Signs Of Trouble

There's something a little unsettling about a silent TRACON. Without any hollering back and forth between sectors, without the FDEP machines hammering out their endless scroll of flight strips, without urgent squawking from the overhead speakers, or alarms, buzzers and badgering pilots to unravel your nerves; the TRACON assumes an eerie aspect of serenity.

It happens sometime after midnight. That's when Big Time's normally hectic scarespace reverts back into what nature intended; more air than airplanes. By 3:00 AM you can almost hear the radar's circular sweep as, once every four seconds, it lights up the few targets creeping across sectors temporarily deserted by their regularly resident havoc.

The big jets were all down; tucked into their gates to await the morning departure push. These hours were for the box haulers and mail carriers. Mostly piston powered airplanes; they seemed to traverse Big Time's airspace at the speed of night. Like a few ants crossing a football field, they appeared more like permanent echoes on the radar than moving targets.

I was pulling a round of mids with four other guys. Two were upstairs in the tower, me and Jay had TRACON duty and, somewhere in the back, there was a Supervisor doing the daily paperwork. It was a warm night in August of 1982. Tired and bored, I sat tapping mindlessly on the "Enter" key of my ARTS keyboard and staring at the video map. Jay had just switched the only airplane he had to the Center and was off to the breakroom for a fresh cup of coffee.

We'd cleaned up all the backlog from the evening shift, released the ARTS computer to Airway Facilities for some routine checks and were now settling into the long hours of the midshift. These were the hours when air traffic control came down to the simple challenge of staying awake. Maintaining separation meant ~ don't let your eyelids come together for more than a second. Coffee helped but just barely. The only sure-fire way for me to to avoid sleep was through conversation. Fortunately I had a topic in mind.

Jay sat back down at his scope. "Damn." I muttered. "Its been a year already." I paused, unsure of the reaction to my upcoming question. Then; "What made you come back to work?" Jay turned his head about 20 degrees toward my direction but never looked up. The late night TRACON silence hung in the air like cobwebs.

One year ago, intoxicated by a sense of invincibility and the promise of victory, Jay had gone on strike with most of the other Big Time controllers. He shook his head, leaned back in his chair and raised his eyes to the ceiling. I made a handoff that I'd been waiting 25 minutes to initiate. Then, on that quiet August night in 1982, Jay spoke to me of how his job, his family and perhaps his life were saved one day in August of '81. I can paraphrase his story but you'll have to imagine the pensive, palling looks on his face as he spoke.

He and his wife were attending one of many PATCO sponsored rallies happening across the country immediately following the strike. This one took place at a small park just a few miles from Big Time Airport. These rallies, meant to impose unity and extol its surely "inevitable" benefits among the striking controllers, also gave Union officials a way of keeping track of everyone. Since this particular rally was being held within Reagan's 48 hour grace period, there was always a chance someone might lose nerve, turn tail and run back to work. Jay told me he'd been sitting at a picnic table with his wife and two kids; sweating with everyone else under the August sun. Although there were several reasons to sweat; the heat was good enough for the moment.

Nearly everyone was either drunk or about to be. There was a lot of shouting, chanting and Union rhetoric. Some talked of revenge and retaliation against those who stayed on the job. Others talked of how different things would be when they made their triumphant return to work. Jay watched, listened and took it all in.

Big Time's local Vice President was speaking to the crowd. Dick had been staunch proponent of a strike for at least the last year or so. Although a controller with above average abilities; Dick was a chronic complainer and, in the final few months preceding the strike, became perennially petulant and antagonistic. By Spring of '81 I saw Dick as a man who seemed to have opted out of evolution ~ an animal who growled and snarled at those of us who were either undecided or unwilling to strike.

Standing next to Dick was Sal. He'd been one of the PATCO Local's team representatives. Also known for his pre-strike truculence, Sal nodded his head in agreement as Dick preached the gospel according to Poli. Silent skies and abandoned control rooms would soon bring FAA and the aviation industry to their knees. That is; if the scab controllers and blundering supervisors didn't kill hundreds of people first in a spectacular midair collision. Everyone swallowed beer, hollered and cheered. Some even laughed. The air was filled with flourishing fists and fluttering signs. It resembled a kind of chaotic carnival.

The air was also filled with other signs. These were the signs of trouble for PATCO. In an ironic contrast with the rally's pitiful propaganda, big jets could be seen, nose high and climbing over the distant cityscape. Most rolled quietly into a turn toward some distant navaid but a few eventually roared over the little park; briefly drowning out the bombastic blather below. These skies were far from silent. But why? Jay sat sipping his beer, watching the evolving spectacle and worrying.

His wife was worried too. She peered out across the crowd with a look that reflected a darkening mood, disbelief in what she was seeing and growing doubts about the success of this venture. Two of Jay's teammates were throwing a frizbee back and forth. He said he couldn't help but see the irony in what had become of their aviation careers. Two air traffic controllers - working plastic departures and arrivals while someone's dog jumped and barked at the overflights.

Jay's wife turned suddenly in his direction, threw her arms out toward the crowd and said the whole thing was insane. He could see she was on the verge of tears as she continued. "This is not working. Everyone is going to be fired! You need to get your ass back to work!"

There was no argument. Jay told me he looked around, nodded his head in agreement and wandered off through the melee to find a pay phone. He called the TRACON, spoke with the Area Manager and was soon back on the schedule.

"Why did you go out to begin with?" Jay stood up, stretched and grabbed his empty coffee cup. He looked tired and uneasy. "Now I don't even remember. Everything was all messed up back then. Grievances, management bustin' our balls all the time and nobody listening to us. And in case you missed anything, you had PATCO kinda playin' it all back to you every day. If you weren't already pissed off; they'd get you there! You know; when they don't stop talking at you; you start seeing the things they're talking about." He sighed. "I guess I didn't know how bad things were till I really started listening to 'em. Then I got mad. I came to work mad every day. By August I thought there was only one way to get the FAA to listen."

He started off toward the breakroom; empty cup dangling from his index finger. "It was just all fucked up, you know?" I knew. I pressed one of the lines to the center. "Fourteen, Big Time, eighty-three line with another handoff." Silence. I tried again. It was about 4:30 a.m. The whole damned time zone was asleep and my traffic was creeping up on the boundary. The handoff line was dead silent. Jay walked back in. "Hey, somebody forgot to bring in more coffee! Pots empty and there's nothing in the cabinet." I wondered if I was going to have to spin this guy. "Sector fourteen, Big Time, eighty-three with a hot one!" Almost three hours to go, no coffee and now the center won't... "Whaddaya got Big Time?" The midshift headed slowly toward dawn. We resorted to drinking Coke for our caffeine.

Jay had made it back from the brink. Most people in the facility never even knew he'd been on strike. And now a year had passed. Much of the early, post-strike fervor had passed as well. Supervisors still worked traffic occasionally but were mostly back to supervising. PATCO had long since been decertified. The FAA was busy trying out various human relations initiatives in what would ultimately be a failed effort to convince controllers there was no need to reorganize. Everyone was fighting fatigue and some were losing.

It was the new Management by Objective. I thought of it this way... Management was a pistol and controllers were simply the bullets. Our target, or objective, was full recovery from the strike's impact. But the "bullets" had no say over what direction they were being fired in. Consequently there were ricochets, unintended casualties and collateral damage. People began complaining and were skillfully ignored by a management team that had years of practice at it. Furtive palavers were taking place behind the backs of those who were too busy fighting to keep a hold on their waning credibility to notice. It was the worst kind of deja vu.

There were signs of trouble everywhere.

© NLA Factor, 2010