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


Anonymous said...

I never worked at "big time" but the same thing happens at the smaller facilities. Instead of "superman" I've always used hero. Just the other day a newly checked out controller at the sector next to me was working 12 to 14 aircraft. I first paged the supervisor to report to the tracon (imagine that) and then told newby "don't try to be a hero. He got the message.

No Longer a Factor said...

Anon, you did the right thing and in doing so, hopefully saved the newly checked out controller some serious grief down the line. I also applaud the fact that you were watching out for that newbie. Keep it up! There should be more of that going on - both intrafacility and interfacility. Unfortunately, I was raised in an environment where a lot of the more experienced journeymen would taunt you as "weak" if you didn't take whatever was thrown at you.

All controllers have their limits and a good supervisor should have a feel for where those limits are. With a recently checked out controller, the limits may not be fully known. All the more reason for others, especially the supervisor, to keep an eye on them.

Thanks for writing and keep up the good work!


Anonymous said...

I had the opportunity, as a green pea coordinator to save my crew chief from going "down the tubes", one busy night.
I learned two things; how easy it is to lose the flick and how easy it should be to admit your situation and take the help available to you. He was grateful and I never forgot.

No Longer a Factor said...

Those two things you learned are among the most important lessons for a controller. They can keep you out of trouble or get you out of it much quicker. I'm sure that crew chief is grateful to this day and hasn't forgotten either.

Now maybe I'm showing my age err something but I have to ask; what is a "green pea coordinator?"

Thanks for writing and sharing your story!

Cheers ~ NLAF

Anonymous said...

Nice Post! Brought back a lot of great memories, and some scary ones as well. As a very wise man once told me, "never let your ego write a check that your ass can't cash!

Anonymous said...

O.K. Sorry in advance for the length of this.
The coordinator position in our Tracon,
manually handed off all traffic between the feeder approach position and the 1-3 final (PAR/ASR) controllers. The position also verbally coordinated 6 mile and 3 mile calls of aircraft intentions with the tower (via a squawk box) and relayed tower clearance to the final controllers.
In the case of multiple approach intentions (touch and go's/low approaches to remain in the pattern), the handoff would be reversed back to the feeder position.
My feeder guy, simply got overrun (just as you did in a recent post) by too many flights of multiples wanting to split & remain in the pattern, on a marginal evening. I think they had probably been shut out of the target range by the weather and rather than dump all that fuel, the squadrons told them to shoot some meaningful near IFR approaches.
The green pea part refers to the fact that on that particular evening, I had only been checked out on the position for a few weeks at most and had not yet started training on the approach positions. As such, it probably reveals just how desperate he was, when he allowed me to physically mark and sequence his strips and and point out each move on the radar for about a minute, until he regained his composure.
He was an excellent controller and became a great mentor to me. I just think that on that one occasion, it was probably easier for me to keep the flick from over his shoulder, because I didn't have the added distraction of aircraft from 3 different squadrons (with the previously addressed same call signs) all wanting to maximize the number of approaches they could shoot. They just could not understand why they were not getting tight downwinds & short finals and all the while kept stepping on each other because we only had 5 discrete final frequencies for the 14 guys in the pattern. Add to that he had to sequence the other arrivals and it was more than a normal night at the office. Anyway, in the end, he made it work and we all lived to do it all again another day.

No Longer a Factor said...

To the "Nice Post! Brought back a lot of great memories" Anon, I must admit my ego was overdrawn several times and my ass went broke. Thanks for your response! Cheers ~ NLAF

To the "green pea" Anon; thanks for taking me to school on that term. This sounds a lot like the setup we had in the Air Force at Myrtle Beach and overseas. There was a light system (white, amber, green and red), mounted into the console at Local Control and the radar final control position, that was used to coordinate between the RAPCON and tower. I think it worked like this....

Initiated by the radar unit, a white light told the tower there was an aircraft in the radar pattern. When the amber light began to flash it meant the radar traffic was turning final. Tower would push corresponding buttons to silently acknowledge. When the green light blinked, it meant the radar unit was looking for clearance (low approach, touch & go, etc.) The tower would steady the light if the aircraft could complete its approach. If things turned bad, tower pushed the red button and a red light would flash in the radar unit, telling the controller to break the approach off.

Its been a while but I think that's the way it worked. Anyway, military ATC was always a hoot! Somehow much different than it was in the civilian world. More fun, as I recall.

Interesting response! Thanks for taking the time to write! Cheers ~ NLAF