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

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