1/29/10

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

1 comment:

Kevin said...

Wow...what a great read and a nice find. I look forward to reading more.