Terrains, Dopes And Aeroplanes

The ink was just beginning to dry on my Private Pilot's License when I got the urge to take a long cross-country flight. It was early August, the skies were gentle and I had two week's of annual leave approved. The Cherokee I'd used throughout most of my flight training was available and adventure beckoned us aloft. My wife and I spent hours poring over maps in search of interesting places with nearby airports. We finally agreed we would head eastward, turning down the coast toward Myrtle Beach, Charleston and maybe into Florida. Hence, early one sunny morning, bags packed, we drove out to our local airdrome, loaded the Cherokee up and taxied out. With winds wafting straight down the runway, we rolled off and drifted skyward. This was the halcyon beginning of what would later become a harrowing journey...but this day was perfect. The world at our feet, we set a course for our first fuel stop in Pittsburgh.

Arriving over Myrtle Beach, it was obvious we were going no further. Rain and thick haze ringed the Grand Strand; concealing a line of thunderstorms moving in from the West. Inexperienced as I was, I still knew the safest place to ride out such conditions was on the driver's seat of a rental car. The airplane secured at North Myrtle Beach Airport, we drove off to find a hotel and some dinner.

Did you ever consider the imaginary world depicted in VFR Sectional Charts? All blues, sunshine yellows and magentas; they depict a bucolic realm of Spring green countrysides and beige ridges; belying the darker realities that may await those who lack the capacity to see them. As I blundered blithely along, the VFR Sectional would lull me into a state of aesthetic complacency. But not just yet.

In the coming days, we made two attempts to reach Charleston but were never able to get much further than Georgetown. Sooner or later we'd always encounter the ubiquitous clusters of clouds that seemed to roam the coastal lowlands every day. Too tall to top, too wide to skirt and way too menacing beneath; they'd eventually convince me to just turn around. By day three we gave up trying and decided to enjoy Myrtle Beach for the rest of the week.

By Saturday morning, we were ready to head for home. Our route would take us just west of Wilmington, N.C. and northward toward Gordonsville, Va. From there we'd overfly the Linden VOR and land at Front Royal for fuel. Things went well through most of the flight. Although a bit hazy, it was still decent VFR flying weather at 4,500 feet. My wife got bored with looking out the window and eventually fell asleep.

Then, somewhere near Gordonsville, I took the Cherokee down to 2,500 feet because of some low-hanging cumulus clouds. Visibility was still good as I looked down on the Virginia countryside. The descent was nearly a fatal error but I flew on obliviously. Somewhere south of Linden and tracking inbound, I noticed my flight visibility decreasing somewhat. This didn't concern me though because I still had good visual contact with the ground. If I'd kept better visual contact with my VFR Sectional I might have noticed the rising terrain ahead and the clearly marked minimum safe altitude for this area. But no.

Near as I can tell, I was in the vicinity of Sperryville and Washington (see chart below) when the cloud bases sunk even lower. I descended to stay below but could see ahead that it was getting worse. That's when my situation became copiously clear. I was headed into an area of increasingly high terrain and was having to descend to stay below the clouds. My wife slept on as panic crept in. I glanced left and right; hoping to find a way of turning around. By now I could barely see a mile in any direction so a turn could have simply been a quicker way of running into something. I realized there was only one remaining option. I had to get the Cherokee up to 3,500 feet as quickly as possible.The Linden VOR was still somewhere off the nose of the airplane, along with the mountain range it sat on. Cloud bases were immediately above me. Fragments of my Private Pilot training came back to me as I pushed the throttle forward and pulled back on the yoke. My eye went immediately to the attitude indicator. I was climbing - good. Airspeed was well above a stall - good. Wings remained level - good. Outside the window was nothing but gray - frightening.The altimeter slowly added to my last known altitude. Although I was climbing, I had no idea how close I was to the surrounding terrain. Now above 3,000 feet, I remained in solid IFR conditions. If I made it to Linden and was still in the clouds; what would I do next? I had no clue.

At 3,500 feet I was as yet alive and climbing when I noted station passage over Linden. Front Royal Airport would be somewhere off to the left but I was afraid to descend. Should I continue climbing, in hope of punching through the cloud tops? And how far up would that be? My hands were soaked in sweat. The gray outside the windows grew brighter. Then, in an instant, I was in full sunlight and could see for miles. Just ahead, the airport was clearly visible. I woke my wife up and told her we'd be landing in a few minutes.

There isn't much more to say about this. Every mistake I made was a stupid one and every break I got was a lucky one. I'll never know just how close I came to shredding that airplane as it sliced through the treetops and hit the mountainside. I do know this flight could have ended up as a kind of 'Ground School' for dopes - the kind nobody ever walks away from.

© NLA Factor, 2010


You Can't Win 'Em All

It was a tricky game, requiring highly skilled players with a well honed sense of timing and an unwavering commitment to win. It was a game where the pieces moving across the field of play actually stood to lose more than the players themselves. Believe it or not, this was also a game where our opponents weren't even direct participants. The game gained national prominence in 1976; the year when PATCO insisted on higher pay for controllers via reclassification by the Civil Service commission. When the CSC denied most reclassification requests, PATCO called for a "work-by-the-book" job action; a proper sounding euphemism for the air traffic slowdown that followed.

The idea behind a slowdown was simple. If users of the air traffic system experienced enough capricious delays and attending financial penalties, they would apply pressure on PATCO's key adversaries - FAA's local, regional and/or national management. Since management, in theory, had no effective means of thwarting a slowdown's unpredictable tactics; they'd eventually have to cede the game to PATCO rather than suffer the incessant complaining and criticizing by the users.

Rules of this game were intentionally vague, which made it an all the more effective way to slow things down. The crux of any slowdown (there were others) was to penalize the flying public in order to achieve the desired result. It was similar to taking hostages and demanding a ransom, except that the likelihood of an FBI sniper team showing up to shoot air traffic controllers was practically nil. Unless, of course, the airlines had their way...

So...just imagine you were a loyal PATCO foot soldier in 1976. Oh sure; you'd be caught up in all the excitement of the Bicentennial celebrations. You would also be watching the reclassification negotiations from afar and becoming frustrated by the apparent lack of progress. Your local union representative puts the word out. PATCO is calling for a slowdown. What did you do? Although there were several variations of the game, we'll examine just one of them here.

If you worked in a radar facility, you might have considered a slowdown variation called 'Spin Em.' A perennial favorite, it was a costly and effective gambit. As I indicated earlier, timing was crucial but I suppose anyone able to throw a bowling ball into the open window of a speeding train could probably play 'Spin Em.' The question was; would they want to?

To play, you needed two controllers, one interfacility airspace boundary and one airplane full of hapless pawns. The airplane must be in handoff status to the receiving controller and approaching the boundary - hopefully at a good clip. If you are the receiving controller you must appear to have simply missed seeing the attempted handoff until such time as the transferring controller starts to turn the flight around - or 'Spin Em.' Transferring controllers would usually call on the handoff line, but only (and this is important), only after turning the aircraft away from the interfacility boundary.

No one ever expected their call to be answered promptly. In fact; it shouldn't have been! Finally, when the aircraft was clearly into a turn away from the boundary, the handoff could be accepted...but never soon enough for the aircraft to avoid having to make a complete 360 degree turn or two. Then, with the artistry and aplomb of a seasoned thespian, the receiving controller added to the stratagem of this scenario by picking up the handoff line and apologizing profusely for not taking the handoff in time.

Time lost, fuel wasted - score one point for Team PATCO.

Repeating the 'Spin Em' ploy arbitrarily though out the day and in dozens of radar facilities across the country would, hopefully, weaken your opponent's will and, perhaps, strengthen PATCO's hand at the bargaining table. User outrage over the minutes added to flight times and increased fuel costs would bring the union closer to winning the game.

Another dimension could be added to this scenario by getting the tower engaged when a round of 'Spin Em' was under way. They'd be told when a particular traffic flow was 'spinning' and be ordered to stop any additional departures headed that way. Even a brief stop could spread havoc right down to the taxiways and send the supervisors into a tizzy. Great fun! Well...not really...not for me anyway.

When the slowdown began, I had just completed my training at Big Time and was anxious to work airplanes. The constraints associated with a job action were as appealing to me as suffocation - but I played along. While a few of the old-timers could thumb their noses at peer pressure, it was nearly impossible for a rookie.

Participation was not always voluntary. Whether you were eager to play or not; the same erratic attributes that made a slowdown effective evoked difficulties for even the most experienced and willing participants. In the 'spin em' scenario, for example, there was no way of knowing which flights would be affected. As you drove your traffic toward the neighboring boundary, you couldn't know whether you'd end up spinning or not. You might actually have several flights, in trail, headed for the same handoff point. Spinning the first flight would probably result in having to spin the others. Things could get out of hand pretty quickly.

PATCO ultimately won this particular game of slowdown. Jerry Ford's administration supported a reclassification but CSC delays held the raise up until January of 1977. Impatient, PATCO told the CSC to hurry or there'd be another job action that would affect the upcoming inauguration of Jimmy Carter.

That was not the final curtain call for slowdowns. PATCO played the slowdown card once more in 1978. The outcome wasn't so good. This time, they wanted an expansion of the FAM Trip program; to include more overseas flights. Three air carriers (Pan Am, TWA & Northwest) balked at the idea, thus becoming specific targets in the ensuing mayhem. John Leyden, PATCO's President at the time, was quoted as saying the airlines "can allow us a free seat or spend some money burning fuel."

This time, the union overplayed their hand. The Air Transport Association brought legal action against PATCO. A federal court found controllers in violation of a standing injunction against slowdowns and ordered the union to pay a hundred thousand of their dues payer's dollars to the ATA. Cash wasn't all that was lost. As the story goes, there were several Congressmen and other high-rollers delayed by the slowdown. Their displeasure cost PATCO a lot more currency... of the political kind.

They said you can't win them all. Or was it "Quit while you're ahead?" I can't remember but I suppose PATCO must have realized they'd need a weapon with more shock and awe than a slowdown the next time.

© NLA Factor, 2010



We were traveling across the high meadows of air traffic control...somewhere above thirty thousand feet and somewhere above Illinois. Riding high, in the jumpseat of a Trans World Airlines B707, I leaned forward to listen in as Captain Parks related a few of the many experiences he'd had flying through Chicago O'Hare. His new First Officer (FO) listened attentively to the tales of terrible weather, taxiways trammeled with airplanes and testy controllers. Being a fairly new guy myself, I was completely absorbed by the narrative. Parks was nearing the end of a long career with TWA and had seen it all; good times and bad. Impeccably groomed, he filled the left seat with supreme confidence and the smiling serenity of a Buddha.

The sky below was dotted with cumulus clouds but I could make out Lake Michigan's shoreline off in the distance. We wouldn't be dropping in on Chicago today though. I was on the final leg of a two-day familiarization (FAM) trip and anxious to get home. The Center frequency was fairly busy but none of their calls were for us. Still, the Captain paused his conversation whenever he heard a controller's voice. Several flights, complaining of rough rides, were requesting different altitudes. Others asked for more direct routings. The air was filled with voices. Airplanes were climbing, descending and turning all around us, yet the sky outside our windows appeared nearly empty. Footprints lay ahead; a pair of contrails stretched across the horizon but were now being blown apart by the winds. Whoever had left those prints was long gone.

Hours passed pleasantly as each successive frequency change brought that Boeing closer to our destination. The FO tuned in Big Time's arrival ATIS. Hometown weather didn't sound so good. Scattered thunderstorms, indefinite ceilings, rain showers and a rock bottom RVR number were forcing all traffic onto the only approach with sufficiently low minimums. From our vantage point, the world was bright blue in every direction but down. Unfortunately, 'down' was where we were headed."This is good!" said Captain Parks enthusiastically. He turned to the FO and said: "I want you to take us into Big Time. Its going to be interesting - a good experience!" I was turning that word "interesting" over in my head when he spoke again. "Think you're ready?" The FO replied "Yes sir!" and the deal was closed. Somewhere, about a hundred miles or so from Big Time, control of the Boeing changed hands.

We had been issued a couple of descent clearances and were now cruising very close to most of the cloud tops. Some, to the right of our flightpath, stood considerably higher. The Center controller gave us another descent clearance and a crossing restriction at the outer fix. The airplane dipped down toward the clouds and was immediately engulfed. I was in the middle of wondering why the crossing restriction was several thousand feet higher than normal when the controller called again with holding instructions and an EFC. That question answered; we were switched over to Big Time Approach.

The frequency sounded busy. When we tuned in, the controller was reeling off a flurry of instructions to several other aircraft. Captain Parks waited a few moments then made his initial call. A minute later we were over the holding fix and starting a left turn. The air outside was opaque as heavy rain raked the windshield. It was only 5:00 p.m. but we toured the holding pattern in near total darkness. Someone, a couple flights below us, reported turbulence. No more high meadows of air traffic control. We were now in the trenches.

After about 20 minutes, we got a vector out of the holding pattern. Now it was showtime for the FO. After a few more vectors, two descent clearances and a speed reduction, we were turned over to the Final Controller on a downwind heading. It was a rough ride - like racing across a parking lot strewn with speed bumps. The rain seemed to be intensifying. Through it all, Captain Parks watched, listened, or commented quietly while the FO maneuvered the 'seven-oh' onto the approach. Squirming uneasily in the jump seat, I was more than a little apprehensive - not just over the idea of premature ground contact but also the clear possibility of a missed approach. That would mean a diversion to their alternate and no home cooking for me tonight. We started down the glideslope; sinking deeper and deeper into dark and turbulent surroundings. The FO held onto the aircraft tightly. Captain Parks looked on, unruffled by it all, and merely said "Easy...easy."

Watching Parks and his FO reminded me of every OJT session I'd ever had as a radar trainee. My instructors had a myriad of ways to express their concern over a developing situation. Some would spring out of their seats, pointing to a particular target or two and say "You'd better do something!" Some would simply gesture and say "Are you watching that?" Then there were those who'd look on quietly as I systematically squandered my available options. Finally, they'd say "Let me have it for a minute." My heavy hand of inexperience gave way to the journeyman's finesse and, a few transmissions later, they'd have the whole mess cleared up without breaking a sweat. Easy.

A few miles ahead of us, someone announced to the tower they were starting a missed approach. "Roger, fly runway heading, climb and maintain five thousand." My hope of seeing home that evening plummeted. The FO kept scanning his instruments and glimpsing out the front window as we jounced along the final. We were nearing the minimum descent altitude. I stared intently ahead into the roiling rain and fog, looking for a break. Seconds later, the sequenced flashers appeared. Parks smiled as the 707 touched down lightly and rolled into the reverse thrusters. Clearing the runway, Ground Control headed us toward the ramp. Parks reached over and slapped the FO on his shoulder. "Nice work" was all he said. It was all he needed to say. Now the FO was smiling.

It was probably the best FAM flight of my entire career. No fancy airplane, no flirtatious flight attendants, no glamorous destination - just a wise and well seasoned professional passing along some tools of his trade to the next generation. Parks was the kind of guy you don't forget. As I worked my way through the ensuing years of busy and turbulent times I vowed never to forget his words of advice either. "Easy...easy."

And who could ever forget TWA?

© NLA Factor, 2010


Simple Math

Does one plus one really equal two...or just too much? Sometimes you don't know till its too late. Therein lies the uncertainty of combining radar sectors. One plus one can end up equalling one big problem. Do the math. Add two sectors together. Subtract the extra set of eyes normally watching over things, multiply your responsibilities, then try dividing your attention between dissimilar situations happening in diffuse locations at very high speeds. Kids, do not try this at home.

To be fair though, it can also be fun. You have a lot of flexibility in a combined configuration and can do all kinds of pilot pleasing things without coordination. Climb higher, turn sooner, go direct...whatever. The airspace is all yours, so be creative! There are things to keep in mind though. You will lose some of the unspoken advantages that two sectors provide...like frequency separation. So don't get too tricky. Moreover, combining must be done with the insight and timing of a Wall Street trader. Know your market trends and when to make the move. Still, when done properly, combining sectors can be like combining milk and honey. Sweet.

I should mention it can also be like combining a house full of gas fumes with a lighted match.

If I had a pin for every time I asked a supervisor to let me combine sectors, I'd probably look like this guy by now. Then there were times when, as the TRACON supervisor, a controller would tell me it was time to combine. I'd take a look at things and usually agree with the assessment. There must be a number I could attach to the times I got "stuck" sorting out the ensuing debacle but I can't really pin it down. I can attest to the pain though.

Take, for example, an early Sunday morning in September when I sat at Big Time's Southwest arrival sector with little else to do but doodle on my strips. Sunday mornings were like that. I told the TRACON supe I'd be happy to take the underlying satellite sector for a while. She wisely called the satellite tower and asked if it looked like anything would be happening soon. "Nahh!" was the reply. "Not much going on here either." She then closed the sector, sent the controller to the break room and gave me the airspace. Great! I was beginning to get bored.

A couple of Big Time arrivals rolled in over my South fix; back from their cross-country jaunt. In a wink I had them both on vectors toward the airport for a visual approach. Some guy in a Bonanza called to request VFR advisories. No problem. I lit him up and issued the altimeter setting. Then the satellite tower phoned to say there was a twin Cessna taxiing out and was hoping to shoot some VFR practice approaches. Make my day.

A few more air carriers headed toward my other arrival fix. Easy money. I took the handoffs, gave em' the official greeting then turned them to follow the other two. The supervisor had vanished but I could hear her voice coming from the break room. She was slightly louder than the television. Apparently, somebody needed to get back up to the tower "Right Now!" I wondered why. Fragments of the discussion made their way back to the TRACON but I could barely hear it over the noise of the flight data printers. They'd started spitting out arrival and departure strips; non-stop. Glancing at my tab list I noted it was multiplying. From these clues, Sherlock Holmes would already have deduced I was about to be roughed up.

I won't drag you through the minutia of how a subtle but steady drop in visibility lead to a sudden spike in my blood pressure. The twin Cessna was on downwind for a second ILS approach when the pilot said it was just getting too hazy. He needed an IFR clearance back to the airport. Another clue? Elementery my dear pinhead. Five seconds later, the satellite tower called for release on two IFR departures. I released the first one. Oh, and that VFR Bonanza getting traffic advisories? He now needed an IFR clearance into another, uncontrolled satellite airport. I looked around for the supervisor. No joy.

The satellite departure was off and climbing toward a VOR on the other side of my sector. There were several more aircraft inbound to Big Time and it was clear to me that none of them would find the airport on their own. I was calling traffic on numerous unknown VFR targets. Nobody ever saw them. I wondered if anybody had seen the TRACON supe?

The East arrival controller called to ask which of my airplanes he should follow on the ILS. There was no final controller either so he and I were tweaking aircraft speeds and turning them onto the localizer. Heart racing, I mumbled something about giving him ten miles between my traffic and he should hit the gaps. The Center started calling about the next two inbounds that had been flashing at me. Okay, okay! Just as I got back into my vectoring, the satellite tower called again about the other IFR departure still waiting to go, plus two more now taxiing out. I was preparing my brusk response when the TRACON supe, who was now standing behind me, took the call. In a move that would stun the breakroom population for hours, she had just conscripted someone to reopen the satellite sector.

Explaining my flustered state came down to simple math. In-flight visibility was subtracted, workload multiplied and my attention precariously divided. It all added up to ten white knuckles. Did I learn anything from this exercise? Not in an enduring way. Would it happen again? Many times. Am I a dumbass? Well, I never was much good at math.

© NLA Factor, 2010


We Retort - You Decide

I haven't been able to find many good aviation related Blogs; especially ones focusing on air traffic control. One would think ATC was some kind of arcane and esoteric profession or something. Anyhow, when I do come across a good Blog, I like to bookmark it and put a link to the site from my own. You know; share the love. So its disheartening to discover an ATC Blog that, at its best, can be interesting and informative, yet diminishes itself by stooping to sophomoric personal attacks and derision. For me, their obvious capacity to write such things and apparent delight in doing so diminishes the credibility of everything else they put forth.

I've seen this many times before.

Everyone knows the pen is mightier than the sword but it should also be more circumspect. The use of anonymous and childish insults or innuendo to rectify anything will invariably have the opposite effect. This is bad news - unless one's goal is not to repair what is broken but rather to make things worse. In the perpetually troubled sphere of ATC labor/management relations; why would anyone, on either side, want to do that? Is pissing in the well that everyone drinks from such a good idea? You decide...but take the long view on this one folks.

© NLA Factor, 2010


Stepping Up Or Stepping Out?

Follow a career path across five decades and you're bound to stumble now and then. You may even lose your way a few times but don't worry about it. The best part about the journey will be the people you meet. They'll keep you company, share your burdens and help you up when you fall. If you ask, maybe they'll even give you directions.

Mine was a very long trek, across good terrain and bad. Though many names have been forgotten, I still remember the places, the circumstances in play at the time and the dynamics that drove them along. To simply say they were learning experiences would discount their relevance and the supporting roles they'd play for me later on. True, the lessons learned were important. Huge. But they were not nearly as important as understanding the forces at work behind each situation and outcome. Take career progression for example.

I doubt that anyone ever signed on to the air traffic control profession because they wanted to become the FAA Administrator. For me, I just wanted to become a controller. Then I wanted to become a good controller; respected by my peers and valued by my supervisor. That was enough for many of the folks I met along the way. They loved working airplanes, were addicted to the challenges and energized by the control room camaraderie. They were rewarded by a job well done, never expecting to be rewarded for it. They were at home in their headsets. For others, such as myself, the road to self-actualization would stretch beyond the boards...but why? What forces drove the decision to move on and was it a good one?

For some controllers I knew; embarking on the path of career progression was just a thinly veiled quest for more control. Moving up to a staff position was a power trip; fueled almost entirely by egotism and had little to do with a hope of adding value to the greater whole. It might have been tough for a selecting official to detect this kind of motivation in a candidate but to their coworkers it was as unmistakable as a radar failure. When someone of this ilk was selected, their former peers quickly lost whatever respect they might have held. In fact, the waning esteem was usually replaced by a creeping contempt. Selections such as these did nothing to slow the steady collapse of trust between controllers and management. In fact; they hastened the process. The new staff specialist could spend a couple of years in the office, all the while being mocked and/or shunned by his former teammates. Eventually he might return to the control room in a supervisory role. Payback time.

Others approached the career ladder with altruistic enthusiasm; truly believing they could make a positive difference. They worked hard at their new position and were usually able to maintain credibility in the eyes of former coworkers. This was accomplished through mutual respect but it rarely lasted.

Eventually, even the ones who stepped up for all the right reasons soon lost the belief that they could improve things. Bound by tradition and constrained by protocol, they would be drawn inexorably into the culture of mistrust between labor and management. The union's general pigeonholing of anyone outside the bargaining unit as maladroit, apathetic and technically deficient, although sometimes true, didn't help. So, the "us versus them" milieu would continue indefinitely.

But what of me? Did I climb the career ladder simply to gain a more lofty position or was my inner idealist becoming restless? Did I really think I could make a positive difference or was I too self absorbed to care about such things? I thought I knew the answers back then.

One thing is certain. Stepping up should not be seen as stepping out, selling out or copping out. Those who choose to move beyond their present position should always remember where it was and how they got there. Move on for the right reasons. If you are unsure what the right reasons are, just ask the controllers working next to you. Ask for directions. Take what they say to heart and keep it there. It'll be one small step toward sustainable change.

© NLA Factor, 2010


High Stakes

You think you have an unbeatable hand. You believe you can't lose but your opponent nods inscrutably and ups the ante. Your buddies are prodding you - egging you on. Convinced your opponent is bluffing, you put all your chips on the table, smile confidently and call the bluff.July of 1981 wasn't unusually hot, nor was it exceptionally humid. Nonetheless, it was pretty damned uncomfortable. The climate at Big Time was one of gnawing discontent. A cold front of intimidation, hostility and hubris was stalled over the work force and everyone knew a big storm was brewing. Some would welcome it, some would run for cover while others knew they'd simply have to ride it out. I was ready for the ride.

Required to resign from PATCO when selected for a staff position, I was now working in Big Time's Training Department. After years on the boards, this was the added challenge I needed. There were always lesson plans to write, classes to conduct, briefings to give, staff meetings to attend and proficiency time to be had in the tower and TRACON.

For the past several months, the Facility Manager seemed preoccupied with the subject of staff proficiency. He appeared tired and troubled at the daily staff meetings. Each of us were asked how much time we'd spent in the control rooms and what positions we'd worked. I didn't realize at the time but staff and supervisor currency was a key component in a comprehensive plan to blunt PATCO's strike plans.

Since back in January of 1980 we figured a strike was plausible. From the acceptance of plausibility we witnessed an aporetic sequence that - whenever something is plausible it eventually becomes possible. Once something is seen as possible - it becomes inevitable.

One Wednesday in July I was finishing up a regularly scheduled briefing for one of the controller teams. When I finished, most everyone got up and ran for the door like there was a fire alarm. Nothing new about that - but one guy, a young trainee, stayed behind to talk to me.

Dave was a nice fellow. Hard working and levelheaded, he was certified on all but one tower position and would soon begin radar training. Normally cheerful and optimistic, he was worried. I was pretty sure I knew why. As his story unfolded I could see the look of bewilderment in his eye and hear the anxiety in his voice. There had to be a way out of this conundrum and he was hoping I could help.

Dave was, of course, a PATCO member. As a new trainee it was nearly impossible to decline PATCO membership. Joining the union was a necessary step toward acceptance into the work force. It didn't necessarily mean you believed everything the union told you but, on the other hand, why would they lie? PATCO was telling Dave things he didn't completely believe and he was searching for contradictory evidence.

"The supervisors are telling us we'll be fired if we strike but my PATCO Team Rep. says they can't possibly fire all of us." "Hmm." I thought to myself..."the myth of indispensability." It was the Fool’s Gold that PATCO had seeded the minds of its members with. I’d tell Dave if he went out on strike he would be fired; although I myself didn’t know how the FAA could possibly keep things going with even a 50% reduction in the workforce.

The union had also told Dave that they'd eventually win the strike and would return in triumph to deal with those who stayed on the job. "Scabs" would be ostracised. Trainees would never become fully certified and would end up being drummed out as training failures. These were major concerns for Dave and, although I did my best to debunk them, I could see he was not convinced. Still, by the end of our conversation his spirits had improved somewhat. He smiled, said we'd talk again then left the briefing room. That was the last time I ever saw him.

What neither of us knew on that July day was that the FAA had quietly prepared a thorough and fairly effective strike contingency plan. PATCO had their own hand to play but the odds in this high stakes game were very much in favor of the house. Then, on August 3rd, Dave and many others at Big Time pushed all their chips to the center of the table and called the bluff. More to come on '81.

© NLA Factor, 2010


Like Havin' Sex

Thursday evenings at Big Time were always a challenge, even under the best of circumstances. But if you stir some marginal VFR conditions and a few scattered thunderstorms into our least favorable runway configuration - you end up with a recipe that'll serve eighteen controllers most discourteously.

We were a couple of hours into the evening shift when gusting winds forced a runway change. Timing was bad. There were already several departures queued up at the runways with more rolling off the ramps. Down in the radar room; approach controllers were wending their lines of arrivals around the storm cells, toward an ILS that, unbeknown to them, would soon be shut off.

Given the volume of traffic already at the runways and inside the outer fixes, negotiations between tower and TRACON concerning the last flights to land and takeoff on the current runway configuration were thorny. A lot of airplanes had to be pulled out of lines and eventually redirected into new traffic patterns. This put the tower into moderate departure delay status but the situation downstairs took a more serious turn. Approach control's airspace now resembled a jar full of angry hornets. Holding commenced at the outer fixes while several other aircraft were given delaying vectors till the runway change was complete. Soon the Center would call with departure restrictions as convective weather encroached on the metro area's primary egress routes. It was turning into a bad night and was about to get worse.

As a tower trainee, I was only in the radar room to rip and run strips. Still, I was taking it all in and was stunned by the evolving spectacle. Upstairs, the Local Controller was being relieved by one of Big Time's recently certified young guns. Determined to clear up the backlog of departures, he fired five or six off in rapid succession - figuring the Departure sector could spread them out for the Center. His plan worked, albeit briefly, but set a series of events into motion that we'd be discussing for weeks to come.

Right on cue, the Center controller began hollering at Departure Control for failing to comply with in-trail restrictions. Handoffs were refused. Soon the tower would be complaining to the TRACON because departures were stopped. Ground Control was fighting for his life because half the taxiways were clogged with waiting airplanes. Approach controllers would soon be upset when the Final controller abruptly stopped taking handoffs. Why? The tower wouldn't take any more airplanes because, due to blocked taxiways, Ground Control couldn't get them to the gates. Arrival holding spiraled, tempers flared and the specter of airport gridlock fanned the flames.

The TRACON supervisor finally decided he'd had enough. Tethered to an overhead position, he paced around furiously behind the radar sectors; muttering into his headset to the tower supervisor. He was not happy about the escalating departure delays or the fact we were now holding arrivals but I think he was most upset over all the carping, keening and lack of teamwork among the Big Time controllers.Some hotshot in the tower had choked the Departure Controller with more airplanes than he could possibly spread out to meet required miles-in-trail. Not helpful. The Center sector reacted appropriately under such circumstances but still may have been able to help a little. Of the five departures launched off of Big Time; numbers one, three and five were actually well spaced. Only numbers two and four made the situation untenable, yet the door was summarily slammed shut after one handoff. This left our hapless departure controller to hold four airplanes. Departures stopped.

That was it. Once into holding and delays, we couldn't climb out of the mess till nearly midnight. After countless calls from the airlines, the Command Center and other aviation entities; after time spent tallying up the staggering delay numbers, the operation was finally turned over to the mid-shift crew.

I came to realize this job didn't really begin and end for us somewhere on the airport or at our sector boundaries. It didn't even end where the host Center's airspace started. No matter where we were plugged in, there had to be an awareness of what was going on around us and a willingness to reach out when help was needed. A successful shift is not defined as one where everyone managed their own position perfectly. Any good hour, peak or otherwise, meant planning, communicating and cooperating with empathy and enthusiasm. To paraphrase the words our intrepid TRACON supervisor uttered just before he ran off to the nearest bar; "This business is like havin' sex. You can do it by yourself but its gonna be better when somebody helps!" He was right.

© NLA Factor, 2010



There was just something exhilarating about the dive from those frozen, blue flight-levels over western America; plunging down through the various cloud layers as the aircraft rolled into a turn, then leveling off to see the wide expanse of horizon ahead. It was early morning and the surface contours were partly defined by long, westward leaning shadows. Oakland Center had a few things to tell us as we sailed toward the eastern slope of The Sierras. The controller's voice was comforting - like meeting a friend after a long flight.

It had indeed been a very long flight - a Familiarization Flight or "FAM trip" for those who remember. I sat in the jump-seat, keeping a wary eye on the flight crew and wishing I was anywhere but this cockpit. All was appropriately silent through the approach and landing. This was a welcomed relief after the past several hours with these guys but it was a beautiful morning in San Francisco and we were headed for the gate. I made my best effort at a sincere thanks to the Captain for a "wonderful" flight then hurried out of the cockpit, shaking my head. As I waited for my luggage to appear I reflected on the trip.

We've all been in an elevator, a car or perhaps even a cockpit with strangers when suddenly an arguement arises between two people. There's no good place to look but down - no good thing to say but nothing. Its just awkward and you wish it would stop. With luck, you can escape the tension and avoid the possibility of being drawn into the fray. In an airline cockpit, somewhere high over middle America, there is no hope for escape.

We were somewhere just west of the Mississippi. The Captain and First Officer were discussing an ongoing job action at another company. The Captain (we'll call him Bob) had strong feelings about the matter and was in full support of those on the picket lines. Bob pressed his First Officer (we'll call him Brian) for an opinion. Brian did the best he could to remain neutral, which only encouraged Bob to further explain his position and expound on what he'd do if he worked for that airline. "Did you see the editorial in yesterday's paper?" Brian shook his head no. "Well check it out!" said Bob, reaching into his flight bag.

He pulled out the newspaper and handed it to Brian. Reaching into the case again he withdrew a magazine and turned toward me without looking. "Want something to read?" he asked; thrusting the magazine onto my lap. I looked down. A back issues of Playboy. Not waiting for my reaction, Bob returned to his diatribe over the job action. I glanced to the left and noticed a pair of long contrails several thousand feet below us. There was a knock on the cockpit door. A flight attendant entered to discuss the available lunch options. She greeted me with a smile, offering to get me something too. I declined so she turned to leave the flight deck.

The Captain stopped her. "So what do you think about this situation over at ***** Airlines?" "Oh I haven't been following it that closely" she said. Bob seized the opportunity to recap the issues and assert his opinions. I glanced at Brian who seemed to be taking careful inventory of his approach plates. The flight attendant nodded politely but it was clear she didn't agree with Bob's views. When he finished, she said she didn't think a job action was the right thing to do. Brian looked up from his Jepps and I began fidgeting with my ID badge.

Captain Bob literally bellowed at the woman, accusing and convicting her of crimes against reason, then condemning her to a life of blissful ignorance. Unfazed by his ranting, she held her ground and defended her position. This so infuriated the Captain that he practically leaped out of his seat and ordered her off the flight deck. She turned quietly and left. The door closed behind her with a click. It sounded like the hammer being cocked on a revolver. I studied the cloud tops below us.

So ended the longest five minutes of my life. The atmosphere during the remainder of the trip was as blithesome as the witness gallery at an execution. Awkward. I started thumbing through the Playboy . . . but purely for the articles.

© NLA Factor, 2010


A New Approach

I got both my Private and Commercial Pilot's license sometime between 1972 and 74. The exact date of my check rides, my log book and even the original copy of the license have eluded me for years. Not that it matters. Your odds of seeing the Spruce Goose at twelve o'clock and five miles are better than seeing my dumb ass flying another airplane. It was fun at the time. However; when I began training at Big Time Tower in '74, the attending euphoria somehow addled my brain, which gave rise to a patently unwise idea. Why not go for my Instrument Rating at the same time? Sheer genius.

So, armed with only a fully instrumented Cherokee Warrior and one terrified flight instructor, I donned the IFR hood and headed skyward.

The instruments all looked so different to me from under that hood, especially the altimeter. I'd never seen that needle spin counter-clockwise so fast before! I'd never heard my instructor shout so much either but soon grew accustomed to both as, one lesson at a time, I pushed at the structural limits of that poor Warrior.

Meanwhile back at Big Time, I was plodding through the boring necessities of my training. There were dozens of Letters of Agreement to learn, frequencies and landlines to memorize, airfield diagrams and airway charts to draw and, well, you know the drill. Part of my day was also set aside for OJT. These brief respites from the academic environment provided an opportunity for my instructors to hit me where it really hurt; right in my fat but frangible ego. One of them was a guy who had actually flown fighter escort for American bombers over Nazi Germany. So, he had no qualms about shooting me down for not having the right answers or making one too many stupid moves with his traffic.

After my shift, I would go home, grab a beer and study such things as wake turbulence separation and the tower's responsibilities during a radar outage. Then I'd grab another beer and ponder the fine art of holding pattern entry over a non-directional beacon. Oh, the many "teardrops." This went on for months as my brain slowly shifted out of weight and balance from an overload of information. Then one day my flight instructor suggested I was ready for my instrument check-ride. Too dumb to disagree, I allowed him to set the date.

The check-ride began reasonably well and soon we were tooling along a nearby victor airway toward our destination. At about sixty miles out, the flight examiner said he wanted me to request an ILS approach. He also told me I could either opt for the full procedure from the Initial Approach Fix or request vectors to the final. My first mistake was just a frequency change away.

After checking in with Approach I asked for vectors to the ILS; thinking this would be much easier than messing with all those VOR radials and intersections. The controller assigned us a heading off the airway and onto what I imagined was a long base leg to the localizer. Then came the turn to final . . . and a late turn it was! We crossed the final, right to left, before I was even half-way to the assigned heading. Now left of course, I swung that Piper back to the right but it was waaay too late to save this approach. Crossing the localizer again, I turned left to chase the needle. For the next minute or so I nearly made the two of us seasick trying to find the final approach course. The glide slope? Who knows where the hell that went.

By the time we got to minimums, the examiner had a look like Mt. Rushmore. He managed to say I could cancel the IFR and head home. On landing he told me to come back in a few weeks to try again.

I learned a lot that day. No excuses. I should have gone for a missed approach immediately upon recognizing how unstable the situation had become. Perhaps I should have tried again rather than attempting to make the most of a bad situation. I would go on to see many unstable situations in my career. Sometimes a bad turn can put people too far left or right of where they need to be. Never miss the chance to start over; maybe with a new approach.

© NLA Factor, 2010

I Didn't Know at The Time, But . . .

Every weekend, squadrons of ill informed and marginally proficient private pilots were marched past the little Flight Service Station. Their aeroplanes, specially fitted with flea market radios and failing transponders, awaited them. Soon they would lift off and disperse into marginally VFR skies for an afternoon of tormenting the air traffic controllers.

© NLA Factor, 2010