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

1 comment:

getjets said...

Amen......Mr Factor.......♠