Learning To Draw The Line

I had a big mess on my hands. It was only 6:15 on a sunny Myrtle Beach morning yet somehow I had become overrun with airplanes. This was normally the time during a mid-shift, when I'd be making a fresh pot of coffee for the incoming day crew, counting up the night's traffic and doing a little cleanup. Instead, I was holding a microphone and staring out at the runway with a look of complete bewilderment. If you could follow my gaze you'd immediately understand the situation. Out on the airfield and up in the traffic pattern was the specter of chaos.

It all began about thirty minutes earlier. Reclining on a chair, feet up on the console; I looked out over a quiet ramp and runway. The only thing moving was the Base Operations vehicle making a morning airfield inspection. Tired, I was well into planning what I'd do once I was relieved. A little breakfast at the mess hall sounded good. Maybe some pancakes. I was just getting to the part where I'd be back at the barracks sleeping when a call came in on the Local Control frequency. My feet hit the floor as I reached for a microphone.

It had to be an emergency. The entire Wing was still parked on the ramp and we never got any itinerant traffic this early in the day. "Calling Tower, say again?"

The reply was from "Cabot One-One." It was a flight of four Navy T-28 Trojans on their way up the coast from Jacksonville, Florida. On a VFR training mission, they wanted to enter the 360 overhead traffic pattern for some touch and goes. This sounded like a great way to keep me awake for a while so I reeled off all the necessary numbers and asked them to report initial. I saw them about five minutes later, out over the ocean at 1,400 feet and lining up with the runway.

The flight leader advised they'd be splitting into individual elements (Cabot One-One through One-Four) after this approach and would stay in the bounce pattern for several touch and goes. Music to the ears! I was newly certified in the tower so a little practice would be good for all of us. The flight went into the break and one-by-one did their first touch and go. In a few minutes, the four of them were nicely spread out on a right downwind and the first Trojan started his turn to base leg. That was about when I got another unexpected call.

This one was from "Cabot Two-One; another flight of four. They were also on the way up from JAX and wanted individual touch and goes. By now, Cabot One-One was over the runway. Cabot One-Two turned base while One-Three and One-Four were still on downwind.
I instructed the Cabot Two-One flight to report initial, figuring I'd shuffle them into the touch and go pattern between elements of the Cabot One-One flight. My plan worked well. As each member of the "Two-One" flight made their left break and descended toward a base turn, I exchanged traffic with the other flight of four who were in a right-hand pattern. Everyone had their traffic in sight and would follow. My plan was simple, effective, yet terribly flawed by a few small but growing problems. The first being the fact that all eight of these airplanes looked alike. White, with an orange nose and tail, it was impossible to differentiate one from another. It would soon be like playing Billiards with only cue balls ~ by trying to memorize their positions in the rack before the break.

Then there was the tactical callsign issue. Except for some very subtle differences in the numbers, they were all identical. Finally, the pilots were mostly all students in a relatively early phase of training. Their experience levels were nearly as low as my own. These little problems combined to form a very big one soon after each aircraft had completed its first touch and go. Fighting to keep the picture; I was pretty sure the aircraft turning base was Cabot Two-Three. The T-28 just lifting off the runway was Cabot Two-Four and the one on short final was Cabot One-Two. The rest were still on the downwind. I'd be able to verify who they were when they reported turning base.

Then a call came from ten miles southwest of the airport. It was, of course, Cabot Three-One; yet another flight of four clones looking for touch and goes. By now, one or two of the students in the pattern were using the wrong numbers and immediately correcting themselves. Not to be outdone, I began transposing two-ones and one-twos. Confusion spread through the traffic pattern by the numbers.

Cabot Three-One flight checked in on a long initial.

Every air traffic controller has their occasional moments of pain. This one was becoming more painful than trying to shave with toenail clippers. By the time Cabot Three-One flight began mixing in with all the others, it was a bloody mess.

Naturally, the first day-shift person to arrive was a breathless Tech Sergeant, who immediately gave me that "What the hell?" kind of look. He heard the droning of several piston-powered airplanes from the parking lot and had sprinted up the tower steps. The sky was full of little white airplanes with orange noses and I was feeling dizzy. The Local Control frequency squealed and squawked as everyone tried to report something or other simultaneously.

It was right about then that Cabot One-One advised they'd be departing the area and heading back to Navy JAX. As his flight left the traffic pattern, "Thanks Tower" was all he said. Was that a chuckle I heard? Oh yeah. Score one for the Navy.

Cabot Two-One flight immediately followed suit. That left just four Trojans in the pattern. I handed my microphone to the Sergeant. Having long since changed my post-shift plan from breakfast and bed to a bar and beer; I too departed the area.

Exceeding the limits of my capability was an easy thing to do that morning. I was too inexperienced to know where my limits were. It was probably my first lesson in learning to draw the line that falls between just enough and too much ~ a lesson I would occasionally forget over time.

© NLA Factor, 2010


Information Romeo

No.....I have no idea who she is but she just started an ATIS broadcast with "All you sons-of-bitches up there who never called me the next day better listen up!"

I think you'd better get right up here now!

© NLA Factor, 2010


Its About The People

Most of my air traffic career was spent working at airports. From one tower or another; I could watch military flight crews striding across the ramp toward their warplanes, briefcase toting road warriors lined up to board commuter flights or even the occasional flight instructor and student boarding a Piper Warrior. There was a bond of trust between us all that would exist until they left my jurisdiction and would renew when they returned. The importance of this bond was somehow underscored by having actually seen my aviation partners. It was akin to the handshake that seals a deal.

Having the opportunity to see airplanes each day; along with pilots, mechanics, tug drivers, maintenance workers and all others who are moving parts in the great airport machine, gave deeper meaning to my role in it all. By far, the most influential parts of an airport are the passengers, those who come to greet them and those who come to say goodbye. Our profession is big but it all narrows down to one fine point. That point is the people. They were always the lens that brought everything I did into focus.

At Big Time, the tower and TRACON were close enough that we controllers could walk through the terminal building during our meal breaks. It was a veritable collage of society, sounds and emotions. Many of our societal elements were there; from the large group of screaming kids off on a school trip to the small covey of nuns staring quietly at a changing list of arrivals and gate assignments. Laughter drowned out by the public address system or farewell hugs interrupted by final boarding calls ~ it was all there. And outside the terminal building's tall windows was a web of taxiways leading to runways that pointed to the rest of the world. To me, it all represented the core value in what I did for a living.

To this day, Big Time Airport remains a megalopolis of ramps, runways, terminals and taxiways. Yet somewhere out there; beyond all the Federal Aviation Regulations, Air Traffic Control Procedures, Letters of Agreement, computer systems, communications networks and emerging technologies you can still find the basics ~ like a windsock swaying in the breeze or a rotating beacon scanning the night skies. On Saturday afternoons you may find a group of plane spotters parked along the airport's perimeter road. Inside the terminal buildings, people still wait for friends and relatives to arrive. Others scramble to find a window where they can watch a loved one's flight take off.

As evolving and sophisticated as the aviation system is these days, it remains unchanged in many ways and surprisingly simple. As it was from the very beginning, flight is a personal experience. You can verify this by visiting any airport and watching the people.

© NLA Factor, 2010


The First Time

Its a place we rarely think about and are even less inclined to forget. Most of us have been there at one time or another in our lives. If you are a controller, its likely you've been there much more frequently.

Maybe it was the first time you leapt off the far end of a high diving board or lifted off a runway without your instructor. I once had a neighbor who was a Cardiac Surgeon. For him it was the first time he held a living human heart in his hand. If you're like me; this one was an experience both dreaded and eagerly anticipated. In retrospect, it was simultaneously one of the toughest and easiest times I ever spent.

I'm talking about those great leaps of faith we take in ourselves. Unsure whether we can do it but dead certain that we must; we seek empirical proof of our ability. There's only one way to get it. Restore the human heart you're holding to health and put it back where it belongs. Take to the sky on your first solo flight and land safely. Or perhaps plug a headset into the sky and use your skills to ensure that everyone under your aegis lands safely.

With the check-ride behind me; today would be another of those first time experiences. I would work the Final Control sector sans the safety net of my instructor. A day would dawn when I'd become blasé about working this or any other Big Time radar sector ~ not necessarily a good thing. But I wasn't there just yet. Today I was appropriately apprehensive.

Walking across the TRACON, I could see it wasn't going to be easy. My head was filled with every mistake I'd made, every word written on my training reports and every insight my instructors had given me ~ once they calmed down. "What's past is prologue." History repeats itself and influences the present. If William Shakespeare was right; I could be in for trouble. I attempted to brush these thoughts aside but it wasn't going well.

Completely absorbed in their traffic, teammates working other radar positions didn't even notice as I passed by. The controller I was asked to relieve was just ahead. She too was so immersed in her work that I went completely unnoticed until I plugged in. With a quick glance over her shoulder; "Hey" was all she said. Turning back to her traffic for a few more vectors and an approach clearance, she gave me time to take it all in.

The localizer was loaded ~ from the runway threshold to the far reaches of the sector, nearly twenty-five miles away. Both the left and right downwind legs were full of airplanes and the approach guys had a lot more coming. I had hoped my first time would be in decent VFR weather conditions. I had hoped the traffic volume wouldn't be too heavy. I had also hoped I wouldn't feel like throwing up. Strike three.

Claire pressed the position relief button and I heard her voice in my headset. "Oh boy!" she exclaimed. Then, in obvious reference to it being my opening performance as a solo act on the position, she added; "My first virgin!" This evoked a nervous chuckle. Claire was the only woman on our team at the time and one of just two working at Big Time Tower. Tough and at the top of her game, she held her own in the Frat House atmosphere that was Big Time in the Seventies. "Okay, here's what's happening..." As she started the briefing I watched her traffic; thinking about what needed to be done next. I already knew the weather was crap and that we were landing on one runway only. What I did not know was that the tower needed five miles between arrivals in order to get a lot of departures out.

So many things hinged on the final controller at Big Time. Running the traffic with too much space between would back the arrival sectors into a holding situation. Running things too tight meant the tower wouldn't be able to get a departure off between each arrival. "One for one." as we'd say. Either way; the Final sector could trigger delays and make a lot of people angrier than an air carrier pilot on his third go-around.

Claire pointed at two data blocks on downwind; small turboprop commuter flights. "You'll need to build a big hole for these guys...they're slower than hell." I followed her index finger around the sector as she described her plan and suggested mine. By now I was high on epinephrine and actually anxious to take the sector. Claire finished up her briefing with; "Have fun!" She meant it too.

With that, I was on my own. Like my first solo flight, taking off was the easy part. Now it was entirely up to me to get all this traffic around the pattern and down onto the runway. I wasn't exactly holding a live human heart but there were a lot of people out there among those tiny radar targets. In the way an air traffic controller does; I was holding each of their lives in my hands. Claire lingered for a few moments; watching and listening. Already bent to the task, I never noticed her leave.

Once I had made enough of my own decisions and issued enough instructions to actually become a part of the picture, I had no time left to be nervous. Minutes passed quickly and in an hour or so I was relieved. It hadn't been pretty. Finesse takes time. Accordingly, my work at this sector wouldn't get "pretty" for several months. It was safe though and nobody was delayed. All in all ~ pretty good for the first time.

© NLA Factor, 2010


Great Balls Of Fire!

Anybody know what Jerry Lee Lewis did for a living 

before his career in Rock and Roll umm....took off?


Desolation Tower

It was Spring of 1968. The Air Force had summarily plucked me from my idyllic stateside assignment and transferred me to the control tower at Desolation Air Base; an obscure address in one of the Universe's least understood Zip Codes. I'll call it The Republic of Desolia. It was a country carved out of nothing by wind-driven things that stuck in your eyes and stunk in your nostrils. Although our military must have had some peculiar interests in Desolia, they were never evident to me.

I was to spend the last half of my Air Force career here, along with hundreds of other bewildered airmen. I should have gone to Vietnam and fully expected to. Back then, everybody was going to Vietnam. But the day my stateside boss came up the tower steps with my new orders, he had an uncharacteristic smirk on his face. "Airman, you're going to Desolation Air Base. That's over in The Republic of Desolia. Its even worse than Vietnam! They don't shoot at you there but you'll wish they did!" He added dryly; "At least then you could shoot back."

I suspect he was just pissed because I was the only one in the tower not going to Southeast Asia. Apathetic to the whole idea, I sold my car, packed my duffel bag and shipped out.

The control tower stood somewhere in the lower left hand corner of Desolation Air Base; near a wide and aged expanse of acutely cracked and tilted concrete. The locals proudly referred to this area as the itinerant parking ramp. Airplanes were rarely seen on this particular "ramp" but every now and then, like crickets in the night, faint ELT signals could be heard on the guard channels. My theory was that several parked aircraft had long since rolled off into the ramp's gaping chasms, where they were quickly forgotten - buried under the rapid accumulation of dust and debris indigenous to this part of the world. This theory was buttressed whenever American flights landed at Desolation. They always parked on a distant taxiway rather than risk the perilous consequences of ramp parking. I should note that American aircraft rarely landed here. Having fled the traffic pattern in alarm and confusion, most American flight crews would rather have landed into the side of a mountain than to suffer the uncertain fate meted out by Desolation's air traffic control.

Air traffic control. You know...there are functioning mechanisms out there that make Rube Goldberg's most elegant and ingenious inventions look like a pile of cinder blocks. On encountering one such unlikely combination of illogically assembled parts ~ I had to wonder. How can it possibly work? Through the years I learned that, in some cases, it simply doesn't. Such was the inexplicable air traffic control mechanism known as Desolation Tower; which was, to the naked eye, merely a loose assemblage of cinder blocks. But it was so much more than that.

Imagine a control tower with two local control positions. Oh, there's nothing too uncommon about that ~ but now imagine the two local controllers operating simultaneously and in different languages. Same scenario with the two ground and non-radar approach control positions; each pair running on their own language and sounding like pure gibberish to the other. The only shared assets would be the traffic pattern, the single runway and a few meandering taxiways. It was in these shared spaces where everything came together ~ literally.

There was one additional shared asset; the services of Mr. Fye. Whatever occurred in and around the tower often depended on or could be attributed to this man. You see, Desolation Tower was staffed by both American and Desolian Air Force controllers. It was actually two towers in one. Divided down the middle, each side was a mirror image of the other. Desolia's Air Force controllers worked their own planes on their own frequencies and we did the same from our side. The success of this arrangement depended solely on our Desolian interpreter; Mr. Fye, who sat in the middle of the cab.

Fye would sweat continuously. This may have been due to his incredible corpulence, the inoperative floor fan or perhaps the anxieties of someone in touch with their acute incompetence. He combed his hair like Elvis and complained incessantly about the women in his life. Apparently they were all competing for his affections and conspiring to take his money. As he sat, expounding on his misfortunes, we could hear the Desolian controllers chattering frantically at their traffic.

As it turned out, Desolation Air Base was a training facility for their Air Force's student pilots. There must have been a hundred F-84 Thunderstreaks stationed there. They'd taxi out by the score each day, then fly off to run inadvertent sorties against our itinerant arrivals and departures.

In time, our side of the tower learned to recognize the signs of imminent trouble. Mr. Fye would stop talking about his personal woes, turn his head toward the Desolian controllers and actually listen. I could hear the urgent sounding chatter on their tower frequency. His face would flush. Then he'd point toward a window, waving his hand vigorously ~ like he was trying to shake a scorpion off his index finger. "They're coming!" he'd exclaim. "A flight of four ~ ten miles out on the beacon (NDB) approach!" Okay, no problem. I had a C-130 ready to depart. There'd be plenty of time.

I cleared the Hercules for takeoff. The airplane rolled onto the runway and surged forward. I searched the final approach area for that flight of four. Not in sight. Life was good for a change. The C-130 was now airborne and climbing through 500 feet. I looked again. Still no sign of those F-84s. Great.

Suddenly Fye began yelling at the Desolian controllers in their native tongue. He was waving his right hand furiously. Then the C-130 pilot was yelling; "Where'd these fighters come from???" I looked in the direction where Fye was pointing. There was the flight of four ~ approaching the airport on a course perpendicular to the runway and about to intercept the Herc from its left. The aircraft's nose came down as the pilot arrested his climb. Just in time. Those F-84s passed directly over him by about 100 feet.

Actually out of his chair by now, Fye looked like he'd just tried to swallow an artichoke. Red faced, he was sputtering and waving both arms over his head. The Desolian controllers sounded angry but we had no idea what they were shouting about. The C-130 pilot sounded angry. My Sergeant sounded angry. He was hollering at Fye. The Hercules resumed its climb and was disappearing into the haze. Before it vanished the pilot said he'd be calling our commanding officer as soon as he got to his destination. Mr. Fye never said another word for the rest of the shift.

I came to work the next day expecting to hear that Mr. Fye was either dead or dying. Much to my surprise, he was seated at his post in the center of the tower cab. A dozen Thunderstreaks were on their way out to the runway and several more were moving on their ramp. I noted three arrival strips on our console as I listened to Fye grousing about his new girlfriend to another airman. She'd taken the keys to his car and refused to give them back until...

The Desolian Local Control frequency blared away behind him. It was so loud that Fye had to raise his voice to be heard. The first of our Air Force inbounds, a C-141, called on the approach frequency. He was over some fix at some altitude and needed a descent clearance ~ so I needed traffic information from Fye. Meanwhile, the F-84's were taking off in pairs and turning in every direction the compass had to offer. Already sweating copiously, Fye fanned himself with his morning paper and blabbered on. Another action-packed day was underway at Desolation Tower.

© NLA Factor, 2010


Pyrrhic Victory

Ed was actually threatening to kill me - or worse. It was a red faced, white knuckled threat and I might have taken it more seriously if I didn't know Ed so well. I was on my way to work, an evening shift at Big Time Tower, and had just arrived at our parking lot entrance. I stopped at the security gate to swipe my badge and enter the code. There stood Ed, glaring at me through the window. His eyes, well past their flash point, were now in a full burn. His voice sounded high pitched and strained; like an animal caught in a trap which, in a sense, he was. His breath, as he leaned on my car door, was unavoidable...and smelled of beer.

Behind Ed, crowded together like a bunch of red carnival balloons, were a dozen other faces I recognized. Most of the guys had been friends, trusted coworkers and confidants. I knew their wives and their girlfriends. I knew how much they could drink before they fell and how much pressure they could take before they cracked. But now they were all clutching signs, chanting and punching at the sky with clenched fists. It was the very same sky wherein they had once plied their trade. The sky no longer their limit; things were different now.

It was a Summer hot, sooty and stinking airport afternoon in late September of '81. The air smelled of bus exhaust and jet fuel as a B727 swung low over the lot, landing gear extended, on a visual approach to one of the runways. The Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization – PATCO – in what may have been one of the worst miscalculations in the history of organized labor, had, on August 3rd, lead nearly 13,000 of its members off the job and up the gallows steps; even helping them with their nooses. Then, standing together defiantly, they waited for President Ronald Reagan to pull the lever.

Reagan was pissed. He saw the strike as an illegal act. Whether it was or not is, to this day, a subject of debate. If nothing else, it was to default on the oath we all swore to when we signed onto the job. That was enough for me.

It was also a threat to public safety and an already fragile economy. Reagan wanted to fire the strikers immediately but was convinced to give them 48 hours in which to return to work. Good advice. About 1200 came back under the deadline. The rest who walked out the door were never to be allowed back in again.

Annoyed, I reached around Ed to swipe my badge. Two local Police officers leaning on the hood of their nearby cruiser watched indifferently as I pushed on the keypad. Since the strike, both police and angry strikers were regular fixtures at the entrance to our parking lot. The police would only sit and watch unless things seemed to be getting out of control. Things occasionally did get out of control but not at our parking lot.

The gate opened and I went to work. It was going to be another exhausting night.

When PATCO struck on August 3rd, the rest of us, supervisors, staff members and a few non-striking controllers were immediately thrown into an adrenaline fueled rush through extended shifts and expanded work weeks. It was a test of endurance. Some guys eventually stopped going home after each shift because it wasn’t worth the long drive for such a short time there. They brought bedrolls to work and slept in the break room. Nobody complained though. This was some kind of war over the air traffic system and we were just as committed to keeping it moving as those in opposition were to shutting it down.

FAA’s strike contingency plan kicked in smoothly. There was an immediate 50 percent reduction in airline schedules during peak periods, tight control over corporate and general aviation traffic and reduced military activity. Within a week after the strike, several military controllers arrived at Big Time. They brought with them an eagerness to work, a zeal for the cause and a level of commitment to win that matched our own. On their heels came a few airline pilots who had been furloughed from their jobs due to the strike. These were not happy guys but, with their in-depth knowledge of the aviation system, they were soon able to help us by performing flight data functions or clearance delivery. Forced out of their well compensated careers, they too harbored the same "take no prisoners" attitude that got the rest of us through each day. Since I was a training specialist, I was temporarily removed from shift rotation and returned to the training department to start giving these people the basics they'd need to begin their tower and TRACON training. Between classes, I’d go back to the control rooms to help provide meal breaks. People were growing fatigued but no less motivated.

Meanwhile, out on the street - In hope of gaining negotiating leverage, PATCO held news conferences and tried frightening the public by predicting chaos in the sky. “Aluminum showers,” (the popular “insider” euphemism for midair collisions) and other mishaps would soon happen due to the unqualified and inexperienced workforce. To the union’s chagrin, such things never occurred. Almost perhaps - but not quite. Reports of intimidation and interference with the system by strikers began coming in from across the country as PATCO grew more desperate. The FAA refused to negotiate with the union as long as the strike continued.

At Big Time, threats and intimidation were nearly routine. Controllers reported being followed home after evening shifts. The purpose? Just so you knew that they knew where you lived. Spouses sometimes received anonymous late night phone calls and were told things like "We know where your kids go to school." It was all part of the game and not taken too seriously. However, the game was taken to a much higher level at other locations. We were advised to be alert for "phantom controllers."

This game needed only one unemployed and irrationally committed controller with nothing more than a portable, aviation band transceiver and a decent view of the airport. With just one well timed transmission on the tower frequency; an aircraft could, for example, be instructed to "Go around" or "Cancel takeoff clearance." Depending on what else was happening at the time, the result could be anything from a costly inconvenience to a catastrophe. Their brief but effective work done, the phantom controller would simply vanish...till the next time.

Inside the tower, time passed quickly. Within weeks we were providing on-the-job training to the pilots and military controllers and they were becoming qualified on more and more positions of operation. Eventually, most of the military folks became certified on all tower and TRACON positions. It helped a lot - keeping in mind they were only on loan to us and that new FAA recruits were still many months away. Still...traffic volume grew back to and beyond pre-strike levels at an alarming rate. Everyone was getting tired but their determination never diminished. In fact; each trip though the parking lot picket lines, being mocked, threatened and cursed at, seemed to energize an otherwise flagging workforce.

In time, the picket lines gradually dissipated and the system came back together. Soon the traffic volume was higher than ever and, unlike our workforce, was growing steadily. Like many others; I was exhausted, burning out and in need of a change of pace. Every now and then we'd get updates on what some of our former coworkers were now doing. One had become an auto parts salesman. One was working for a roofing company. I never heard what became of the rest but I missed them. I missed them all. I suppose we had won the war but, in many ways, it was a pyrrhic victory. Much was lost. Good friends, actually lost well ahead of the strike, were now gone without a trace. Missing along with them was their irreplaceable depth of experience. The drive for victory had left my personal life in turmoil and ironically, most of the FAA's pre-strike problems remained.

So Ed wanted to kill me. Had I known on that hot September afternoon in 1981 what I would know a few all consuming years later; I might have told him not to bother – I’d probably end up doing it myself.

© NLA Factor, 2010


Does Size Matter?

How big can a combined tower/TRACON facility grow before becoming too big for its controllers to handle? In an arena where the players are always presumed to be at the top of their game; how many control positions can someone reasonably be expected to maintain proficiency on without a decline in performance? Rhetorical questions, of course, to which I have no answers. But I thought about them a lot during my FAA years.Consider a TRACON with several busy radar sectors; some that change size, shape and complexity according to the primary airport's landing direction. To that, add an entirely different set of skills needed to handle the various tower positions. Throw in a steady upturn in the daily traffic count. Shake well and let stand for a year or so. Sooner or later, someone will suggest adding one or more new control positions to better distribute the workload; a short term solution with long term limitations. You end up with even more positions to stay current and proficient on. In time, another sector or tower position may be needed. What then? Something's got to give. With luck, it'll just be a dip in the quality of anticipated service but there are obvious "worse case scenarios."

Would splitting the facility so that controllers worked exclusively in either the tower or TRACON help? How about excising the TRACON from your facility altogether and consolidating it with other approach controls elsewhere? More short sighted solutions with long term limitations? I'll talk about that some other time. For now though, I'd better stay with what I started before I confuse myself.Let me set the "Wayback Machine" to 1966, when I began my military air traffic control career. I was assigned to the control tower at Oceanside Air Force Base. It was the only place I worked. I drove across the base each day, parked in front of the Operations building, climbed the tower steps and signed on. Others in my barracks worked in the RAPCON or 'Radar Approach Control.' It was the only place they worked. The radar troops queued up at Base Operations too, but only to catch another ride. The RAPCON was located on the other side of the airport, adjacent to the runway and only accessible by Air Force van.

In my time at Oceanside, I grew comfortable with tower operations. There were only three operating positions; Flight Data/Clearance Delivery, Ground Control and Local Control. In a one-runway operation, things were pretty straight forward. I learned the necessary skills and performed them every day. With only three positions to work, maintaining proficiency was never a problem.

It was pretty much the same when I was transferred overseas. The base sported both a control tower and a mobile radar unit called a GCA (Ground Controlled Approach). The GCA was located in the middle of the airfield and controllers rode an Air Force van to get there. Since I had stateside tower experience, I was assigned to the tower here. With four operating positions, including a non-radar approach control, tower operations were vastly more complex than at Oceanside beach, Still, I was in my element and able to become certified much quicker than if they'd assigned me to the GCA unit. Even with four tower positions, staying proficient was not a problem here either. So I sharpened my skills, grew increasingly comfortable in the tower environment and daydreamed that one day I'd go to work for the FAA. That dream became a reality in 1974.

On arrival at Big Time I learned it was an "up and down" operation. That is to say controllers were required to certify through all tower and TRACON positions. Even though Big Time's Tower was far busier and more complex than anything I'd seen in the Air Force, there was a note of familiarity to it and I was able to draw heavily from my Air Force experience. That greatly facilitated my progress toward tower certification, which still took nearly a year.

The day I was tower certified, my supervisor congratulated me and said; "The hard part is over." He wasn't kidding but I couldn't take him seriously. Looking ahead at learning radar operations for the first time and having to check out on nine sectors plus the associated handoff positions seemed daunting. I wished I'd had even a little prior radar experience.

It was hard and often humbling work but I eventually did certify through the TRACON. That's when "the hard part" my supervisor had mentioned started all over again. The hard, nearly impossible part was in trying to stay proficient on all five tower positions. Once TRACON certified, a controller was rarely sent to the tower. If I was sent upstairs it was usually to work with a tower trainee for a couple of hours. After that, I'd be sent back down to the TRACON.

Supervisors, who had even less "hands-on" time in the tower than us journeymen, understood our situation. They'd usually try to send us upstairs for proficiency time when traffic was relatively light. If traffic was heavy and/or conditions bad; we were needed in the TRACON. Actually...tower-certified trainees were the best people to have upstairs when the place was rockin'. They worked in the tower every day and, in significant ways, were better at it than the journeymen.

You see; there is a rhythm to the tower - and any good tower controller knows how to keep time. Scanning the square miles of airfield, monitoring the arrival flows, assessing the departure lineup at each runway, deciding which ones can go immediately, positioning the airplanes, scanning again, seeing the most recent arrivals off the runway and clearing the next departures for takeoff, always scanning...looking for what needs to be done next. Miss a beat in the tower and you've probably missed an opportunity. Keep scanning. Someone could have departed or crossed an active runway or simply have been moved into position to hold. The whole thing makes sitting in front of a radar display almost seem claustrophobic.

After years of working mainly in the TRACON, there were few things more daunting than being sent to the tower during peak traffic periods. Having worked there only sporadically over the previous months and under relatively light demand, I could become overwhelmed quicker than you could say "Hold short!" This, of course, was great entertainment for the trainees who essentially lived in the tower. It was their home court. For me though, it was an away game. Minus the self-assurance and alacrity I once had up there, all I could do was muddle through safely; albeit sluggishly and sloppily. The tower operation was like finding my way around an unfamiliar city during rush hour. I still knew how to drive a car but kept missing the turns and getting lost. The rhythm of tower operations gone; my domain was now the radar room.

The reason for my weak tower performance was the same reason I gave up instrument flying. I had a hard time keeping up with the currency requirements and couldn't do enough instrument flying to feel comfortably proficient. I wisely gave it up before I killed myself. Of course...giving up the tower was not an option.

There are still plenty of "up and down" facilities across the country. From a controller's standpoint they're small enough to remain manageable yet large enough to provide consistently good service to the aviators. I'm sure there are other combined facilities that are taxing the capabilities of their staff every day. People ask; should they be expanded or somehow divided up?

Big Time was nearing a tipping point. Traffic was on the rise. Those who owned and operated the airport were planning to construct another runway. There was talk among Big Time's staff about adding tower and radar positions. Most of us were just trying to keep up with what we already had. To be sure, size matters. Would Big Time be too big to fail...or was it becoming too big not to? And how do you measure success or failure in an ATC facility? That can be a pretty subjective process, depending on where you sit. As a controller, I wanted to feel good about my performance, no matter what position I was assigned to. If I couldn't, if my coworkers couldn't; that had to qualify as a sign the facility was failing.

© NLA Factor, 2010


Overtime - Over Time

Overtime! Who could resist the allure of getting more money for less time off?

There's no way to sugar coat it. I never liked working overtime. It wasn't just because it stole much of my leisure and robbed me of the time needed to finish a few six-packs. Important as indolence and beer were, there was a lot more to my overtime aversion than that. The five regularly scheduled shifts were usually bad enough but tacking on that sixth day was more painful than putting out a toenail fire with a hammer. Oh I couldn't complain about the extra cash but it was scant compensation for what I went through to earn it.

At Big Time Tower, the difficulty of an overtime shift depended partly on who was in charge. Some supervisors had the crazy idea that a controller on overtime should get relatively easy duty. After all; it was their sixth day on the job. Under this doctrine, I could expect to be assigned menial TRACON duties such as strip stuffing - or even be sent to the tower. There, I'd invoke the gods of gridlock on Ground Control until the supervisor came to his senses. Then I'd quickly be shuffled over to work Clearance Delivery and update the ATIS broadcasts for the remainder of the shift. You've gotta love it when a plan comes together.

Other supervisors shared more practical views on overtime. Their belief was that, since I was making more money than anyone else on duty, I should do the heavy lifting. This often meant working combined positions so that more members of the 'home team' could go to the break room. Or perhaps they'd have me work with their most maladroit and erratic trainee until I was as short on patience as he was on skills. No matter what fiendish plans they had in store, I knew I'd finish the shift with an attitude any axe murderer would be proud to call his own.

But supervisors weren't the only factors to influence the size of my overtime headache. Back in those days, Big Time ran on a three-team schedule. Each team had its own personality and annoying idiosyncrasies. One team, we'll call them the "Law Abiding Citizens," would embrace local and national directives as though they were an addendum to the Ten Commandments. If you practiced a more pragmatic credo toward working airplanes, you'd be in trouble with this team. Standard operating procedures were the safety rails that kept them from falling out of their cribs. Step out of line and they'd look at you incredulously and ask; "What are you doing???" Or they'd sneer and say; "We don't operate like that on our watch." I'd go home from a shift with these guys feeling like I'd just spent eight hours with an IRS auditor.

Another team, the "Carefree Crew," would be known for its free-wheeling style. As long as the pilots didn't squawk or scream and the controllers could keep track of what was going on; all options were on the table. If you came from the "Law Abiding" team, you might be in for eight hours of terror with these guys. Sector boundaries were like the dashed lines in a passing zone. Free-wheelers generally stayed in their lanes unless they saw a way to speed things up by using yours. Oh you'd eventually get a pointout; just so you wouldn't feel totally excluded from the fun. If I made it through the shift without soiling myself, I'd rush home feeling like the clay pigeon that somehow managed to dodge several rounds of buckshot.

Then there was the "Timid Team." They always crept through their shift like cats in a kennel; wary of surprises and uncertain in their approach to handling them. I suspect some of those guys would actually have fallen down stairs or off a cliff in slow motion. And just as over-winding a clock won't make it run any faster, pent up air traffic demand wouldn't make the Timids pick up their pace.

The slightest deviation from the norm would upset the delicate balance of things; sending everyone into a hybridized version of the other two teams. They'd work by the book until the book didn't seem to be working anymore, then improvise frantically until everyone (especially me) lost the picture. At that point; everything would stop until they regained their footing and were able to return to a "book" operation. After eight hours with this team I just felt like breaking something. Maybe I did break something.

No...I never liked working overtime. Over time, the added shifts incrementally attenuated what was already my frail grip on acceptable behavior. If only I had the self discipline to save all the extra lucre earned, I might have been able to afford the psychiatric help that working overtime left me in need of. Oh well.

© NLA Factor, 2010