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

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