Another Groove

The Eighties were finally coming to an end. By now, I felt like a projectile that had been fired through the entire decade at 365 days per second. The Nineties lay just ahead and I knew I was going to miss my mark unless I changed course. Time was moving on quickly and taking all the opportunities I ever dreamed of along for the ride. I felt a nagging sense of urgency ~ a need to catch up before being left behind. In haste, I threw all my career aspirations into a knapsack, ran along side and jumped on board. What this air traffic controller saw in the next ten years would eventually have me wishing I'd listened more closely to Timothy Leary, who said; "If you don't like what you're doing, you can always pick up your needle and move to another groove." I did stop liking what I was doing and came to realize it was time to find a new groove. But it would take time.    

I knew my career progression wasn't particularly linear. Rather than climbing a series of rungs on the ladder, my advancement appeared to be taking me upward but, at the same time, in circles. It was actually more like climbing a spiral staircase. I advanced upward but in continuous arcs, where every 180 degrees of travel had me heading back in the direction I'd just come from.

Sometimes though, I did seem to be putting distance between myself and the front line air traffic operation I still thought of as home. During those times, I felt myself becoming ineluctably absorbed into the cult of management. Those were the days when my old controller comrades would simply look on, shaking their heads at the mention of my name, while murmuring about how "another one" sold his soul for a desk and a title.

Then there were the times I'd seek refuge in that "home" environment where I was always most comfortable. Sadly though, It's true what Thomas Wolfe said. "You can't go home again." Giving up my headset meant I could no longer talk to pilots the way I used to. It also meant I couldn't talk to controllers the way I used to either. There was a "stuck mike" effect where I could hear them but they couldn't hear me. To the controllers though, the effect was just the opposite. In such situations, the usual outcome is that each side eventually tunes the other one out altogether.

One of my stops along the way around was one facility's Plans and Procedures Office, where I served as Manager for a few awkward, baffling and challenging years (I'll just call that the "ABCs of management"). Still well connected to my tenacious controller roots, I hadn't yet developed the casual indifference typical of a professional staff functionary. The control room environment still energized me. Whenever my office window rattled with the roar of a departing heavy jet I'd usually jump up and look. I guess I couldn't (or wouldn't) break free of those damned roots. Nonetheless, I was expected to assume my new role, memorize a lot of unfamiliar lines and act the part.

One way that every Manager acted out their role was in a power play known as the meeting. With its diverse cast of characters, diverging interests, digressions and duplicities; the meeting could shift quickly from drama to comedy or even tragedy before finally being declared a farce. Important discussions and negotiations routinely took place between people who knew little or nothing about their adversary's area of expertise. Trust was always essential but usually foolish. The hidden agenda was a competitive sport.
It took time but I eventually realized the way for me to partially overcome this conundrum was simply by not limiting my contact with the other players to the narrow scope of a meeting. I engaged them at every opportunity and without an agenda (hidden or otherwise). From this, I gained a little understanding of their world and a lot of respect for their place in it. Once mutual respect was established? Well, it became a lot easier to build a sphere of trust around some very disparate organizations.

Building that mutual respect wasn't easy and it not always possible. It required an openness with others that many of my management colleagues weren't very comfortable with. Sadly but not surprisingly, gaining the trust of people in other offices and organizations would eventually cost me the trust of some folks within my own. The funny thing was; I could see this happening over time but didn't really care. I pushed on, doing what I believed was the right thing.

Some people were easier to work with than others. From the various airline and other aviation advocates, to the many offices of our local airport authority ~ meetings with those folks were normally cordial, constructive and enlightening. Generally speaking, they were an honorable bunch; knowledgeable, open and eager to share. Our own Airway Facilities (AF) Office was a prime example. Here were the people who serviced and certified nearly every piece of equipment we relied on. They took a lot of pride and care in their work; knowing that a sudden outage could bring air traffic to a halt or worse. A few controllers might end up soiling themselves.

Meeting with AF meant there'd be no hidden agenda. An issue was simply placed on the table for all to dissect. It could have been the scheduling of a required radar shutdown for maintenance, the installation of new equipment in the tower cab or any number of other issues adversely affecting ATC operations. Requirements, needs and impacts were discussed and agreements were eventually extracted ~ just like painless dentistry.

Sitting down with folks from the local airport authority was equally satisfying. These were usually large meetings, including individual airline representatives, general aviation advocates, fixed base operators and maybe even the military. Topics ranged from relatively minor airfield activity to long-term projects of epic proportions. We talked of snow removal plans, runway or taxiway closures, lighting repairs, grass cutting around movement areas and everything else needed to keep the place running. Everyone had a chance to articulate their concerns and provide input. I always left such meetings completely satisfied, if not happy. All my questions were answered and I was sometimes even able to influence the scheduling of certain work that would seriously impact air traffic.

Meetings that included other FAA offices, such as adjacent air traffic facilities, were usually a different story. They could be a kind of "rehab session" for the habitually well intended and trusting. This was where participants could relearn or reinforce their skills in deception, parochial position taking, posturing and plain old back-stabbing. It was all in good fun, of course. After all ~ humiliating, devaluing and disappointing one's adversaries at the meeting, while asserting one's own authority or facility sovereignty, was a time-honored tradition.

If the agenda included proposed interfacility airspace and/or procedural changes, you could bet the meeting would be contentious and likely to attract the Region's scrutiny. Such meetings typically included both staff and controller representation from each facility. Since controllers and management nearly always viewed operational matters differently, just gaining consensus among our own facility's negotiators could be hard. Nobody wanted to change or give up anything, unless doing so would solve at least one of their own problems or get them something in return. Nobody wanted to take on additional duties and responsibilities unless they were accompanied by some kind of "dowry" ~ usually in the form of increased staffing and/or added equipment. The Region's solution would be simpler, more imaginative and far more cost-effective. Their guidance? Do something and make it work with existing resources. Somehow, we never thought of that ourselves.

This brand of meeting made it obvious that some issues simply could never be settled locally. Faced with having to resolve dicey and disputable subjects, each facility's ideological walls were often raised and ringed with parapets. Drawbridges were pulled up and the moats were mined. They became fortresses; fending off change and vilifying its agents. Participation in these meetings should have entitled attendees to combat pay. I'd usually find myself in the middle of long and loud arguments, wishing I was back in the TRACON vectoring airplanes. The "alphabet groups" (ATA, AOPA, NBAA, etc.) would sit, metaphorically, on the sidelines ~ watching the battle while hoping for a profitable outcome. If they observed too much wheel-spinning, head-butting or a simple efficacy deficit; they might play a card that none of us had in our hands. It was a trump card, played judiciously and very effectively. They could go over our heads.

Those alphabet aviation advocates could pick up a phone and make their case directly to our Division Manager, Regional Administrator or even the top guy at 800 Independence Avenue. This card was played only when the stakes were high enough to warrant such a brash move. Shortly thereafter, we'd all receive some help and inspiration from our Regional Office. Depending on how highly visible or politically charged an issue was, the Region would send either a specialist or a particular Branch Manager. More often than not, whoever showed up would eventually side with whichever Facility's Manager had the most influence. Back then, you see, facilities were fiefdoms and their managers were lords. But as supreme arbiters, the Region's decision was sacrosanct. Really though. Could there have been anyone any further from the problem, in either proximity or perspicacity, with the power to impose a solution? Doubtful. On the other hand; there really were legitimate problems on the table, shrouded by a lot of saber rattling and rhetoric, and we seemed unable to solve them on our own, so....
By far, the most perilous of meetings were between Regional and facility management. These were, at their essence, akin to living with Lizzie Borden. You never knew who was going to get whacked or why. If the Division Manager showed up for a meeting, it was probably to either give someone an award or take someone's head. With luck, it wouldn't be yours. Once the deed was done and word got out, everyone would feign surprise and disbelief, then agree the victim had it coming.

These were strange days ~ a learning experience I suppose. Rife with ritual, arcane complexities and nuance, they're hard for me to describe. I guess you had to be there. Perhaps you were. If not, just be glad. I did have to be there. It was the path I chose and I followed it until I began to feel lost. I was an air traffic controller in an unfamiliar place far from home. In the long run I would come to realize it was time to pick up my needle and "move to another groove."

© NLA Factor, 2011



My trip back to Desolation Air Base was waylaid by a twist of fate and a couple of contemptible Colonels. I had thousands of miles to travel and less than sixteen hours to go before I'd be deemed AWOL (absent without official leave). Even worse, the Sergeant in charge of air traffic operations didn't have the most empathetic ear, so I knew there'd be big trouble if I missed my next shift. It's not like I would have been the first ever to be late returning from leave ~ but I knew I'd have been the most recent one. That was a bad place to be, because the Sergeant's tolerance for any particular infraction seemed to dwindle with each successive occurrence. Over half-way through his second tour of duty in Desolia, he was already a fairly manic guy. It wouldn't take much before he'd go completely maniacal and I didn't want to be in the cross hairs. 

This little odyssey began when I decided I was long overdue for a getaway . . .

I needed to be somewhere else for a while ~ a place far away from these airplanes, this authority and the monotony of barracks life at a remote air base. Burned out on barely edible food, incredibly dumb pilots and the omnipresent dust, I needed to find that place where, as Billy Strayhorn once wrote; "one relaxes on the axis of the wheel of life ~ to get the feel of life." The feel of life?  Oh I needed some of that. The lush life was calling.

My deteriorating temperament was telling me it was time to put in for some leave. There was no shortage of good reasons to go. I was tired of listening to Mr. Fye, Desolia's sweaty and malodorous tower interpreter, trying to explain away the almost daily close calls between our air traffic and theirs. I needed food that didn't give me diarrhea. I needed a bed someplace where there were no other shift workers clamoring around while I was trying to sleep. I figured it was time for a break when the local beer, which normally tasted like it had been filtered through old gym socks, started tasting good to me. To quote Strayhorn again; "A week in Paris could ease the bite of it" but who could afford Paris on an E-4's pay? At least I didn't have to worry about airfare. The odds of my getting leave approved gave me enough to worry about.

Tower staffing numbers changed frequently, depending on how fast you could count backwards. Most of the Air Force's controller inventory was spread out across Southeast Asia. Some of the relatively few who were left got sent to backwater bases like Desolation. There weren't many of us here, so I worried. Asking the Sergeant for leave would be like asking if I could take his 19 year old daughter along with me. I put in my paperwork and hoped for a miracle. It came back approved. Maybe the Serg was drunk at the time or maybe he just wanted to punish the last guy who took leave by making him take on extra shifts while I was away. I didn't know and I didn't care. The smell of freedom was in my nostrils.

The troops stationed at Desolation Air Base got to take at least one trip per year on military aircraft. I started wondering about every destination we sent transport-type airplanes to. Those planes came in from almost everywhere and that's usually where they went when they left. North African, South Asian, Middle Eastern and European airports were at the far end of many flight plans ~ some further than others. I was most interested in a city that had decent hotels with rates to match my finances, good food and, hopefully, some interesting things to see. I wanted to live that "Lush Life" for a couple of weeks. As the starting date of my leave drew near, I had to make a decision.

Athens, Greece met all of my criteria ~ amazing archaeological sites, interesting food, friendly people and a favorable currency exchange rate. But best of all; it was far, far from Desolia. I just needed to get there.  I knew we had a couple of flights headed that way each week so I started doing the necessary paperwork. Then, one dusty morning in May, I walked out onto the ramp and boarded a C-141 bound for Athens.

When the crew found out I worked in the control tower, they invited me to ride in the cockpit. I wondered; did they think I might serve as some kind of talisman ~ a "lucky charm" that would protect them from those menacing mishaps our airspace was known for? The Captain in command, a guy around my age named Max, radioed the tower that I was on board. This, to me, was kind of like informing a mugger you have a four-leaf clover in your wallet. It wasn't going to change the outcome.

We taxied out amidst a flock of the Desolian Air Force's F-84 trainers ~ all chattering away in the local lingo. Not knowing what they were saying only heightened the anxiety on the Starlifter's flight deck. Several of them took off ahead of us; turning left or right and vanishing into the turbid haze. As we started our takeoff roll, I took a deep breath, scanned the skies and crossed my fingers. We'd be relatively safe if we could somehow make it a hundred miles or so from the airport without being side-swiped by one of these low time trainees. From experience, our local pilots understood the probability that evasive maneuvers might be needed forthwith. By the same token, we controllers knew that steep turns and rapid altitude changes always took precedence over our control instructions. The deal was simple. Be ready for anything. But Max and his right-seat buddy weren't from around here.

The departure was blissfully uneventful but I could neither exhale or take my eyes off the sky ahead until we were well up into the flight levels. The two guys flying this thing were surprisingly cordial, given our Officer/Enlisted man relationship. They even insisted I call them by their first names while on board. Captain Max and his partner were based in The States but spent most of their time traveling along these high roads, doing pick-up and delivery everywhere. Reaching cruise altitude, we talked about some of the other bases they flew into, the latest news out of Vietnam and our home towns. Max was from Macon, Georgia where, as a teen, he watched the B-52s and big cargo planes flying in and out of Robbins AFB. He said it was his inspiration for joining the Air Force.

By far, the most popular topic was this amazing airplane. They were brimming with enthusiasm over it. In the long enroute hours we spent together, they explained every system that Starlifter had. Then, after one intermediate stop along the way, we arrived over the Aegean coastline. There were a few descent clearances and we were eventually turned over to Athens Approach. The Acropolis and its crown jewel Parthenon came into view. I was glad to be riding up front and able to take it all in while the flight crew set this huge machine up for landing.

Athens was all I expected and more. If ever there was an axis on the wheel of life . . . or civilization ~ this was it.  Two weeks of palatable food, potent wine and perpetual Hellenic sunshine were exactly what was needed to rejuvenate my spirit and stamina. When it was time to leave, I was ready. I stuffed my jeans and tee shirts into the suitcase, climbed back into my Air Force uniform and called for a cab to the airport.

There was a military transport scheduled to depart Athens that day. After an intermediate stop, it would end up at Desolation Air Base. Seating was always contingent on space available and was normally assigned on a first-come, first-served basis. Not wanting to take any chances, I got to the airport very early and had my name added to the stand-by list. Although there were a few names ahead of mine, the airman working the counter was encouraging. According to him, not many people ever left sunny Athens for dusty Desolia. I listened but couldn't believe there were guys like me actually stationed here! This was his job ~ in Athens, Greece! Where the hell did I go wrong.

I sat down next to my suitcase and stared out at the Air Force ramp. The military terminal was a small gray room in need of repainting. A Greek travel poster hung on the far wall, just behind a table holding two empty coffee pots and a stack of paper cups. The whole place smelled like burned coffee. I looked at my watch, waiting for something to happen while thinking about resuming my nightmare back at work. Two C-130s were parked on the far edge of the ramp and one was taking on cargo. I watched for a while; wondering where they were headed. Then I started looking for something to read.

In an hour or so, a C141 taxied in. The crew climbed out, walked through the terminal with their duffel bags and disappeared. The guy behind the counter didn't even look up. A few more Air Force troops showed up and went to the desk. After some talk, they too settled in to wait. I wondered if they were also headed to Desolia. We all waited. Another Starlifter rolled into the ramp. One of the crew members came in, stopped briefly at the desk, studied the stand-by list then went back out to the aircraft. I got up to double check the number of people who were ahead of me on that list. There were just three; all enlisted airmen like me. That didn't worry me. These airplanes were pretty big.

A short while later, I heard some loud discussion behind me. The racket was coming from two Colonels, standing beneath the check-in sign, arguing with the airman behind the counter. I couldn't hear exactly what was being said but it didn't go on for long. Arguments between airmen and officers were usually pretty brief. Within a few minutes, the two officers took their seats in the waiting area. One was shaking his head and laughing. Then I heard; "Will Airman Factor please come to the check-in counter? Airman Factor please." I sighed and got up. This wasn't a good sign.

The Pilot in Command had advised the desk there was room for just five people for the flight to Desolation Air Base. At number four on the list, I would have been one of them; except that the two Colonels had somehow muscled their way into the top two positions. This pushed me down to number six. In other words; I was screwed. The airman behind the counter was doing his best to empathize with me but all I could really hear was my Crew Chief hollering about how I should have started back to the base sooner. I was starting to feel like I was being crushed under that "wheel of life."

I started thinking about how to get word to my duty section. Would this guy behind the counter let me use the military phone system?  Or maybe the flight crew could let the people I work with know about my situation. I was starting to feel like I did before I went on leave; totally stressed out. It got even worse when I heard the boarding call and saw five people get up and head for the aircraft. The two officers were still chuckling about something as they walked by. Neither of them gave me so much as a glance. It got very quiet in that waiting area.

My mind was in turmoil as I stared off into the ramp space. An airman scurried around the aircraft, pulling the chocks away from its wheels. All the doors were closed and I thought I could hear one of the engines starting up. Feeling a little queasy, I wondered if there'd be another flight to Desolation that day. Naah. My fate was sealed up as tight as that Starlifter. Then one of the doors opened again. A guy in a flight suit stepped out and started jogging toward the terminal. He came in, went straight to the check-in desk and picked up the stand-by clip-board. In a moment, "Airman Factor, please come to the check-in counter. Airman Factor please."

The guy in the flight suit was a tough looking old Senior Master Sergeant. He told me to grab my bag and follow him. I wasn't sure what was going on but followed his orders and hoped for the best. Coming to Athens was exciting but being stuck here while my leave expired would lead to excitement of a different nature. We crossed the ramp and climbed into the aircraft. I didn't know how but it appeared I'd been saved! As my eyes grew accustomed to the murky darkness inside the fuselage, I could see those two Colonels strapped into their seats like a couple of high-ranking packages among the pallets of cargo. They weren't laughing anymore. I sighed. It looked like this trip was going to be a long one ~ in more ways than one. I started searching for an available seat but it didn't look like there were any left. Puzzled, I heard a vaguely familiar voice. "Hey airman, get yer young ass up here, and that's an order!" The voice came from the direction of the cockpit. I squinted and saw another guy in a flight suit, wearing Captain's bars. What a coincidence. It was Captain Max!

The two Colonels watched, looking a little stupefied, as this airman three-striper turned and marched toward the flight deck. I just smiled, knowing I'd be back at Desolation on schedule. That "feel of life" was returning.

I saw Max a few more times during the remainder of my tour at Desolation. He'd always call the tower and ask for me when his route brought him through. If he was remaining overnight, I'd find him some civilian clothes and sneak him into the NCO Club. It was a wild place where drinking to forget cost very little. It was also strictly off limits to officers. We'd go in, share a few pitchers of beer and have some laughs. The next morning, he'd be gone. The last time we spoke, he told me he was leaving the Air Force after this hitch and going for a job with the airlines. I hope he made it. Who knows? Maybe Max was one of the countless thousands of voices I heard coming from the skies during my time on the boards. Less plausible coincidences have happened; like that day he appeared, literally out of thin air, to became my lucky charm and save my "young ass" in Athens. It made me wonder; was his route of flight that day simply a coincidence or was it not-so-simply a milestone in some magnificent plan?

That brings me to the question I've often pondered while making my way through life's long labyrinth. Are coincidences really coincidental? As one who believes that everything, good or bad, happens for a reason, I'd have to say no.

© NLA Factor, 2011


Committed To The Game

I wouldn't have admitted it back then. Couldn't have, really. Such solemn disclosures might have played well with "Doctor Phil" but not with a bunch of coworkers who depended on you in a busy air traffic control facility. I wanted to tell them though. I wanted to let them know that coming into work for one of those historically busy shifts often gave me a nasty case of the jitters. Take any hot Thursday or Friday evening in the Summer. Even under ideal conditions, the traffic volume was intimidating enough. But, if you threw in a little adverse weather or took away something from our standard tool chest full of runways, navigational aids, radar, radios and such? Well, even some of our most seasoned stoics might try timing their arrival at the sign-in log; hoping the most harrowing positions had already been taken. I might have been a little more concerned than most though, especially during my early years at Big Time. I was worried. In my four years of Air Force ATC, I'd never seen so many airplanes.

So there I was; a newly certified journeyman; transformed from trembling trainee to knock-kneed neophyte controller. Seasoned or not, we'd all arrive for those tough shifts energized, apprehensive and maybe even a little uneasy. The more experienced fellows would just sneer at heavy traffic. Saturated sectors? No problem for them. They'd stride into the TRACON and take their positions without uttering a word. I, on the other hand, might walk in, chattering nervously with one of the other rookies on my team, glancing from sector to sector and looking for any signs of an impending apocalypse.

You see, it was all about that naive layman's image of the overworked, underpaid and often alcoholic air traffic controllers who held hundreds of lives in the palm of their trembling hands ~ all the while wondering when that one fatal slip-up would make national headlines. I guess every cliché gets its start somewhere. The unspeakable disaster could happen, of course, but that would be about as likely as one of Big Time's controllers forgetting to keep a cold quart of beer and a church key in his car for the drive home.

Still, we rookies worried because of the underlying and veritable gravity of what we were about to get involved in. So we'd stand together, muttering quietly and awaiting our fate. It wouldn't take long before Pete, the Area Manager, would walk up, give us that savvy scowl of his and say something like; "Will one of you fucking idiots get Crock Pot off East Arrival? The other one needs to open up Final Two ~ and don't screw it up!" We'd just smile feebly and move off toward our assigned sectors. The shift was under way.

Insults, expletives and verbal abuse usually broke the tension and were as much a part of the controller culture as headsets and airplanes. Pete was a master at it and even had names for many of the guys on my team. John was known as "Crock Pot."  This was a guy who had come to Big Time from a smaller radar facility. He never outgrew his light traffic mentality and, compared to others, always seemed to be working in slow motion. John was a slow cooker and that pushed Pete's buttons.  "Fry Baby," or Freddy, could push them too. This guy was always getting pissed at one pilot or another. It was usually because somebody didn't comply with a control instruction fast enough or foolishly asked Freddy to repeat something.  Fry Baby would get all hot under the collar, lose his temper, then sit in the break room for as long as possible; whining about everything. It could be the pilots, supervisors, procedures and maybe even one or two of his teammates. Soon Pete would appear in the doorway with that penetrating glare of his and say something like; "Hey Fry Baby! Get your ass up to the tower ~ now!" Freddy was a good controller but he drove me nuts with his bitching.

Back in the TRACON, signing onto one of the control positions was a tense moment. As a new guy, I didn't have enough experience to "read into" either the sector or the controller working there. Whether aggressive, conservative, burned out or crazy; it was sometimes hard for me to understand how and why they got to this point in the picture and where they were going with it. Was this the best plan? Should I dare to try something different? That would be risky because, if I botched things up, people would be all over me later in the break room. If I let things ride, I might end up facing the same heat from my teammates ~ but for a different reason. My mind would race through various options as I listened to the position relief briefing. Like a newborn pony, all I could do was stand on my unsteady legs, use whatever judgment I had assimilated so far and hope for the best.

Surprisingly, it wasn't a rising sense of self-confidence that finally quelled my apprehension. It was usually the sound of the pilots voices on my frequency. Most of them, especially the airline drivers, would calmly acknowledge each transmission and comply. It turned out that calm, just like panic, was actually contagious. I started breathing easier when I heard the pilots quietly acknowledging my instructions. It sounded like they had confidence in what I was doing, so why shouldn't I? With each transmission I made, the traffic picture I'd just inherited was becoming more my own. It felt good.

Because of my long standing preconceptions of FAA life, it would take me several years to reach the level of confidence that gets you in trouble. Those preconceptions started forming back when I was an Air Force controller. I read everything I could find about life in the FAA. Shortly after graduating from ATC school at Keesler AFB in Biloxi, I joined the Air Traffic Control Association (ATCA). I think I must have found a copy of their monthly magazine laying around one of our instructor's offices and ripped out the application form. Their publications were my window into another world of ATC that was vastly different from the Air Force version. It seemed the only thing Air Force and FAA controllers had in common was the phraseology.

There were always interesting articles about new radar systems, control towers, technical innovations and TRACONS ~ plus features about controllers who distinguished themselves in one notable way or another. I ate it all up and licked the plate. Then along came PATCO, which me and my GI buddies joined immediately. The articles in their publications made ATCA's writings seem staid and saccharine ~ maybe even a bit stodgy. PATCO journalism was gritty and radical but probably a bit of an exaggeration ~ or so I thought. Things couldn't really be that bad, could they? What always caught my interest were the pieces written about the pressures a controller was subjected to. There were tales of working long hours on positions, under heavy, unrelenting traffic. Then there were issues involving broken or outdated equipment and having to deal with insensitive megalomaniacs in Management. Apparently, it was all lead to high divorce rates, hypertension and heavy drinking.

Did that scare a 22 year old Airman into deciding he should reenlist rather than jump aboard this train to high anxiety and pandemonium? Nope. Remember; I was twenty-two and, like most in my age group, was producing testosterone at a much faster rate than I could burn it off. I already knew I could handle a few flights of military jets in the bounce pattern at my local Air Base but I needed the chance to prove myself under more challenging conditions. The downsides didn't matter. I had no plans to get married, was already drinking fairly heavily with my Air Force cronies and thought hypertension was something that only happened to old people. As far as I was concerned, my four-year hitch couldn't end quick enough. I thought I was ready for the big league. Somewhere out there, more money, more airplanes and bigger challenges were waiting for me.

Expectations and realities can be like taking your car in for a $200.00 tune-up, only to learn you need a new engine and transmission. My expectations of FAA life and the realities I discovered weren't really that far apart. I expected to find a lot of quivering manic depressive chain smokers who smelled a little like bourbon ~ talking about their girlfriends and boats while deftly working an endless array of airplanes. What I found was only a little different. They smelled more like stale beer.

What I found at Big Time was a facility that had daily traffic counts well into the four-figure range. It wasn't just a little more traffic than I was comfortable with. This was a high volume, high complexity game that tumbled and shifted at speeds I wasn't used to ~ and it was being played by a crowd of crazy people. This was kinda worrisome. What's more; the equipment really was old and prone to sudden failure. Some of the newer equipment was just as unreliable but for different reasons. It had probably been deployed to the field before all the tiny design flaws had been discovered and corrected. No problem though. The controllers would eventually find every one of them and FAA's contractors knew it. Protests from the weary workforce were seen as whining and were generally countered with a grand and imperious apathy. Maybe even a little contempt.

So . . . were the articles I read in those early PATCO publications really true? Were things as bad as they said? Was I in over my head and on the verge of overtaxing my testosterone supply? I'd just have to play this game for a while to decide for myself. Jitters or not, it looked like I was committed to doing just that.

© NLA Factor, 2011


St. Louis Blues

"I hate to see the ev'nin' sun go down
Hate to see the ev'nin' sun go down,
'cause my baby, he done left this town."

W. C. Handy ~ "St. Louis Blues."

'TWAs a different era. Air travel was far more than mere transportation ~ it was an adrenalin rush powered by radial engines, mystique and imagination. Memorable in a good way, people were drawn to their local airport by the glamour and adventure of it all. It was a magical place and stepping out onto the ramp to board your plane was to tread on hallowed ground. What had once seemed impossible would actually happen here as smartly dressed passengers queued up anxiously to embark on their voyage across the cloudscape.
The Sun was rising on commercial aviation and Trans World Airlines was right there, along with a few other airline giants, roaming the nearly empty skies. Back then, their future couldn't have looked any brighter. The evolution of commercial aviation was on a fast track. Bigger, quicker airplanes would fly off the assembly lines. In a temporary triumph of form over function, airport terminals were being designed with style in mind. There were even advances being made in air traffic control. Everything was taking off.  No one could see the storm clouds forming ahead and no one could imagine the shadows they'd eventually cast over some of our most legendary and prosperous airports ~ like St. Louis (STL). 
Giants in the clouds - with thanks to N. C. Wyeth

The aviation landscape would change over the years; its glamour fading into a flying boxcar mentality. Bad business decisions and corporate warfare took the lives of many great airlines and the communities they served. TWA, call it the other Spirit of St. Louis, would disappear forever. Sadly, the fabled Lindbergh Line turned out to be much shorter than it should have been ~ ending on December 1, 2001, after being eaten alive by (the proper euphemism would be "merging with") American Airlines. It was a giant-sized tragedy for air travelers in general and St. Louis in particular, on that sad day when Trans World Airlines made its final approach.

Hub operations would come and go at many other airports; leaving empty terminal buildings, vacant gates and fewer options for air travelers. Infrastructure improvements, made to accommodate hub growth, would be left underutilized. Based on growth projections, St Louis invested a billion dollars on a new runway (11/29). It's now used by only a small percentage their traffic. 

There are plenty of other examples of abandoned hubs.  Take American and Midway Airlines misadventures at Raleigh-Durham (RDU) for instance.  And who could forget the People Express operation at Newark? Here was a true "no shirt, no shoes, no service" kind of carrier that helped turn the magic of air travel into the tedious skyPod, prisoner transfer experience we now tolerate as just another of life's grim realities. 
People Express ~ AKA "Brownhound"

There were those antediluvian days before the corporate feeding frenzies began ~ before merger actually meant murder. When I checked into Big Time back in the Seventies, the terminal buildings weren't all surrounded by airplanes sporting the same logo. I could look down from the tower cab and see some of the names that made aviation so glamorous. Pan American, Trans World, Eastern, Braniff, National and many others ~ now crushed into small pieces of memorabilia you might still find on eBay but never at an airport. They're all gone, taking the heart and soul of air travel with them. Aviation ~ ripped up by its roots. 
Right back at you sweetie!

I've heard folks say that everything is cyclical. What goes around comes around. If so, we might one day expect to see some style and service return to air travel. We won't see aviation giants like TWA, Pan Am or National again though. They all "done left this town."

A brief aside. Back in my military years, back at Desolation Air Base, we would occasionally get late night calls on our approach control frequency. It would be from one of Trans World or Pan Am's long haul international flights, hurtling through the night sky between brightly lit world capitals. When they came within radio range, they'd dial us up and just chat until our signal faded. We had no idea where they were at the time but they'd usually tell us where they were headed. Hearing of those exotic destinations would take me, at least mentally and momentarily, far away from where I was. Listening to those very American voices in the night was a comfort to all of us who sat in that darkened tower cab, far from home.  

© NLA Factor, 2011


The Inevitability Of Innovation And Living In The Moment

I had a plan. I was going to try rounding up my fleeting thoughts about the "Wraparound Remote ATC" piece posted over at the Praxis Foundation site but kept putting it off. The Praxis piece was a compelling read for an old fashioned controller like me. Curiosity even drove me over to the SAAB website, where I learned more about their Remote Tower system specifications and read their sales pitch. I would have have called my post "Control On A Pole." Then I thought twice about it and decided against the project. It worried me ~ just like the idea of email and other means of electronic data transfer probably worried our local postman.

Besides that, I usually stick to writing about my past life in ATC. For better or worse, it's my modus operandi. 

Mulling over the idea of a remote tower just brought back bad memories about how vulnerable our air traffic control system is ~ without even thinking about things like control on a pole or NextGen or even the idea of separating airplanes via GPS. Resolving not to write about it was a big relief.

I did think about it though, because SAAB's website gave me so much information to ponder. The longer I thought about it, the more skeptical I became. For instance, they say that fewer employees (controllers) will be needed if you get yourself a Remote Tower and "punctuality will improve." I wondered if they meant air traffic punctuality or the controller's? Well, whatever. Punctuality is all good, right?

They also claim we'll get "enhanced situational awareness!" Now that's something I could never get enough of during my time on the boards. But wait; there's more! SAAB says that "one controller could potentially provide aerodrome control service for two to three towers simultaneously." One controller ~ working three airports? Really? When things go wrong, isn't someone usually hollering about the fact that positions were combined or there just weren't enough people on duty? It was one thing to walk into the TRACON and be told that the Final sector was combined with one of the arrival scopes. Do we now believe sending a controller in to work Airport A, combined with Airport B and/or Airport C is a good idea?

See what I mean? Total skepticism.

Still, SAAB's basic concept (minus their hyperbole) intrigued me, like so many other technological advances have in the past. But really though . . .   

fewer employees (much fewer) . . . 
enhanced situational awareness?
Thinking back on the early days of ARTS (Automated Radar Terminal System), I recall how little the controllers trusted it. Rightly so. Problems were frequent and serious. As time passed ~ RNAV, Automated ATIS, automated Pre-Departure Clearance, TCAS, DSP (don't even ask) and a host of other new systems made their way into our lexicon. Each was greeted with great suspicion by the workforce. Eventually, either the glitches would be worked out (often a painful process) or the idea was thrown out.

Hard as it was, I always tried to keep an open mind. I never wanted to appear so deeply mired in traditional ways of getting the job done that I couldn't appreciate new ideas. They were going to happen anyway; whether I liked them or not. Therein lies the inevitability of innovation. It's really just evolution at work and that's generally a good thing, albeit a bit disconcerting at times. 

If this post was really about control on a pole, I'd have to say my discomfort has nothing to do with the idea itself. Basically, it's feasible and has merit. Get rid of SAAB's utopian claims and I'm fairly sure this thing would work at low density airports. What does concern me is that vulnerability issue I mentioned earlier. Back in the Autumn of '81, after the smoke of a long battle cleared out of the facility, our Chief and a couple Supervisors cracked open the once private locker used by PATCO to store their union business. There, tucked among the clutter of the Local's many scurrilous newsletters, grievance forms, grievance denials and other combustibles, was a large manila envelope. Inside were fragments of their own "strike contingency plan." Fascinating, shocking and sad; the only part I'll mention here is a document that laid out their plan to blow up our radar antenna if the job action failed to meet expected goals. It would have been a fairly simple task to accomplish and, if successful, would have been catastrophic.

At its best, the human element in air traffic control is what makes it work so well. At its worst, the human element is its biggest liability. Speaking from experience.

ATC is and always was a very fragile system. Controller staffing levels fluctuate; generally downward. Radar, radios, landlines, computers and even satellites can and do blink off-line almost as quick as controllers can piss themselves when it happens. Which reminds me; unless the Remote Tower can also it fix itself, I suspect finding a technician to climb that pole when it's 20 degrees outside, with blowing snow or sleet, might prove difficult ~ at least in the mind of a skeptic.

As anyone in the aviation industry will tell you, things go wrong ~ more often than we read about. During my 30 some years in the business, I had my share of unexpected radar, computer and communications failures. Do we really want to consider erecting a "control tower" that could be completely snuffed out from a half-mile away by anyone with a hunting rifle and a good aim? Okay, maybe I'm both skeptical AND paranoid. So, in deference to my paranoia, I'm not going to write about control on a pole. 

I said it before. I'm an old fashioned controller. Workable as it may be, the remote tower idea takes me so far out of my comfort zone that I feel like I'm in orbit ~ some thousand miles or so above reality. I can't even imagine a series of cameras, Internet connections and projectors wired in between me, my airplanes and my airport. Could more practical information about the system make me feel better? Probably. I have to admit though; when it comes to control towers, I'm a glass enclosed son of a light gun who always liked the sound of airplane engines, other controllers and the smell of Jet A. 

For me, it comes down to this. I believe new concepts, their design and development should be like gift giving. People say "it's the thought that counts." There needs to be lots of thought invested before technological and procedural "gifts" are imposed on the aviation community. Sometimes it seems like people are in a hurry to fail. Good ideas are deployed too soon, leaving folks in the field to discover their shortfalls at the least opportune times. That all important first impression turns bad and establishing credibility for the new becomes exponentially more difficult. 

I referred to the law of apporetics in an earlier post. The law states that once an idea becomes plausible it becomes possible and once it becomes possible it becomes inevitable. The remote tower is a good example of a plausible idea making the leap to possible and I am certain of its inevitability. There will undoubtedly be many more plausible ideas put forth in the field of air traffic control and the law will push them to their inevitable conclusion. 

One conclusion? As time goes by there will be fewer controllers. To those who doubt it, I suggest you talk to the unemployed Flight Engineers who believed in the fool's gold of indispensability. In these days of robots and drones, we see an increasing number of job functions that require a decreasing number of people to perform them. Although it is nearly impossible to imagine a National Airspace System (NAS) without any controllers, I am reasonably sure that day will come too. We may not see it in our lifetime but it will come. Watch for a slow, sometimes subtle but inexorable process (like the Remote Tower) and you might actually see that glacier moving forward.

I wouldn't worry about it though. If you are now or ever were an air traffic controller, just be proud of what you are doing or what you did. It's never been done any better, by anybody anywhere. Accept the fact that change is inevitable. Live and be happy in this moment. It's all we really have.

© NLA Factor, 2011


No Longer A Factor ~ The Early Years


This photo was taken back when pleated pants, dress shirts and neckties were mandatory. We had some latitude with the shirts though.  They could be any color; as long as they were colored white.  Oh, and we had to roll the shirt sleeves up. Somehow, it made us look busier.

The guy to my right had tippled a bit too much "Pilot's Special Fuel" that day. He thought he was working Ground Control but you'll notice the microphone is plugged into his pants.

© NLA Factor, 2011


Things I Learned . . .



© NLA Factor, 2011


ATC ~ Music To My Ears

I had a little fun recently, working at what turned out to be a very illuminating part-time job. It added up to five weekends in a restaurant kitchen, assisting a slightly crazy and more than slightly corpulent Bulgarian Chef who had just landed the catering contract for a local music festival. The restaurant was located near the festival grounds and the owners graciously, perhaps foolishly, allowed us to use their kitchen for our purposes during off hours.

I've known Yuri for years. He used to have a fantastic restaurant nearby. Now he only does freelance work and consulting. Anyway, he needed someone reliable who lived nearby so he asked me to help out. I hesitated because it was Summer and I had several big outdoor projects to get done. I also hesitated because this was new territory for me; a fact that actually brought me around to agreeing.  Although I’d never done commercial kitchen work before, I ended up seeing many similarities between the food service game and my years in air traffic control. There was the boss ~ scurrying around in circles, scowling and sputtering at everyone. The workplace was chaotic, the help temperamental and unreliable, product quality was inconsistent, customers complained, management offered baffling excuses and, of course, knives could be thrown at any moment. Sound familiar? Also like ATC, it was a continual learning experience and one hell of a lot of fun!

Chef Yuri is considered a genius among his peers. He's always been very successful and, having worked for him a while, I think I now understand why. His main emphasis with me and the other three who were helping with the festival project was absolute standardization throughout the preparation process. You'll understand the importance of this when you think about the many times you went to a particular restaurant and ordered the same menu item ~ maybe a cheeseburger. Chances are, if you ordered it five different times, it was served five different ways. Sometimes it was a little over or under done. Sometimes there was hardly any cheese or so much lettuce and tomato that you couldn't get your mouth around the bun. Not so at Chef Yuri's table.

Yuri preached standardization ~ literally at knife point; starting with the most basic steps in preparation like slicing and dicing each ingredient. Every piece had to be cut to the prototypic size or, according to Yuri, you'd end up with some parts either overcooked or undercooked. Weights, measures, cooking temperatures and times always had to be the same for any particular dish. These constraints yielded constancy, which meant his customers were rarely disappointed. Innovation and creativity were things to be tried off-line ~ NOT when the restaurant was full of anxious customers and food orders were flying in and out of his kitchen! The consecutive culinary successes served up to customers at Chef Yuri's table were prepared in strict compliance with his table of weights and measures.

This was one aspect of the job that was starkly different from air traffic control which, unlike Yuri's tightly controlled recipe standards, I always considered more analogous to music. To me, a controller's prescribed standards were really nothing more than sheets of music, from which one could, like a fine musician, spontaneously improvise on the melody line, change the rhythm or pick up the pace. The best controllers I knew were valued for their innovation and creativity under pressure. They didn't rely solely on the sheet music. They knew the score and could play it by ear.

We've all either worked with them or, with luck, will one day. These controllers reveal a prodigious touch when it comes to moving airplanes. They always seem to have a sixth sense about what needs to be done and can innovate on the fly to meet their goals. They were out there, moving airplanes, long before the hackneyed phrase about thinking "outside the box" was coined. To me, they were also a litmus test for shift Supervisors; the best of whom were always willing to endorse a new or different way of doing something. The worst Supervisors would cling to conventional thinking like a security blanket. They'd often end their shift with at least two problems. Operational inefficiencies could lead to reportable delays ~ delays they'd have to justify (never fun). They had also just reinforced at least one controller's stereotypical belief that Management never listens. Remember; just because something is considered a stereotype doesn't mean it's not true.

So this was as it should be in our business. As long as safety is never compromised, air traffic control should be an exercise in freedom of expression. That also means giving other people's ideas some consideration. Sure, we have our necessary constraints and limits. Your old, dog-eared copy of the point sixty-five is full of them. It's a manual of minimums and must-do standards ~ the printed sheets of music I mentioned earlier. We need it for safety's sake. Think, however, about what all the relevant air traffic directives don't tell you. Here is small slice of wisdom from that book we all love:

Among other things, this paragraph advises us of our "not optional" obligation to provide additional services. However, it doesn't give us any specifics.  So what are we talking about here?  An extra wind check for the guy on short final? Clearing an airplane direct to some point a couple hundred miles away at 3:00 AM? Coordinating with an overlying sector so a departure can climb above 10,000 sooner? Could it be something like entering a flight plan into the system for some poor sap caught VFR on top? All of this and more ~ but don't ask the people who wrote this time-honored tome for a definition. Paragraph 2-1-1simply tells us it's okay, in fact, expected that we be "musicians" but does not tell us how to do it. You have to know the score, then be free and willing to use your imagination. That's the moment when ATC, like music, becomes an art form. Be mindful of those "security blanket" Supervisors though. They may not appreciate your creative instincts . . which reminds me of Old Jack.

The first time I saw one of our most accomplished journeymen get hollered at was on a stunningly VFR Winter morning at Big Time. We were having our problems though. The area had gotten about 12 inches of snowfall overnight. This left us dayshifters with just one landing runway and a few main taxiways to use while snow removal crews worked on the rest of the place. Holding patterns stayed full since the tower needed an honest 5 miles in-trail (MIT) to allow time for each airplane to clear the runway. Only one exit taxiway was open at the far end and it took the landing traffic a while to get there. As a result, inbounds were trickling off the outer fixes, 20 MIT, and merging into one long, widely spaced line to the airport.

Old Jack was working at one of the approach sectors when word came down that another landing runway was opening. I was a newly minted journeyman, seated at one of the other approach positions and completely engrossed in managing my own holding pattern. The TRACON Supervisor came around and told me, Jack and the other approach sectors to empty the holding patterns and "run 'em, ten in trail!" That was all Jack needed to hear.

Old Jack had "street cred." He'd worked at two other high density facilities, was smart, level headed and well respected by all. On the other hand, our TRACON Supervisor had come to us from the Regional Office because . . . well, because it was his turn to get supervisory experience at a busy facility. A bureaucrat with relatively little field experience, we grudgingly tolerated his frequent dithering because we knew he'd be gone in a year or two ~ probably back to the Mother Ship as a Branch Chief, then off to some other field facility as Manager. This was the typical career path for those anointed by the Air Traffic Division.

"Run 'em!" was the call, so I obligingly cleared the bottom aircraft out of my pattern, started descending the rest to the next available altitude, updated a few EFC times and thought about letting the Center sector know what my highest holding altitude now was. Chef Yuri would have been proud of me because it was all being done by the numbers. Then I glanced over at Old Jack's traffic. In the minute or two since we got the word to run planes; he already had two off his holding fix and a third about to join the line.

The next thing I knew, Mr. Security Blanket was standing behind Jack and yelling something about "first come, first served." Rather than starting at the bottom of his holding pattern (like me), apparently Jack had pulled a couple of flights from the middle of the stack because he saw an opportunity to "organize and expedite" his traffic (See Par. 2-1-1 above). Both airplanes happened to be inbound toward the holding fix when the "Run 'em " order was heard. Therefore, they could be on vectors toward home quicker than the guys on their outbound leg. To Jack, they were targets of time and money saving opportunity.

Old Jack couldn't have pulled off this cunning feat without some interfacility coordination either. Up at those altitudes, he didn't own the airspace outside the holding pattern. All was quickly and quietly accomplished with the imagination and virtuosity of an accomplished musician.

As the team neophyte, I'd never seen such a move and was impressed. Our annoying Regional superstar was not. He was now ranting about which flights had been holding the longest, who had the earliest EFC times, who would be calling to complain and blah, blah, blah. Jack turned his head briefly and made what I thought was a very appropriate, albeit vulgar suggestion. I heard the word "insubordination" being used repeatedly. That's when Pete, our Area Manager appeared. After assessing the issue, Pete told the Supervisor to stop by the Watch Desk. We couldn't hear all of what was being said but we could feel the heat radiating out from their discussion. Two minutes later, Pete sent him upstairs to relieve the tower Supervisor.

Once Mr. Security Blanket left the TRACON, Pete walked over to check on the arrival sectors. Everything was running according to plan and we'd soon be out of reportable delays. Later in the shift, he and Old Jack had a long discussion which, according to Jack, went well. He and Pete had both come up through busy facilities as controllers. They both understood how useless any extra miles between arrivals were and while "first come, first served" was an equitable way of conducting business, it wasn't always the best way to "organize and expedite the flow of traffic."

Pete eventually moved on to another facility that was closer to where he planned on retiring. We would soon miss his uncanny ability to cut through the most complex crap, identify the underlying issues and take action. The idea of Management taking action would gradually fade as the years passed; trending instead toward a "wait and see" attitude that allowed problems to grow out of hand.

The "security blanket Supervisor" did, as expected, return to the Regional Office. I saw his signature on the bottom of several mindless memos sent out to the facilities. Each one of them served to accelerate the loss of credibility our leadership had with the controllers, Supervisors and other field personnel.

Old jack retired a couple of years later; taking his music out the door with him. As we settled into the post-strike, point and click era, I met fewer and fewer controllers like Jack, who "knew the score and could play it by ear."  

Not to discount the value of standards in our business. In my time, I saw too many aggravating examples of sub-standard performance. There was inattentiveness, horrible phraseology, non-compliance with procedures, too much room between departures or arrivals, holding airplanes too long or not long enough, being oblivious to the traffic situation in adjacent sectors and the list goes on. I saw it all and was occasionally a part of it. Things like these, if viewed singularly, had relatively minor impact on the big picture. But taken cumulatively, they would subtly erode overall system efficiency.

I also saw the rise of a workforce who grew to need everything spelled out for them. If it wasn't in writing somewhere; they didn't do it. A kind of security blanket, I suppose. Spontaneity, creativity, taking the initiative and seizing the moment was fading into my old friend Chef Yuri's vision of success through "doing everything the same way." That's why, in my later years, if I heard a controller who dared to do something different; it was truly music to my ears!

© NLA Factor, 2011


Stepping Into History

It's been 30 years since the strike. For me, that's not nearly enough time to shake off the vivid memories and strong emotions it left me with. Sometimes, especially this time of year, I wonder what ever happened to all those guys and the few women I worked with so long ago. It's funny. I can't remember most of the people I knew during my last two FAA assignments but I can't forget the names of everyone I worked with before August 3rd of '81 ~ good friends and trusted coworkers all. It was a sobering time when much was revealed about the capabilities of people I thought I already knew pretty well.

Time Magazine, August 17, 1981
A lot has been written about the strike in those thirty years. Some writers have been respectful, informative and honest in their reporting. Some took what they learned in an interview or two, extrapolated more from that, then wrote an interesting, if not entirely factual story. Other writers made their partisan agenda far too obvious to be credible. You really had to be there.

Many who were involved before and after the strike know only a fraction of the tale. Those who walked away from their positions on August 3rd of '81 know only the first part of a drama that dragged on for many more years. Controllers hired immediately after August 3rd were privy to another part of the story but can only imagine how it started. Then there were the ones who went out, came to their senses and returned to work within the 48 hour grace period. They know much but still missed a beat or two. Unless a person was working in an FAA air traffic facility before, during and after the strike, I read or listen to what they have to say about it all with a measure of skepticism.

One frequently reported ambiguity has been that pre-strike morale among FAA's air traffic employees was scraping bottom. True, but I think it's important to clarify a couple of things. The term "employees" applied to all kinds of air traffic employees ~ not just the controllers standing in towers or sitting at their sectors. At Big Time, morale was also low among Supervisors who had to deal directly with an increasingly belligerent workforce while having to enforce policies that ranged from the petty to the preposterous. A first line Supervisor was usually the one standing at the flash point whenever a controller blew up over something. Many of the Supes I knew were actually more anxious to see a walkout than even the most radical PATCO members because it would remove several thorns from their side.

Morale was also low among Facility Management personnel. Although they'd deny it, the Staff Officers were growing tired of dealing with a seemingly endless stream of incoming Grievances, Unsafe Condition Reports and accusations of Unfair Labor Practices. Worse was the fact that local Management was rarely given the latitude to settle things at the facility level with their union counterparts. Everything went through the Regional Office, who ultimately dictated the approved response to their field facilities. The risks associated with allowing any one facility to establish what might become an untenable precedent was simply too great. So, emasculated by forces beyond his control, our Chief would shuffle out of his office now and then to posture for the workforce. His usual posture however, was to be slumped at his desk, reading through the growing piles of trouble and waiting for the next Regional Telcon to begin.

Of course, many of the controllers suffered from low morale. No surprise there either. Oppressive, uncompromising Management policies roiled them while PATCO's rhetoric and bellicosity roused them. Most were in a place where there was no refuge from the turbulence. They got angry and the angrier they became, the more conflicts there were with each other and with Management. More conflict meant more discontent, resentment and retaliation. Combined, they were the catalyst for what would soon occur. PATCO had its members right where they wanted them.

Everyone had their issues. . . with the exception of those working in Regional Offices or FAA Headquarters who knew they had the upper hand ~ no matter what the outcome.

It should also be recognized that not all employees of the FAA's Air Traffic Organization suffered from low morale. Discontent maybe but not low morale. The fact that I stayed on the job should not be construed as an endorsement of the way FAA managed its air traffic control enterprise. Far from it. I worked under the same out of touch autocracy that finally exasperated many of the strikers. Fortunately, I was among those who could either ignore or cope with FAA's imperfections by focusing on what, to us, was still the pure elation of working traffic. We just tuned out the cacophony of dissonance, immersed ourselves in the airplanes and waited for shift change.

Our morale was high. As the strike deadline neared, we shared an indescribably high level of energy brought on by the challenge we anticipated. The feeling was probably akin to a boxer about to step into the ring with a world champion. We were spoiling for a fight like everyone else, but for different reasons. Of course this made us targets for union members who recognized us as future scabs in the upcoming strike.

All of us, no matter what our plans for August 3, had at least one thing in common. Together, we were about to be goaded into uncharted territory. The union had a long history of mischief but had never gone this far before. As certain as the strike seemed on the morning of August 2, most of us were still unsure. Would PATCO really pull the trigger on Monday morning or was it all a bluff intended to make the FAA blink in the contract negotiations?

Everyone was anxious. Some who had reluctantly committed to the strike were feeling a sense of dread ~ each one hoping the union would step back from the point of no return ~ hoping they wouldn't have to go through with what they'd committed to and fearing the consequences. Local PATCO leadership tried to strengthen any unsteady confidence with their pre-strike mantra ~ "They can't fire all of us!"

There were many on the management side who hoped the strike would happen. Pete, our Area Manager, was one who left no doubt in anyone's mind about his hope for a strike. Like many of us, he saw an opportunity to rid the facility of its chronic complainers, union militance and malevolence. I was pretty sick of it myself because of the uncooperative atmosphere it had created between control positions. Unlike me though, Pete knew they'd be fired long before the general public ever heard it from Ronald Reagan. He also must have known a lot more than I did about FAA's strike contingency plans and was confident that they would work. So, at shift change, he frequently traded barbs and witticisms with the PATCO dissidents as they left the TRACON ~ hoping he wouldn't have to see or hear from them much longer. Just part of the game.

From the other side, PATCO's most combative members grew increasingly antagonistic toward anyone recognized as a probable non-participant. I was getting used to my status as adversary and came to anticipate being jammed with traffic, handoffs being accepted late, pointouts refused and other subtle techniques employed to raise my anxiety level. Just another part of the game. I was also being shunned by many old friends in the break room. It didn't bother me though. I had nothing to say to anyone foolish enough to walk away from one of the Federal Government's highest paying jobs ~ a job I loved and had waited a long time to get.

There were intense efforts by PATCO to establish or strengthen the bonds of union solidarity with anyone still undecided about whether or not to participate in the strike. Most of the faithful were convinced the aviation system would cease to function during a strike. They were also confident that the Government could never afford to purge themselves of such a large part of the controller workforce. They were ready to go. But there remained those few "fence sitters" who couldn't decide which bed to put their shoes under. Various degrees of persuasion and arm-twisting ensued ~ with chilling success.

Where you were working in 1981 largely determined how you experienced the strike's run-up and aftermath. My first-hand pre and post strike observations at Big Time would not necessarily correspond with what went on elsewhere. For example; at Big Time, the pre-strike focus for most controllers was indeed on the money aspects of the contract. The $2,500.00 raise in salary FAA offered in June might have sounded significant to controllers at Level One through Three facilities. Generally speaking, they worked in areas where the cost of living was much lower. However, those of us who worked at the Level Four and Five facilities lived mostly in areas where the cost of living was quite high. Much of that $2,500.00 would have vanished into increases in our tax rates. Yes, money was important to all of us. After all, debt is a timeless phenomenon and back then, as today, we had plenty of it.

Although some have attempted to explain it differently, the 32 hour work week proposed by PATCO was, to me, also a money issue. The way I saw it ~ anyone receiving the same salary for working 32 hours that they once got for working 40 hours was getting an hourly pay raise.

There were other, tantalizing tidbits contained in FAA's June offer but it wasn't enough to placate the PATCO faithful. So, early on the morning of August 3rd, I received a telephone call from one very excited Supervisor. The strike was on. Day shift staffing appeared adequate for traffic levels but I would be needed at 3:00 p.m. He warned me about probable picketing at the entrance to our parking lot. "Just ignore them" he said. I sat in front of the television all morning, watching various news teams cover the strike from several locations across the country. Even though I wasn't really surprised by what was happening, I was still incredulous.

The picket lines were long, loud and impossible to ignore. All those faces I knew so well looked very different under the intense heat of an August sun and the pressure of a struggle they would never win. Anger, fear and apprehension had quickly overtaken the look of audaciousness and arrogance they wore just a day ago. Some looked like they were facing a firing squad. Well, there actually would be a lot of firing but they didn't know it yet.

There are some persistent truths associated with what happened thirty years ago. For one thing, it changed the future for everyone who walked out. It also changed the future for those who stayed to deal with the consequences. Sadly though, it did not change the future for controllers hired after the strike. With the Federal Aviation Administration stuck riding on a not so merry-go-round of repeat mistakes, it seems unlikely that things will change soon. Beneath all the new programs and platitudes I saw since the strike, there remained the same culture of confrontation that started all the trouble.

What of all those people who loomed so large in my life in 1981? I miss everyone; whether they stayed or struck. Sometimes I wonder though. What might have been if the whole thing hadn't happened? By the mid-nineties, many of those fired thousands might have worked their way into upper management positions. Once there, would they have attempted to make positive changes to a system they had once fought so hard against ~ or would they simply have scrapped their ideals and assimilated? We'll never know. I can tell you this from experience though . . . a controller's ideals, brought into management, can be seen as excess baggage that should have been left behind.

So anyway, here's to a happy thirtieth anniversary. For those who went out, I don't agree with what they did but I do agree with some of their motives. Face it; this wasn't the first time people did the wrong thing for the right reasons. Most of us were such kids back then but, for better or worse, we all made our choices. Whether walking onto or off the job that day; we all stepped into history.

© NLA Factor, 2011