied them with an anthropological curiosity understand that when "the FAA is engaged in a process of significant cultural change" (an annual ritual since 1981), certain prerequisite accommodations must be provided in order to ensure success. These include but may not be limited to Five Star hotel conferences, hundreds of gallons of alcoholic beverages and, of course, hookers . . . lots of hookers. For sure.

We also understand that the news media is not above using clever camera angles, hidden cameras, special effects and purportedly unbiased TV Anchors to convey the impression that federal agencies are reckless and irresponsible. It's amazing that, after decades of being slapped around, FAA still has not learned to manipulate or, at the very least, evade the news media as deftly as some other Government agencies; many of whom have spent considerably more money on conferences.

In the big picture, FAA's $5 million dollar bargain bash was about as newsworthy as the last "Man Bites Dog" story or losing a twenty-five cent piece under your couch cushion. Yet the news media fabricated, exaggerated and disseminated a tale that had little to do with the actual conference. It would, however, leave much of the public with a bad impression and the FAA scrambling to make excuses for something that all their employees could use more of. That would be training!

If ABC's viewers could have been shown what life on the job is really like for those conference attendees, they might agree that a little after hours partying was well warranted. Of course, that kind of story wouldn't have contained the amusing dash of cynicism we all love. What we got instead was kind of like ABC doing a story on the FAA employee who received a government check for $6000 bucks, which paid for his trip to Rio. Oh . . . did they mention the check was a tax refund?

Now, everyone knows the Government wastes money. This is news? If  Diane Sawyer and the rest of those crazy kids down at ABC are truly interested in exposing government waste, they should take a hidden camera into the U.S. Capitol and film a couple of other parties; the Democrats and the Republicans. That would be far more real and informative than the sophomoric piece they did on those who operate and manage what is arguably the best air traffic control system in the world.

© NLA Factor, 2010


Down At The Used Vector Store

The salesman was convincing. "All of our vectors are in top condition, error-free and guaranteed to last!" He leaned in. "You know...there are only three hundred and sixty of these things so you can be sure they were all used with care!" I peered across the lot. "Uhh, well I just transferred to an airport that has mostly East-West runways and..." "I've got just the thing over here!" he interrupted. "You're gonna need downwind and base leg headings, plus a few well timed turns to final. I can give you a good price on our traffic pattern package and I'll even throw in some extra headings for wind correction!" "How much?" I asked. He guffawed and slapped me on the back. "Well how much is a good vector worth to you?"

Hmmm. How much is a good vector worth?

"Need some time to think it over? I'm goin' back to my office for a cup of coffee and a smoke. I'll talk to my Manager and see if I can still get you in on that sale we had yesterday." I nodded my head. As he turned to walk away he hollered over his shoulder. "We've got a special section behind the building for no-gyro vectors! You've gotta provide proof of age to get in though. Those things can be pretty wild!" No-gyro vectors? What the hell? I was still trying to figure out how much a good vector was worth. I know I've paid dearly for some bad vectors but the good ones?

I once used a vector...it took a descending DC9 38 miles across our airspace, from the arrival fix to the final. That airplane joined the localizer just three miles from the marker and at a 20 degree intercept angle! Now that vector was worth plenty! But you know...it didn't work the next time I tried it. Of course, I was pretty new to the job. Like me, most new radar controllers needed almost all three hundred and sixty of em' to get through a shift. The more experienced folks used a lot fewer but seemed to use the same ones over and over. I wondered if well used vectors were worth more.

The salesman reappeared. "Make up yer mind yet?" "Uhhh, well..." "Didja look at our Specialty Vectors?" "Specialty vectors?" "Over there!" he pointed. I saw several rows; each with a sign. "Vectors for Spacing" "Vectors around Traffic" "Vectors around weather" There were dozens. I noticed a row of "Off-route Vectors" marked "50% off" along with "Delaying Vectors" and "Left/Right three-sixties."

The salesman shot his cuffs and pushed his hat back a bit. "I'll give you another twenty-five percent off the three-sixties. Honestly? There hasn't been as much demand for em' since the old PATCO days. Back then, everyone was spinning an airplane at one boundary or another." He shook his head sadly. "Whatever happened to those guys?" "Oh, I heard they crossed a few legal boundaries" I muttered. "Listen; I don't need the specialty vectors right now and I sure as hell don't need the three-sixties! How much did you say that traffic pattern package went for?" "Depends," he said wryly, "on how much you think a few good vectors are worth."

I conceded that one good vector is probably worth more than a dozen bad ones. He grinned. "Why don't we step into my office? Hey, did I tell you about my Uncle Zeke? He's worked out a way to convert repeat transmissions into fertilizer!"

"Well..." I said, "Repeat transmissions are a waste of time. He should make a lot of money."

"Say that again?"

© NLA Factor, 2010


I Can't Believe Its Not Bitter

It was January of 1970. Hopeful as I was at the time; the air traffic control career I coveted since leaving the Air Force would elude me for nearly four years. After months of waiting and many telephone calls to FAA's Regional Office about my chances for a job offer, I sought other employment. There were several disappointing interviews but I finally got my big break from a local discount department store. An opportunity had arisen in their janitorial staff and, apparently, I had the "right stuff" for the job.

Since the Air Force had already taught me all anyone needed to know about cleaning; I literally hit the floor runnin' with the company's rotary scrubber/buffer. My specialty, however, was an uncanny ability to locate chewing gum deposits across the store's acres of linoleum tile, then scraping them up with my putty knife. This talent earned me many deprecating looks from ungrateful customers (even though their shoes would no longer stick to the toy department floor) and the sincere respect of my peers.

My peers.... These guys were terrific. All but one of them were residents of a nearby home for the mentally disabled. Each would come to work with the attitude of a lottery winner; flaunting a contagious enthusiasm for even the most menial of tasks. They loved their job, took great pride in it and never complained. Not once. For me the job was simply an inconvenient way point along my path to success. For them it was a career. I knew that one day I'd be an air traffic controller again and these guys would still be proudly cleaning floors and bathrooms. I watched them work, enjoyed their friendship and often felt ashamed of my own attitude.

After nearly a year with these guys, I left the janitor profession for a better opportunity. I was given a lead on a position at the hospital, where they needed someone to manage their linen department. As it turned out, I was the linen department.

The work was significant but simple, disgusting but demeaning. The downside? Well, there was no real opportunity for advancement.

Basically, all I had to do twice a day was deliver carts loaded with clean linen to each floor, collect the dirty linen and transport it to the basement for pick-up by a cleaning service. The things I found in those linen hampers would gag a jackal but I never had time to throw up. Between the Doctors politely asking me to get out of their way and the nurses scolding me like a schoolboy, I barely had time to meet the daily linen delivery truck; download the clean and upload the filthy. With luck I'd be back in my linen room in time for the next autopsy. Oh. Did I mention that the morgue was directly across the hall from my basement domain? The staff often left their door open while dissecting their "patients." Great.

What was most interesting about the hospital experience was the way others related to me. My office was in the basement, I wore a green uniform and was often seen pushing carts piled high with things so foul that they should simply have been burned. Conclusion? I was of a lower caste. The Doctors had their white jackets, the nurses their crisp uniforms. Even the orderlies looked more professional than I did. This only served to reinforce my image as an anathema.

My plummeting self-esteem was about to meet my rising discontent. With a continuing dearth of encouragement coming from the FAA, I decided to leave my dirty laundry behind and seek other opportunities. I actually became one of several movers and shakers at an area manufacturing facility. That is to say we moved large pallets of material from the warehouse to the production floor, then shook our heads when the supervisor hollered for more. It was night work; another experience that would ease my eventual transition back into air traffic control. But not just yet.

I worked, nearly non-stop, from 4:00 p.m. till midnight; hauling boxes, unloading trucks, stocking shelves and scurrying around at the supervisor's whim. I didn't mind because there was a tangible chance for advancement here. All I had to do was convince the supervisor of my potential. Then, maybe I would receive her support when a promotion opportunity came up. It eventually did and she provided the necessary lift to help me get the job.

I worked for this company, making my way steadily upward in pay and responsibility, until one day in December of 1973. Arriving home from work one afternoon, I found a Mailgram from the FAA's Regional Office. It was a job offer.

It didn't occur to me during those years but the jobs I held from 1970 through 73 were actually the best preparation I could possibly have had for what was to come. While the FAA dithered over its hiring criteria, I was learning many useful lessons that, hopefully, would be carried forward into my FAA career. I reflect on those years with many emotions; none of them wrathful, regretful or . . . bitter.

© NLA Factor, 2010


Dire, Dire, Planes on Fire?

I had never seen an airplane on fire. The old Fairchild C-119 glided down the final toward runway 35, trailing a long tongue of flame from one engine. Five miles out. Would this thing explode into a larger fireball or would the wing simply burn away, sending this ole' "flying boxcar" into the Atlantic Ocean? The Tower at Oceanside Air Force Base had done all it could. Emergency equipment lined the runway, the traffic pattern had been cleared of other flights and a rescue helicopter hovered nearby. We stood at our control positions, transfixed by the spectacle.

Now only a mile or so from the runway, the night sky South of the airfield glowed orange. Treetops and other surface features were illuminated by the descending fire. Beyond a brief acknowledgment of the landing clearance, no word came from the flight crew as their aircraft burned away. I was already envisioning the worst case scenario; waiting for the nearly certain tragedy to unfold.

Another decade, another airdrome and another airplane on fire.  Or was it?

I was now well into my years with the FAA and we were well into our morning departure push at the "Big Time Tower" where I worked. Though I was now able to view my Air Force career in retrospect; I was not able to view the rather large airport right in front of me. An impenetrable fog covered the field, shielding the long line of waiting departures from view. Due to heavy enroute traffic volume, the Center was releasing flights; one at a tediously long time. The departure queue grew by the minute while other flight crews, hoping for a pushback clearance, grumbled at their gates.

A United Airlines DC-10 (UAL90) sat at the head of the departure lineup...cobwebs now connecting its main gear to the taxiway. Waiting just behind the United flight were two US Airways DC-9s (Flights 190 and 25). Because of the long delays, USA190's number 2 engine was shut down. This in accordance with applicable fuel conservation procedures. When UAL90 was finally released by the Center and cleared for takeoff, we advised USA190 to start the other engine and be prepared to depart. Transmitting into 3/8 mile visibility, we could only imagine what was happening out there on the taxiways.

Flight 190 started the second engine but it "torched" and emitted a flame past the tail cone. The crew of the second US Airways flight (USA25) saw the flame and issued a fateful warning. What we heard on the tower frequency was simply "Ninety, your right engine's on fire." Poor timing for a "clipped" or incomplete transmission as UAL90 was already rolling briskly down the runway, nose wheel off the ground and about to become airborne. Hearing only the number "Ninety" along with a fire warning; the Captain of the United flight chose to abort takeoff, even though there was no cockpit indication of an engine fire. What ensued could probably be reworked into a comedy routine worthy of Abbott & Costello.

Moments passed. The tower controller watched his radar display, expecting to see the United flight's target moving away from the airport. Not seeing this he called the TRACON departure sector and asked if they were already working the United flight. They were not. The tower then called UAL90. "Say your position." United responded with "we're off the runway." The tower called the departure controller once again and relayed this message; saying he's off the runway and should be visible on radar. As there was still no trace of a radar target, the tower controller asked the pilot again to state his position. Only then did we learn of what we could not see. UAL90 was indeed off the runway...about 200 feet off the runway but still on the ground.

At the confluence of lengthy departure delays, a blind tower cab, good intentions and a bad decision you'll find a momentarily missing DC10. It is resting at the end of three long furrows; carved into the mud by its landing gear. My awareness of the consequences stemming from clipped transmissions was raised forever.

That burning boxcar? Oh, it landed quite elegantly and the fire was immediately extinguished by a waiting crash crew.

Anticipating the worst can give you an edge, even if the worst never happens. The thing is...with UAL90, I never imagined the situation would deteriorate to the extent it did. It happened too fast and the "engine's on fire" transmission was perfectly timed to coincide with that point when that DC-10 could no longer safely abort the takeoff.

© NLA Factor, 2010