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

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