Devil In The Detail

I was at a downtown gas station the other day when two tour buses went by. The unmistakable smell of that exhaust mingled with a suffocating level of humidity transported me right back to the Seventies; back to lunch breaks spent watching people in front of Big Time's Arrival Terminal. There; an endless procession of shuttle buses collected the overheated hoards of bushed and bewildered July travelers then hauled them over the horizon to one of the many distant parking lots.

Summer pressed down on Big Time like the scorched underside of a cast iron skillet. Heat radiating off congested taxiways made mirage-like images of the airplanes awaiting release. By late afternoon; thunderstorms would blossom on the BRITE display then go violently about their daily business of closing our most frequently used departure routes. It was the hottest time of day in the busiest time of year.

Heavy jets lumbered down the big city runways, struggling against high density altitudes. As we stood gasping, they'd eventually leave the ground somewhere near the departure end. Then, rising slowly over the outlying neighborhoods, they'd make shallow turns toward their assigned headings ~ fighting all the way to gain altitude. Even though you'd quickly lose sight of them in the murky Summer skies; the trail of smoke and sounds of straining engines lingered on for minutes after. It was, after all, the mid-seventies ~ when the old Convair 880 "water wagons" still roamed our taxiways and roared along our jet routes.

Airplanes never really wanted to fly in this kind of weather. Only people did.

Down in the TRACON; heat emanated from the radar scopes, drifted up from the ashtrays and oozed out of everyone's pores. The friction of discontent rubbed everyone wrong and caused another kind of heat. It started with the relentless air traffic demand and was fueled by widespread fatigue. Nobody wanted your airplanes and you didn't want theirs. Tempers flared frequently; consuming nearly all that was left of the available oxygen. Even the Watch Supervisor, a normally reticent kind of guy, was often seen angrily shouting into a telephone at his counterpart in some other facility. The atmosphere was altogether stifling and our aged air conditioning system simply couldn't cope with it all. We worked on; accepting our plight while maintaining our right to bootless bitching.

Summertime traffic was always ten to twenty percent higher than average. All of Big Time's radar sectors were usually kept open from the start of the dayshift till nearly midnight. Combining positions was risky; which meant you were often relieved for your meal break by a supervisor who'd tell you to hurry back.

My team was working a round of 3:00 to 11:00 shifts and I carpooled in with a few other guys. Between us; nobody had an operable air conditioner in his car. We'd weave through the suburban back roads, gossiping about other controllers, griping over the latest grievance denials, complaining about the latest office edicts and speculating over who might turncoat into the Chief's next staff hack. Discussions of this nature brought forth loud declarations of unity but also served to intensify the already oppressive heat.

Rolling onto the interstate highway, we could usually see enough sky to figure out the landing and departing runways at Big Time. If it was an airport configuration used during adverse weather conditions, we'd just have something else to talk about ~ like what kind of shift we were in for. So, by the time we reached the facility parking lot, everyone was usually on edge, irritable and sodden with sweat. That's the way it was on this particular day.

When we got into the TRACON we found an empty desk. Pete, the Watch Supervisor, was standing in the middle of the room, phone in hand, sweating and shouting at the Command Center. Pete was built stocky and square like a gas pump and, when provoked, was twice as flammable. He'd cut his ATC teeth at busy airports, knew the ropes and was skilled at knotting them around the necks of his adversaries. With a wild, Einstein shock of gray hair and matching moustache; he infused everyone with fear and awe ~ including the specialists at the Command Center. Having worked there himself a few years back; he still knew many of the guys he hollered at. Pete would make his point then hang up in the middle of their reply; refusing to answer when they called back.

Bobby, the TRACON Supervisor, was working at a handoff position ~ trying to keep track of the holding patterns for one of the arrival controllers. Me and my carpool mates stood in a cluster near the sign-in log. We just wanted someone to tell us who to relieve but everyone was too busy to notice us. Finally, Pete turned and told me to go relieve the Supervisor on the arrival handoff position. As I started to move, he grabbed my arm and said he wanted to talk to me about something later on. I shrugged and went off to work. It was going to be a hard working, high drama, headache of a shift.

Several hours later, exhausted from the time spent issuing countless EFC revisions, slalom vectoring around storm cells, working out clearances to alternate airports for the diversions ~ then attempting to hand them off to someone who was already busy enough sorting out his own little hell and didn't really need a part of mine; I shuffled out of the TRACON. It was time to sign out and shove off but Pete stopped me at the door. "The Chief wants to know if you'd be interested in a 90 day Area Supe detail."

My clock stopped. Pete had a way of smiling while making you feel like he was pointing a pistol at your face. It was all in the eyes. I probably shrugged; too tired to react with much more than a sigh. Just then, one of the mid-shift guys wandered into the TRACON. "Relieve the departures" said Pete, without taking his eyes off me. The guy turned and disappeared. "I dunno" I said. "I need to think about that one." The problem was that I had used up most of my thinking for the day and was ready to trade thinking for drinking.

You can't even swing at a curve ball if you don't see it coming. It would have been easier for me to pick out the vituperation among a speeding barrage of aspersions (a skill I was to become proficient at). And who knew it was my turn at bat? I was a loyal member of the bargaining unit. I went to most of the union meetings and was right there with the rest when it came to mocking our facility management. My personal views on that esteemed group, bolstered by experience, convinced me that at least half of Big Time's supervisors were either incompetent, arrogant, overly ambitious or an obnoxious blend of the three. Pete's lips were moving. "The Chief needs an answer by tomorrow afternoon."

The ride home with my carpool buddies was as animated as I've heard after a busy shift. We wheeled out of the parking lot; everyone singing the "poor us chorus" with verses about too much time spent on positions, too little time for our meal breaks and, of course, why the hell didn't the dayshift supervisor call in more overtime??? Then we all told our stories about how much more difficult some adjacent sectors or facility made the shift for us. We finally got down to recognizing a few of the evening's more memorable moments. "Did you see the mess Brad had on Departures?" "Oh yeah!" said another. "I was working Ground Control when everything got stopped." Our driver laughed. "See what happens when a Supe has to work positions?" I mumbled something about how he was just trying to help with lunch relief. "Some help!" said the driver, sarcastically. It was the usual post-shift banter ~ just another variation on a popular theme of the times.

I wasn't driving so I sat in the back; staring at a line of landing lights gliding through the night sky toward Big Time. It was after midnight but I was still thinking about Pete's words. "...an answer by tomorrow afternoon." I didn't dare mention the issue to the other guys. They'd only press me for my decision and I wasn't ready to make one.

Weighing the pros and cons of accepting this detail was easy because there were very few pros. I'd gain some character building experience and make a little more money for a few months. But I'd seen other controllers take such details. They were always moved to another team for the duration. My carpool would, at least temporarily, be history. My good standing as a trusted PATCO soldier would be jeopardized ~ perhaps permanently. Once it was over, the guys who took these temporary promotions were viewed with a jaundiced eye by most of the bargaining unit. It was thought they were now "spies" for the front office and therefore could no longer be trusted to hear the kind of spontaneous aspersions about management that were currently being cast about in the darkness of this hot, little car.

Some of us shared a more altruistic and clearly idealistic outlook. I often mused that an eventual move into management would be my way of helping to change their atrocious image. I mean; who raised these people anyway?

It would be difficult though. What I hadn't fully grasped at that time was just how deeply ingrained the contempt for and distrust of management was. The control room atmosphere innoculated us against anyone who didn't wear a headset and work airplanes for a living. The only people worthy of a controller's trust were other controllers ~ the guys we worked with across the room and across the handoff lines.

Further complicating matters was the fact this skepticism was carried with us into management. But once there, it reversed itself. Arriving in management; we would soon distrust anyone who did wear a headset and work airplanes for a living. I think it was because we knew from past experiences, just how profoundly controllers distrusted us. The whole paranoiac cycle would spiral ever upward into a rancorous and unremitting rivalry that neither party could ultimately win.

The more I thought about it, the more I wondered why I was even considering the Chief's offer. There would be hell to pay. The car bumped over a curb and we landed in front of our favorite, post-shift watering hole. Everyone was still chattering about things that happened during the last eight hours. Our driver got out of the car and looked up. The sky around the now distant airport was full of moving lights. He chuckled; "Don must be gettin' a real good workout in the tower!"

I was hot, tired and thirsty. Perhaps looking at my personal dilemma through a glass or two of beer would help. I knew there would be long term benefits in accepting the 90 day position. It would look good on my resume and fit nicely with my career goals. There was also no denying the extra money would be helpful. But I felt a sense of dread; a premonition that there would be an irreparable rift waiting when I returned to the rank and file. I knew things would be different. I knew there would be a devil in this detail.

The next afternoon, as I shuffled into the TRACON, Pete grabbed my arm again. "You gonna take the job?" Oh, what the hell. . .

© NLA Factor, 2010