The Touch

The Weather these last several weeks was spectacular so I spent most of my days outside. With their spotless blue skies, balanced breezes and cool temperatures; these were the kinds of days when I never really minded being sent to the tower. Images and impressions remain, even though time eventually dilutes the adrenalin.

There was the sprawling airport to scan, rife with its hundreds of small and sizable dramas taking place all around. Dozens of airplanes could regularly be seen rushing along the runways and taxiways, slowing or speeding up in an effort to keep their promise with company timetables. Jam-packed traffic patterns raged and roiled around the airfield till you felt like you were in the eye of a hurricane. The immense energy of it all rocked and rattled the tower cab so relentlessly that, if you didn't hang onto the console with both hands, you could be thrown to the floor. Or so it seemed. All the while, a wide cityscape leaned against the distant sky like an angular mountain range; our backdrop to the continuing spectacle of Big Time Airport.Nah, I never minded a tower assignment on days like these. It wasn't just another day of rubber on and rubber off the runways. It was a sensation ~ and whether your option was terminal or enroute, the airport was where every controller's shift really began and ended. You just had to see it to believe it.

When weather was this good, Big Time would usually be on a favored runway configuration. There'd be no restrictions in or out so Approach would be cramming their traffic into the airport on visuals. Departures flowed freely in all directions ~ if your timing was good enough to squeeze them off between arrivals. The tower Supervisor could usually be found pacing around behind the local controller; glancing at the BRITE display, glaring at the stagnating departure queue and growling at his TRACON counterpart over spacing on the finals. The TRACON Supe would mutter something like "Let me know when the approach end goes IFR from rubber smoke and we'll back off a little." Us controllers would just hang on, hustle our traffic and hurl those great, good natured barbs at each other.

There was a comforting climate of normalcy to it all. We were busy all right but we were busy working airplanes rather than working out SWAP routes, calling for releases or emptying out holding patterns. It was an indefatigable exhilaration instead of the trying tedium that often awaited an incoming crew at shift change. It was pure, unadulterated air traffic control and the application of separation standards never felt so good. These were the days when there was no better job than ours; when the idea of leaving the boards for a staff position rarely occurred to anyone. This job was simply too much fun.

But some people were thinking about it. Who knows? It might have been the guy working Final who, when asked, would build me a gap between his arrivals so I could get a heavy jet off. Maybe it was the gal working Ground Control who'd ask if she could take a few departures to one of the designated arrival runways. It might even have been the Departure Controller who'd call me at Local when I had a long line of planes to go and say "Just flush 'em! I'll spread 'em out in the air! What ever became of those people?

A lot of them, like me, eventually ended up in Management. It took some of us longer to get there than others but, if that's where you wanted to be, you'd eventually get your chance. Far more important than how long it took was how the change affected those who made the transition. A few fled back to the boards after a year or so; disillusioned and disappointed by the realities of staff work and the "other world" atmosphere of the office. Some who stepped away from their headsets ultimately revealed an uncanny knack for transforming nearly everything they touched. Sadly, it wasn't the "Midas touch" kind of transformation that might have added value to the facility's operation or its staff or even the air traffic profession as a whole. It was more of a "minus touch," where the things they became involved in were somehow diminished ~ infected by arrogance, apathy and eventual conflict.

What outrageous alchemy is it that can turn a principled person perfidious or a masterful controller into a maladroit manager? The answer can be found somewhere in this seemingly innocuous little thing known as career progression. I think its an unregistered intoxicant. Some people I've known could handle a lot of it and remain upright, walking tall and leaving a trail of respect in their wake. Others fell quickly onto their bellies and began a career-long slither down the serpentine path that overlaps the line between right and wrong.

I wrote a variation on the issue several months back in a Post titled "Stepping Up Or Stepping Out." I want to know how someone you've trusted and relied on for years can change so profoundly when they're given a little authority. How does someone, who would once do almost anything to reduce your supply of stress, suddenly become its willing purveyor? There's something about this that always intrigued me. Take my old carpool buddy and teammate Richie for example.

Richie was a phenomenal controller who came to Big Time in the early seventies from another busy airdrome. He brought with him a depth of experience, a solid grasp of the rules and an ease of application that inspired many; especially the trainees such as myself. He ended up on my team where we became fast friends. As an OJT instructor, he would share gem after gem from what seemed to be a bottomless bag of tricks. To him I owed much for my relatively early Facility Rating. Beers after work eventually lead to a long social relationship between us and the wives. We even served together as officers in the PATCO Local; simultaneously shaking our fists at facility management.

There was, however, an unseen engine driving Richie ~ a latent force that no one saw at first. It was insecurity. If you listened carefully and watched closely you might have recognized the signs. Richie was skillfully glib and, even as a controller, would exercise his gift for gab on anyone who would listen. A consummate glad hander; he could charm the wits away from the unwary. Richie wanted...no...he probably needed everyone to like him. I wasn't perceptive enough to see it until it was far too late. I didn't have the time anyway. Nobody did; especially as the seventies were coming to an end. We were all too busy holding onto those quaking control consoles and fighting to keep a picture that was shaking apart before our very eyes. At that time; nobody really cared about Richie and, in spite of the perpetual PATCO rhetoric extolling unity, nobody honestly cared about anyone but themselves.

Richie started up the career ladder ahead of me; rung by rung. First came a staff specialist position in the front office. Although most were disappointed by what he did and did not accomplish during that time, I crossed it off as a situation beyond his control. We were, after all, dealing with a well entrenched and genetically stubborn autocracy in the management ranks that fancied itself qualified to create, consecrate and carry out everything from dress codes to traffic flows.

When Richie came to the tower or TRACON for a little currency time: I noticed some subtle differences in his behavior. There were still the smiling slaps on the back and the well aimed barbs thrown at other controllers when traffic permitted. But there was also an obvious tension in his voice when things got busy. Irritation greeted the ear when you needed to coordinate with a busy Richie. Gone was the steady, self-assured voice of confidence. Gone was the unsolicited offer of assistance when you needed it most. In their place came the terse irritability, manic impatience and refusal to get involved in another sector's control problems. He'd just spend his hour or two on positions then retreat to his office. This I crossed off as the consequences of a staff job. When you don't work airplanes every day, you lose your timing, situational awareness, an instinctive recall of the commonplace, like frequency and landline numbers, sector boundaries, critical provisions in a letter of agreement. In short; you lose your edge.

Richie's staff assignment was followed by his long anticipated return to the floor as a supervisor; where the "unseen engine" I mentioned became more evident. He was an excitable supervisor with an invasive attitude toward the operation. Rather than let the collective common sense and wisdom of the workforce guide his shift, he had to put his "touch" on everything. It was an early sign of the evolving loss of trust he held in us. Through it all we remained friends but, because of schedule conflicts, saw less and less of each other. He eventually left Big Time for an opportunity in the Regional Office. That's where his "minus touch" gradually manifested itself for all to see.

Richie achieved great success in the FAA, rising to heights that should have made me proud to say I knew him way back when. But I was not proud of my old friend. After I left Big Time and moved on with my own career, Richie would occasionally visit my facility in his capacity as Regional Royalty. He was nearly unrecognizable. If he ever deigned to acknowledge my presence it would be with a simple nod in my general direction.

My old friend was looking more and more like the enemy we once fought against together. In time, our relationship evolved from ammicable to adversarial. Was it because he knew that I well remembered the Richie of fifteen years prior? Can there be a danger in knowing too much about someone's past? Can this be perceived as a threat? If that person is rather high up in the organization; you bet!

The last time I saw Richie he seemed distracted and unhappy. In my eyes, he'd become a Judas to the profession and those who lived it. He came to our facility that day to put his "touch" on a particular initiative we had undertaken ~ a minus touch.

I learned long ago that unhappy controllers never really get any happier when they become management officials and that unhappy management officials can quickly scatter their discontent across those working below them. Unease is infectious; regardless of who the carrier is. I always hoped to see a positive change take place before I retired although I never held my breath. I would have liked to hold someone else's though ~ maybe Richie's.

© NLA Factor, 2010