Where Are They Now? Eddie

I got to know a lot of people during my time in the FAA. I need to write about some of them; starting with Eddie.

My most memorable experiences from the '60s were taken from the perspective of an Air Force recruit. The world was erupting and, like a volcano, no one could stop it. Even if we could, most of us wouldn't have wanted to. I could feel everything rocking and rolling but it was from within the constraints of a well pressed military uniform. Come 1969, while much of my generation converged on Woodstock for that three days of peace and music, I stood in an Air Force control tower, lusting after Grace Slick and listening to the derisive discordance of my Sergeant's remarks about "those candy-assed, long haired Hippies!" Well, he'd already done two tours in Vietnam and had been passed over several times for promotion. Bitter about nearly everything; his outlook on life had become just another prisoner of war.

I was discharged from the Air Force later that year. The sixties-style social upheaval threw me from one tumultuous decade to the next, where I eventually landed at Big Time as a trainee controller. Images of those long gone days flicker and blink in my memory like a bad neon sign. As the years pass, they're fading from full color to a timeworn sepia tone. I still see them though ~ mostly at night. I see the people who accompanied me along the way from how things were then to how things are today. I see their faces; some smiling, some smirking and some just strung-out from exhaustion. I like to remember the impetus behind those smiles but I also recall the reasons for those wry smirks and the enervating exhaustion.

I've lost touch with most of them and often wonder; where are they now? Why do I remember so few, having forgotten so many? Why do I remember Eddie?

Eddie transferred into Big Time from another busy airport where he'd spent years working only in the control tower. By the time I arrived on the scene, Eddie was fully rated throughout the facility but clearly preferred tower duty over the TRACON. On the radar sectors, he seemed timid and unsure of himself; testing the patience of many more aggressive controllers. The tower, however, was his domain and he ruled with a flourish. To Eddie, the airport was like an amphetamine and his speed was contagious. Working any position that exchanged traffic with Local Control when he was signed on meant you kept pace with his potency. Here was a guy who couldn't stop. He couldn't even slow down. Airport traffic control was simply the outlet for his overactive adrenal gland.

He was a smooth talker and he talked to his traffic non-stop; which is to say that every pilot on his frequency knew precisely what his plans and expectations were. Accordingly, they were always ready to do their part to make it work. He was a master in the art of the squeeze-play. When I would have bet the paycheck he couldn't get a departure out between two closely spaced arrivals; I'd end up being amazed. As his next departure swung into position, someone in the tower cab might gasp and mutter "Jeesus Eddie!" The pilot on short final might gripe and the Supervisor would just shake his head and look away. In less than a minute it was over. Eddie made it happen.

Down in the TRACON, approach controllers loved him because, when Eddie was on Local, there was rarely any whining over the arrival intervals being too tight. Departure controllers squirmed in their seats; knowing that Eddie never missed a chance to utter one of his favorite phrases: "Cleared for immediate takeoff." Ground controllers liked working next to him because, unless there were unusual restrictions, they could keep a steady supply of airplanes rolling toward the runways. The Assistant Chief would make sure Eddie was sent to the tower whenever departures and arrivals had to share the same runway.

As a trainee, I was often assigned to the mid-shift with Eddie. We'd finish up what was left of the late evening traffic by 1:30 or 2:00, then make small talk while the cargo flights trickled in and out. When the airplanes finally stopped calling and there were no more active strips in the bays, Eddie would glance at his watch. Then, at precisely 3:00 A.M., he'd sometimes suggest that I "go downstairs and study." This was code for "Go home." Too inexperienced to question the call, I'd usually head down the tower steps and into the breakroom, where I'd sleep for the rest of the shift. Getting lots of "study" time was one of the best reasons to work a round of mids with Eddie. Actually, I couldn't wait to get checked out so that I could give poor Eddie a break from those late night doldrums. As I later discovered; he wouldn't have really wanted a break.

Big Time is a sprawling airport where, like us controllers, lots of people work through the night. I met a few of them in my years. Sometimes they'd call and ask to come up to the tower for a look. One night I met a guy who had been in my high school class. Back then, no one could possibly imagine where we'd all end up. He was now employed by one of the airlines and driving a tug on their ramp.

As a trainee working mids with Eddie, I even met a flight attendant! Coincidentally, she was climbing the tower steps at 3:00 A.M. as I was heading down to "study." I guess either her timing or Eddie's was a little off that night. As any controller knows ~ a departure and an arrival should never meet, opposite direction, on the same flight path. She smiled and winked as we passed each other. That was the moment when I understood why Eddie would send me off at three in the morning. I smiled too.

As I said; Eddie was a smooth talker.

Eddie eventually transferred out of Big Time. He went off to another busy tower but it was one where he wouldn't have to work radar. We'd get occasional updates from him for the first year or so but they eventually stopped coming. I suppose he's happily retired by now but who knows? Eddie had a lot of energy to burn and he never knew how to stop.

Why do I remember Eddie so vividly after all the years? Sure, he was cocky, crazy and very capable but so were many of the controllers and Supervisors I worked with. I suppose I remember Eddie because of what I learned by observing him. The lessons went much deeper than basic and advanced air traffic control. He taught me the importance of trusting my professional instincts. The years of experience had taught him to trust his own and it distinguished him from the rest. Take those "squeeze plays" for example. Where one controller may have considered the possibility of getting a departure off between two particular arrivals and wondered briefly if it would work; Eddie knew it would. Had he wasted even a moment or two on second thoughts; the opportunity would have been lost. He trusted the instincts he'd developed over his career and implemented his plan without hesitation.

No matter what the endeavor; Eddie was a 'go for it' guy and I still smile when I think of him.

© NLA Factor, 2011

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