3/13/10

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

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