The Martinet

Pronunciation: \ˌmär-tə-ˈnet\
Function: noun
Etymology: Jean Martinet, 17th century French army officer
Date: 1737
1. a strict disciplinarian.
2. a person who stresses a rigid adherence to the details of forms and methods.

I knew this guy. Between the crest of his garrison cap and the soles of his spit-shined shoes stood a man who's mind was heavily laden with the laws of military life. He didn't walk ~ he marched. He didn't stand at ease ~ he stood at attention. He didn't discuss ~ he commanded.

He wasn't in touch with reality ~ he denied it.

August of '81 brought a kind of military surge to the airport. Lets just say it marked the beginning of our Fall offensive. Dozens of controllers from the Navy and Air Force were rushed into Big Time Tower after the PATCO strike, where they immediately found themselves in hostile territory. Their mission was to help us fight an adversary they couldn't have even imagined when they enlisted. We were glad to see them. Reinforcements are always welcome when the battlements are being stormed and the battering ram is knocking at the door.

Even on a good day, Big Time Tower was a combat zone of fast-flying projectiles, bold battlefield maneuvers and well hidden land mines. But these were not good days. With two thirds of our forces on AWOL and the remaining troops suffering from shell shock, there was talk of a retreat. That's when the military arrived.

Most were sent in from bases around the Country that, in terms of air traffic, saw little activity. Nearly all were just kids in their early twenties, low in rank and light on experience. They were accustomed to the hierarchy of military air traffic control; where controllers are enlisted grade and all pilots are officers. This was an overriding factor whenever professional disputes came up between a military pilot and, say, an Airman First Class. The controller usually deferred to the pilot. It was a powerful mindset among these controllers that would be absolutely necessary to change if they were to survive and succeed in their new environment. They were also astonished by a volume of traffic heretofore unheard of in their military world. They'd have to get over that as well.

Of all the quirks and qualities they brought to Big Time, the most important were their high spirits and eagerness to help. That was enough for us. We put them right to work in the Training Department ~ learning everything they would need to begin on-the-job training. They'd come to class in uniform, study hard and were anxious to work airplanes. Polite and respectful; if you happened to run into one, they would greet you as "sir" or "Ma'am." Accustomed as I was to being addressed in mostly disparaging terms, "sir" was a little disorienting. Such formality would quickly dissipate once they started working in the "Fight Club" control rooms of Big Time ~ unless The Martinet had his way.

Lieutenant Swift arrived at Big Time a few weeks behind the other military controllers. As the only officer in the bunch, he became their surrogate commander in lieu of whoever they would report to back at their home base. Unhappy with what he perceived as a total breakdown of military discipline and protocol, he began taking immediate steps to restore order. This involved checking the troops daily to ensure proper attire and yelling at them for any infractions. They were already being yelled at twice daily while traversing the picket lines with the rest of us at shift change. It made The Martinet's ranting all the more annoying.

Our military controllers were losing the spirit they'd arrived with and that's where The Martinet's utopian boot camp bullshit world conflicted with ours. The reality was that we needed a continuation of the momentum they'd built up before Swift appeared on the scene. Saluting might have been suitable and addressing Lieutenant Swift as "Sir" might have been seemly but we needed certifications more than ceremony.

In addition to bringing his spit and polish prospects to Big Time, his agenda also included checking out on a few radar positions. He made it very clear, however, that he saw no need to take the normally mandatory academics. That was something the inept enlistees might have needed but not an officer with an extensive background in military air traffic control. After much debate in the front offices, a decision was made to begin training Swift on the Final Control Sector. Since he purported to have radar experience (quantity and quality unknown) it was presumed that he could learn to vector aircraft onto an ILS with relative ease.

Several of us attempted to train him. The consensus was that he knew how to marshal his traffic into lines but there was a problem. He was not controlling a military marching band and everything was not moving at the same pace. Speed control was a concept he apparently never had to deal with. Perhaps it was a little used tool in the control of fighter jets. Unheeded instructor suggestions invariably lead to the loss of required spacing, unnecessary vectoring, late acceptance of additional handoffs and global turmoil in the TRACON.

His young wards who's rank was sewn to their sleeve rather than pinned to their collars would watch The Martinet do his daily battle with airplanes and instructors. I can only imagine how hard they must have bitten their tongues to suppress an otherwise audible snicker. Those of us working with him finally reached our breaking point. We petitioned the front office to arrange for a "Swift" departure; at least from the OJT process. His obvious failure to meet requirements on Final Control and the attending embarrassment caused him to become even more heavy handed with the enlisted troops; who, in turn, became even more demoralized. We needed all the help we could get and could have used Lieutenant Swift but, in this case, the cost was becoming far too high.

He lingered on at Big Time for several more weeks; barking and snapping at his subordinates like a rabid dog. His presence in the control rooms gratefully dwindled to an occasional visit. We eventually heard he was being summoned back to his home base due to mission requirements ~ or something. We weren't ready to believe he'd been involuntarily removed from Big Time ahead of the anarchy that was brewing within the ranks. It did seem odd though. He was the very first of our military allies to be called home and well ahead of the others. Just sayin'

I couldn't fault The Martinet for doing what he believed was the right thing. I worked under enough autocratic supervisors and managers to recognize the almost religious reverence they held for the written rule. It was the security blanket they wrapped their careers in. I could respect that. However, I could not respect arrogance, inflexibility and a stubborn unwillingness to recognize the extraordinary circumstances we were trying to cope with. Logic and compromise were key and the ability to bend a rule or few without breaking them was a survival skill.

There are many circumstances and applications befitting a Martinet. I don't believe an air traffic control facility is one of them. Like piloting an airplane; managing an air traffic operation requires, among other things, a light touch on the controls, close attention to attitude indicators and the willingness to change course when clearly necessary. In another venue, a military campaign perhaps, The Martinet's "rigid adherence" approach might have been the best tool for the task at hand. Not at Big Time Tower though and clearly not in August of '81 when rigid adherence to anything could lead to your undoing.

© NLA Factor, 2010


In The News

The last known photograph of Boomtown Barnstormers quarterback Sammy "Stretch" Wasserman (seated on the front edge of the trailer), was taken during the big victory parade, just moments before a fan along the route threw him a football. The pass was a little high and Sammy's attention span a little low.


A Quiet Sunday Morning

It was a sloppy setup. If there'd been a few more airplanes in the picture, I would have called it a bad setup. Two air carriers, a B-737 and an MD-80, on parallel courses, were headed toward an empty localizer on a 25 mile long left base leg. The Boeing was on the airport side of the formation and the MD-80 was at its two o'clock and five miles. Although the Boeing would turn final closer to the marker, the Md-80 was s couple of miles ahead. Both aircraft, level at 4000, were cloaked in a cloud layer that extended down to about 2000 feet. Two controllers had all sectors combined. It was a quiet Sunday morning at Small Time Tower.The arrival controller had taken the handoffs at different fixes; each about 45 miles from the runway. He assigned a couple of headings toward final and gave them pilot's discretion down to 4000. The sequence would surely become self-evident when they got closer to the airport ~ although they were running neck and neck all the way. A timely dash of speed control would have taken all the guesswork out, but no. They hurtled on with nose cones glowing. On the other side of the localizer; one lonely air carrier made its way along the downwind leg. Since it hadn't yet passed the airport, there was plenty of time to figure out who'd follow who. It looked like a possible three-way tie to me.

As the dayshift supervisor, I had just finished one of my periodic walking tours of the TRACON. Everything was accounted for. Three airplanes, two controllers, one supervisor and no problems. A countdown to disaster perhaps? Nah! It was a quiet Sunday morning.

I didn't like the approach controller's serendipitous sequencing strategy but he was an experienced enough guy. I knew he'd figure something out. I sat back down at the desk and began pondering Summer leave requests from my team members. Where the hell did I put that seniority list? Oh, I must have set it down on the TRACON Data position during my last walk-through. I got up and headed across the room. Passing the arrival controller again, I noticed the Boeing and Md-80 were now level at 3000, about four miles apart laterally and still in a staggered formation with the Boeing slightly behind. The localizer was only about ten miles ahead. That lone air carrier on the opposite downwind was now looking like the proverbial fly in the ointment. Something had to give but I knew the controller must have a plan by now.

He did. Instructions were murmured into a headset, the controller's voice was heard in the MD-80's cockpit and a plan was thereby set in motion. The plan was that the Boeing would be number one. The flight on the opposite side of the final had been given a speed reduction and would turn to follow. The MD-80 was assigned a right two-seventy for spacing and would be vectored back onto the base leg as number three in sequence. That was the plan. It was a bit extreme but that was because the controller let everyone get to a point where there was no room left for more subtle solutions.

I was back at the supe's desk when I heard the Conflict Alert alarm. Within seconds I was behind the arrival controller, leaning over his shoulder and gaping at his scope with incredulity. The MD-80 was well into a left turn and closing quickly on the Boeing. Since the MD had been a couple of miles ahead to begin with, it was practically turning into the other aircraft's nose as the two aircraft converged. The controller was transmitting excitedly but his words were just white noise. All I could hear was the Conflict Alert alarm which was nearly overridden by a loud ringing in my ears. Data blocks showed both aircraft level at 3000 as the radar targets merged.I stood, frozen in horror ~ unable to speak ~ unable, even, to exhale.You can rediscover an entire lifetime between two ticks of a second hand. A kid lying on the warm suburban sidewalk; watching a Super Constellation climbing away from some big city airport. Years later ~ boarding my first airplane at that same airport and taking off for a four-year hitch in the Air Force. I recalled every tale of aviation tragedy told by the old timers at Big Time Tower. I saw the mortally wounded PSA Flight 182 leaving a clear San Diego sky one September day in '78 ~ victim of a midair collision. All this and more was there between those two ticks ~ including a vision of the headline in tomorrow's newspaper. "Hundreds Killed As Two Airliners Collide"I was overcome by the sickness of paralyzing inability. Nothing could be done but wait and I couldn't even do that. Light-headed; I might have fainted but there was no time. Resigned to the situation, like someone strapped into an electric chair, I began wondering how the collision would appear on our radar. Would there be dozens of tiny targets? Would the wreckage hit a school? Would the Warden call with a last minute reprieve? Whatever the outcome, I knew the next second would represent a seminal moment in my journey. Hit or miss, this was a life changer.

The MD-80 was still in its left turn when, once again, we could discern two targets. The radio frequency was silent. Not a word came from either aircraft as they quietly headed off in nearly opposite directions. The controller issued a descent to the Boeing, then a turn to intercept the final approach course. The MD, now moving away from the airport, was given another turn. I told the controller to have the MD-80 crew telephone the TRACON when they got to the gate. I had him relieved, appointed a controller in charge then made a call to the Regional Office. Somewhere along the line I had to sit ~ so I could finish my heart attack without the risk of falling.

I asked the controller why he hadn't done something when the MD-80 began its left turn. His reply was that it all happened too quickly. There were, of course, a few ways to have mitigated the situation. It could even have been completely avoided if he'd put those two aircraft in-trail 30 miles from the airport. Water over the dam. By the time he realized what was happening it was too late. Thinking about the fact that I was seated at the supe's desk when this started only exacerbated my discomfiture. What the hell was I doing at the desk? Oh now I remember! It was a quiet Sunday morning.

The tape playback verified what the controller had reiterated several times. He'd decided the MD-80 would be number three in the sequence and, to make it work, assigned a right two-seventy for spacing. The pilot's response was vague and should have been questioned. Then the flight turned left. Why? It took a call from the Captain to understand. He'd missed the "right" and heard only the "two-seventy for spacing." This was understood to be the new heading. From where he was, the quickest way to two-seventy was a left turn. Unwilling to believe what I assured him was the controller's actual instruction, I invited him up to hear the tape. Astonishment ensued.

It wasn't even noon and I felt like I'd been inhaling paint fumes all morning. Sick and exhausted, I made log entries and filled out forms for the rest of the shift.

Supervising the TRACON was much different than the tower. Upstairs, I could see everything from the middle of the cab. I could hear each controller and keep a general idea of what was going on across their airport world. If needed, I was ready to help.The radar room was another story. Depending on the number of open sectors, there were as many separate worlds. Standing at a vacant scope and pushing "Quick-Look" buttons only revealed a part of what each sector was doing. I could get a much better idea by spending a little time behind each controller and listening. Even at that; I was seeing and hearing only part of a composite picture. At the supervisor's desk I was mostly uninformed and therefore pretty useless if trouble broke out. But who'd expect trouble to break out on a quiet Sunday morning?

© NLA Factor, 2010


The Go-Around

There are "so many people marching on the active runway" because that's the Base Parade Grounds! Now pull up you idiot!"



The bygone Superman was falling through the flight levels. Dropping out of the sky faster than a speeding bullet, he twisted and tumbled like an off-balance acrobat. The cape that once carried him aloft now fluttered and snapped in the wind as he plummeted toward a very hard landing. But this was the indomitable man of steel. What had gone wrong?

As it turned out, it wasn't Lex Luthor who laid him to rest or even the low spark of high-heeled boys. It was traffic though ~ lots of traffic. That and the sudden, shocking realization that he wasn't really more powerful than a locomotive.

For many years, Superman had worked as an air traffic controller at Big Time Tower. He pulled his shifts with a few other Supermen and Superwomen who arrived each day to perform their superhuman feats in the skies over Metropolis. Keeping those skies safe while saving people's time, money and occasionally even their lives was heroic work and Superman never shied away from the task. On the contrary, he espoused it. The challenge of bringing order to the chaos of modern air travel was what awakened him each morning and propelled him toward the airport each day.

Superman was always called upon to work the busiest positions and under the most difficult circumstances. You'd see him whenever there was inclement weather, inordinately heavy traffic, inoperative navaids and other system incapacities. Hunched over his radar scope; he curbed the chaos with unfailing confidence and flourish. It was an amazing thing to watch. Little did anyone know he was growing weaker with every passing day.

It was now late 1982. In Washington, the Vietnam War Memorial had been dedicated, the U.S. budget deficit reached more than $110 trillion and on December 1st, Michael Jackson released "Thriller." Over the months following PATCO's 1981 strike, Superman had sent his blue tights to the dry cleaners with increasing frequency. It wasn't always just for the perspiration rings either. Although the strike had faded into the back pages of a few aviation industry periodicals, its effects were still front page news at Big Time Tower. The picket lines were gone; as were most of the military controllers who had come to help us through the crisis. But airline schedules were expanding and Big Time's daily traffic count often exceeded pre-strike levels. Newly hired trainees and a few controllers from smaller towers trickled into the facility; taking that first step of their two to four year journey toward certification. Of the journeymen who'd stayed on through the strike, a few had recently transferred to the Regional Office or other, less busy places. No one could blame them but we resented it nonetheless.

Adding to the strain of long weeks and increasingly heavy traffic volume was having to provide on-the-job training several times a day. If you weren't punch-drunk enough after spending the first half of the shift on busy positions, another hour or two with an unnerved and intimidated trainee could knock you down for the count. But as the only path to a fully restored work force, training had to be done.

There was also a persistent rumor that fired controllers would soon be rehired and returned to their facilities. None of us truly believed it could happen but, since these were times of unbelievable events, we weren't ready to overlook the possibility. Just the thought of returning to those pre-strike levels of acrimony was demoralizing. Adding that to the escalating fatigue often caused controllers to exceed their limits. Maybe it was an attempt to prove we didn't need the strikers to help us rebuild the system.

These times called for Supermen and Superwomen. They appeared undaunted by the daily adversities and apparently unaffected by the prevailing exhaustion among their coworkers. Superman always arrived in advance of his assigned shift so he could relieve someone early. Superman always rushed into the TRACON to work Big Time's most hectic sectors. Superman always volunteered to train the crazy kid from Tiny Tower on radar. You'd also see him flying up the tower steps with another fledgling controller who still smelled like Oklahoma City. There he'd provide an hour or two of training on Ground Control during a nighttime departure push. If you needed a shift swap, Superman was always eager to take that 4:00 to 12:00 off your hands. But by the end of his day, Superman felt a Kryptonite kind of weakness spreading through both brain and brawn. Assuring himself the feeling would pass; he pressed on and spoke nothing of it to anyone.

Then one evening, as he was flying high over one of Big Time's most frantic sectors, Superman's cape came apart. The man of steel had lost control. That's when he fell ~ his confidence and competence going down with him.

He should have seen it coming but stubborn determination can sometimes obscure the obvious. In a mighty effort to rid Big Time of delays, he had missed the fact that two airplanes, heading in two directions, were getting too close. The emerging need to intervene was hidden behind a blitz of landline calls and less urgent vectors. Scanning the adjacent bay to locate a few more flight strips took his eye away from the picture at the last moment when something could have been done. He even missed the first call from one of two pilots who came very close to falling from the skies along with him. "Big Time . . . are you working that commuter that just went by us?"

Superman landed hard and in that hard landing he learned a lot about the fleeting nature of super powers. The incident was only a temporary setback but the lessons he learned stuck with him like that big red letter on his chest. In his later years, as a supervisor, he'd survey a potentially bad situation and tell the controller; "Don't try to be a Superman." Out of adversity comes empathy.

© NLA Factor, 2010


Just Between Us

I want to thank all four or five of you who actually read this Blog. I've enjoyed hearing from you and always appreciate the feedback. Since I have not posted anything new recently, you may suspect I've either lost interest or have finally run out of material. Far from it. I still have lots to tell and plan to get it all down in print before I forget. But Spring is finally here and I can no longer use poor weather as an excuse not to do all my outdoor chores.

I am working on a new posting but its just taking longer than it should. Its the old "Other duties as assigned" thing. Thanks again for reading and I hope to hear from everyone again one day. Meanwhile, enjoy the season.