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

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