Anticipating Separation

Every air traffic controller has days like this. Your timing is just a few seconds off or your judgment is just a hair short of sound. Planning any further ahead than the end of each transmission seems impossible and your attention span? Shorter than a two-degree turn.

I was in the middle of such a day when I had my first thought of retirement. That date would still be more than 25 years out but it flared in my mind like a flashbulb. Thanks to the short attention span it didn't linger longer than an instant but that was enough time for me to wonder; "Is it really that far off?" Then, quick as it came, the moment was gone. I blinked, readjusted my focus and resumed life's unrelenting odyssey into the unknown.

In fact, there were more days like this ~ plenty of them. None were awful enough to end my trek prematurely but the effects were cumulative. It reminds me of that wretched camel everyone refers to. If he doesn't feel the very first straw being laid on his back; he probably won't feel the second or third straw either. At some point though, there comes a nominal sensation ~ an inkling of the burdens being applied. Then one day the back breaker may fall; that renowned last straw. Its interesting how that last one can actually weigh far less than any of the others. Most times, the last straw isn't really the one that causes us to sink under the strain. Its actually the sum of all straws ~ big and small.

I was feeling the sensation of added weight on that particular afternoon when retirement first whispered to me. It was early Spring and I was a young, very inexperienced approach controller sitting at one of Big Time's arrival sectors. The winds were tricky as warm air and an advancing cold front fought over control of the skies. In addition to problems caused by scattered thunderstorms, my heading assignments weren't working well at all. As I vectored airplanes out of my holding patterns, they tended to drift gradually to the left. Corrected headings and lower altitudes made them divigate to the right. Winds aloft seemed stratified and omnidirectional. It wasn't a particularly unusual condition but at the time I just couldn't figure it out. It was like trying to vector shopping carts. Only twenty minutes into a two-hour session and the Final controller was already losing patience with my apparently arbitrary feed into her sector. If looks were straws I'd have had one stuck in my forehead.

Years later, a few more straws would be applied during the PATCO strike. The loss of friendships, hostilities, hectic schedules and stress prompted several thoughts of separation. What I found most disheartening about the strike was its senseless and futile nature. In June of '81 the Government made an unprecedented concession to a Federal employee union by offering PATCO some $40 million in compensation and improvements. That wasn't enough for PATCO and the rank and file was encouraged to reject the offer. They could have had a future. With patience, there could have been further gains made during subsequent contract negotiations but they wanted it all and they wanted it all in the Summer of 1981.

Maybe it was just another example of the need for instant gratification we've acquired though the years ~ and the blindness it can cause. PATCO's strike rationale must have somehow resembled the idea that jumping out of a window would get them to the street quicker than waiting for an elevator. The uncompromising cost of impetuosity didn't occur to them until it was too late.

Within my piles of straw were bad days among the airplanes, watching powerlessly as one flight fell onto the airport and shattered or another one dropped off my radar and died. Clashes with my peers, conflicts with management, joining management and having to brawl with the bargaining unit, incessant backstabbing among the management staff, a mostly apathetic and out of touch regional office, political posturing and power grabs...

Piles and piles of straw.

The career wasn't all difficulty and disillusion though. In spite of the occasional bad days, disappointments and moments of panic; I loved air traffic control and the people who did it. There is a particular euphoria that only those who've just finished an epic, eight hour battle with their traffic can experience. Its a withering sense of exhaustion with an underlying, ear-to-ear grin.

I also loved the technicians, the pilots and even those tangential to the trade like the guys who cleared snow from our runways or the girl who made my sandwich at the employee's cafeteria. I still love 'em. I loved every airport I worked at and even a few I didn't. There were no other places like them and no other people like those who kept everyone and everything moving.

In the years succeeding the strike I was able to spin many a straw into gold. There were opportunities, promotions, special projects and new friends waiting in my future. Several experiences actually offloaded some of the weight from this camel's back; enabling me to travel further along in my career than previously planned...but not too much further. Speculation over what awaited me after separation was too alluring. A moment would come, similar to that first flashbulb flare, when I knew it was time to move on. Besides, I couldn't see me in my later years ~ sitting at a long-forgotten desk in some self-aggrandizing FAA office, soaking my Depend For Men and saying "Yessir!" to some kid in a suit. Like all the other times I might have wet myself ~ it should be induced by high activity, challenges or excitement rather than boredom.

Retirement is a great job but it takes a while to get it. Don't lose patience. Anticipating your own separation can be an agonizing process. It took me over thirty years to finally see my personal course diverge from the FAA's and, as we went our separate ways, I never looked back. I doubt the FAA did either. Retirement, by its very nature, is a self-indulgent act. As it should be. When my time came I was done being the team player. It was finally time to act in my own best interest, thinking only of myself and my family.

My personal "last straw" wasn't even job related. It was just the gnawing curiosity over what else life might have to offer. I couldn't wait any longer to find out and, as every controller knows, the sooner separation is achieved ~ the better.

© NLA Factor, 2010