Another Way Out

I'm taking another "sentimental journey" back to Desolia; a pockmarked asteroid of a country, tumbling, unchanged, through time. Although far from the most significant chapter in my aviation career, it sure was an interesting one. Of course the Country and Air Base names are fictitious and I've given the characters pseudonyms, but the place and what happened back then are as real as I remember them. Anyone who's been reading this Blog over the last year or so may recall my first tale of Desolation. To continue . . .

Staff Sergeant Wendt was gone. He had been missing for two days and nobody really knew what happened to him; although we controllers had our theories. For sure, someone around here had the facts but they would be talking in hushed tones behind the doors of some conference room at base Headquarters or whispering in the quiet corridors of the Officer's Club. The facts in this matter simply resided too far above the enlisted grades for us to ever learn the truth. The only truth we knew was that Wendt was gone. His disappearance wasn't entirely unexpected though. Others had also vanished after having similar experiences around here. I'll tell you what I can remember.

The scene was the cab of an aged control tower at Desolation Air Base. It was a late '60s Summer and we were plodding through the slow-motion minutes of an evening shift with nothing but a trickle of traffic. Our DAF (Desolian Air Force) counterparts were gathered together in the back of the tower, engaged in their favorite late evening pastime of card playing. I don't remember what the game was called but it resembled poker and they were passionate about it.

Me, Sergeant Wendt (our NCO in charge) and another airman sat on our side of the cab talking about what we usually talked about when there were no airplanes. Such discussions generally revolved around one of two subjects. The first, and by far the most popular was how much time was left on our tour of duty at Desolation AB. Who was the shortest "short-timer?" Wendt hadn't been there very long and neither had George, the other airman on duty. I had less than four months to go and so was clearly the short-timer. The subtext of these discussions was what we'd do as soon as we returned stateside. For me, there was a restaurant waiting in my hometown that made the best lasagna ever.

The next most intriguing topic was who might get lucky in the upcoming promotion cycle. I can tell you now ~ it wouldn't be Sergeant Wendt.

Our Desolian interpreter, Mr Fye, never worked the night shift so if any communication was needed between their controllers and ours; we had to rely on their limited command of English, our limited command of Desolian or, more likely, a series of wild semaphoric hand signals to figure out what was going on. Of course, knowing what was going on and actually caring about what was going on were two different things in Desolation Tower.

A phone began ringing at the non-radar approach control position. It was there we practiced the dark arts you read about in Chapter 6 (Nonradar) of the 7110.65. TACAN penetrations, timed approaches, diverging, converging and crossing course separation and other mystical means of keeping airplanes from colliding were all performed using nothing more than a clock, flight strips and black felt tip markers. The card players had a similar position on their side of the tower but, as their phone continued ringing, it became clear they were not going to answer. After a few moments, Sergeant Wendt picked up the line.

The civilian enroute center was calling with an inbound. Wendt grabbed a blank flight progress strip and began writing. Although a bit late, it was the usual traffic for this hour of night. A Vickers Viscount, operated by the Desolian National Airline, was on a slightly behind schedule run into the nearby civil airport. The airfield was uncontrolled but our facility furnished approach control services. As always though; house rules required each Air Force to control their own traffic ~ civil or military. Wendt completed the inbound ticket, placed it in a strip holder on their side of the console and rejoined our conversation. Ten or fifteen minutes passed and the phone lit up again. A progress report from the center. The Desolian flight was estimating our boundary in five minutes.

Wendt marked the strip then tapped the plastic holder on the approach console to get someone's attention on the DAF's side of the tower. They looked up briefly from their card game then resumed their own conversation. Mildly irritated, Wendt slapped the strip holder into their bay. Sometime later, another phone rang. This time, Sergeant Mouseff, their senior NCO answered. Someone over at the civil airport was looking for a release for a departing Viscount. Mouseff scribbled on a strip, made a few remarks in the native tongue, then hung up. Within seconds, he was reimmersed in their card game. Wendt glanced at the strip, now stacked above the inbound ticket in the bay. He was curious because simultaneous arrival and departure activity at that airport was pretty rare. The Viscount was released and, as usual for traffic out of there, was cleared short to the only VOR inside our airspace. There was an "up" arrow drawn in with the number 50 printed next to it ~ also the usual. We resumed our discussion over the chances for promotion.

Wendt offered to buy the pizza if one of us junior bird men would run over to the NCO Club for it. Overcome with boredom, I volunteered. Wendt reached into his wallet and handed me a twenty. Within seconds I was hurrying down the stairs and out the door. I was hungry and the club was only four blocks away. What apparently happened next soon became an important part of Desolation Tower folklore.

Minutes after I left, that inbound Desolian Airliner called over a fix just outside our boundary. The card game paused just long enough for one of their guys to answer ~ in the native tongue. He unkeyed his mic, marked the strip and returned to his game. Now . . . although the native language is difficult, you couldn't work in that tower for very long without at least understanding a few basic phrases, such as the pilot's readback of his altitude assignment. Sergeant Wendt thought he heard their controller clear that flight to the VOR at five thousand, so he couldn't resist peeking at the strip. It was, in fact, marked with a down arrow and the number 50. Wendt peered over at the card players and waved his hand in a "come hither" kind of gesture. Sergeant Mouseff stood up, looking very annoyed. It was known by all that Mouseff strongly disliked Americans and made no effort to hide it. He especially disliked Sergeant Wendt.

I waited for our pizza in the lobby. Desolation's NCO club was a raucous place; always busy because there wasn't much else to do around there but drink. Most of us reasoned that alcohol might eventually kill whatever caused our ongoing dysentery. It didn't, of course, but at least you could forget the pain for a while. Desolia was known as a place where no one ever broke wind for fear of shitting themselves. Everyone learned this the hard way within a month after transferring into Desolation Air Base.

The pizza came out in about ten minutes. Then there was another ten minute walk back to work. All tolled, I must have been gone maybe 30 minutes or so. Reaching the top step of the tower, the first thing I noticed was our Chief Controller; a Senior Master Sergeant named Clay. In civilian clothes, he looked tired and pissed. I immediately suspected I'd be getting my ass chewed for being away from duty. George sat on a widow ledge looking worried. The Desolian controllers were still playing cards but Wendt and Mouseff were missing.

George gave me all the details later on. Apparently Wendt had tried pointing out to Mouseff that both the arriving and departing flights appeared to be cleared to the VOR at the same altitude. Mouseff, who actually spoke fairly good English, stared at his cards, sneered and reminded Wendt in a low tone, that these were Desolian flights and to mind his own business. Minutes passed as Wendt sat fidgeting nervously. The departing Viscount called "leaving fifteen hundred." A few moments later, the arriving flight reported reaching five thousand. Neither had crossed the VOR yet but, based on past experience, Wendt figured they'd both be there within three or four minutes of each other ~ and head on. It became too much for him to take sitting down. He stood up and loudly insisted that Mouseff do something quickly.

The other controllers watched silently as Mouseff put his cards down and slowly arose. Now Wendt was shouting urgently so Mouseff shouted back in Desolian. Hands waved and fingers pointed. According to George it became so chaotic that nobody heard the departure report reaching four thousand. Wendt was still yelling as Mouseff picked up a phone and pushed one of the lighted buttons.

Within minutes, two Desolian Air Policemen appeared, took Wendt by the arms and marshaled him toward the tower steps. Mouseff spoke a few words to his controllers then disappeared down the steps behind Wendt ~ who I never saw again. George immediately called Sergeant Clay at his home in the base housing area.

Investigations revealed that Mouseff had actually cleared the departure to four thousand but somehow printed five on the strip. Was it a mistake or a deliberate attempt to goad Wendt into interfering? We never knew for sure. We did know that Wendt's involvement triggered the incident. Both flights were Desolian. It was their traffic.

Sometimes good intentions can get you into trouble; especially while stationed overseas. Sometimes Uncle Sam can get you out of it and sometimes he can't. One thing was certain though. Getting into any difficulties with the DAF pretty much meant you were screwed. It was their base and we were simply a tenant organization expected to comply with the house rules. What your actual infraction was didn't matter as much as which military authority got to you first. Falling into the hands of Desolia's military could be as final as falling into a volcano. We'd heard of several American GIs doing time in the local prison and no measure of diplomacy would ever dislodge them.

There were always rumors of another way out of these delicate situations. We had no idea what it was but hoped Wendt could find it. Wendt had been arrested by Desolian military authorities. As expected, both the American and Desolian Base Commanders was called in and briefed on the charges brought by Sergeant Mouseff. Our Commander, a full Colonel and one of those square-jawed fighter pilots, promised there would be a full investigation. For this, he was given temporary custody of the bewildered Sergeant Wendt; who was then lead away by an American Air Police officer.

Nobody saw Wendt over the next two days and a rumor had already begun to circulate. Was he in the USAF lockup or could he really be in the Desolian military prison? Nobody knew. One thing for sure; we had a new Crew Chief. By now, it was day three after the incident and another evening shift. I was working Ground Control, watching a group of guys in flight suits trekking across the ramp toward one of several itinerant C-141 Starlifters. It was probably the crew and a few others hitching a ride. There was a Loadmaster standing behind the aircraft, supervising as the last cargo pallet rolled into the yawning fuselage. A long shadow cast by the tall vertical stabilizer pointed east toward the DAF ramp. Several of their F-84s were moving about and merging, single file, onto the taxiway. A flight of two lifted off the runway as the sun fell behind a mountain. Sergeant Mouseff was working their Local Control Position. Mr. Fye, our intrepid interpreter, had gone home; leaving us to face another night of DAF student pilot training by ourselves. It grew dark and I could feel one of my DAF headaches coming on.

There were a few departure strips in my Ground Control bay; all Starlifters destined for European or Asian air bases. The first to call for taxi instructions was headed to Rhein-Main AB in Frankfurt. It was the same aircraft I had seen the crew climb into earlier. I sent them off toward the active runway and switched them over to George, who was working Local. Meanwhile, another flight of two F-84s sat on the runway chattering between themselves and Sergeant Mouseff. When they finally rolled and were airborne, he called to George and gestured toward the waiting C-141. It was our turn.

The Starlifter lumbered down the runway, lifted off and disappeared into some low clouds. The pilot checked in with our nonradar controller and was given a climb clearance. Acknowledging that, he then made a peculiar transmission that got the attention of nearly everyone in the tower. Mouseff didn't hear it because he was busy yelling at a flight of his F-84s who nearly ran into an F-100 in our GCA pattern. So the C-141 pilot said that "someone on board wants to know where his change for that pizza is!" In an instant I understood everything. Me, George and the new Sergeant working Approach looked at each other and smiled. So there was another way out!

Sometime later, we heard that Wendt had taken a couple weeks leave in the States, then was reassigned to Tan Son Nhut Air Base, Vietnam. Better than Desolian prison, I suppose.
Farewell Sergeant Wendt. I still owe you twelve bucks.

© NLA Factor, 2011


In a word:

Life as an Air Force controller was pretty simple once I learned the rules. I got to work on time, kept my hair senselessly short, my uniform pressed and my shoes polished. I did what I was told to do, when I was told to do it (a new and rather impractical concept for me) and I never questioned my superiors. The rules didn't bother me and the rules didn't change ~ ever. Once I got used to it all, life was easy. I was now an air traffic controller! I worked in a control tower where I did my eight hour shift watching incredible airplanes doing awesome things on and above the airfield. I even had an entirely new vocabulary that included such terms as "afterburners, hung ordnance" and "formation takeoff." In my opinion, it was the coolest job ever and I felt lucky to be there. After all, it was only a few months prior that I could have been a poster boy for dead end jobs.

Initially, the Air Force wanted to make me into an aircraft mechanic. A mistake like that would have put my life on an entirely different trajectory and, given my mechanical aptitude, would also have left the Air Force with a lot of broken airplanes rusting away on the ramp. Besides that; anyone who ever looked out a control tower window to see those aircraft mechanics working down on the flight line during snow storms, sleet or sweltering heat knew where the better place to work was.

Controllers lead a relatively privileged life around the base. Since we worked shifts we were exempted from most of the crap that other enlisted airmen had to put up with. Work details, guard duty, parades and inspections were for the other chumps in the squadron. We controllers just did our shifts and were left on our own the rest of the time. That time was usually spent off base; going to one of the many nearby bars with my teammates, getting drunk and amusing the local women. Throw in some occasional sleep and you'd have a pretty good snapshot of my life. I was so young in those days, easily influenced, eager for acceptance and wholly high on everything.

A couple floors below the tower cab was our head office. This was where the Flight Facilities Officer sat, along with a couple of senior NCOs who were directly responsible for tower and Radar operations. Those two guys were the real forces to be reckoned with if ever there were problems. The officer, a baby-faced First Lieutenant named John, seemed either perpetually bored or stricken with hemorrhoids. He'd graduated college with an engineering degree, joined the Air Force and was immediately put in charge of an air traffic control facility. It made no sense ~ to him or us. Most times we'd find him at his desk, talking on the telephone, reading magazines or just staring out the window. It wasn’t much of a job ~ unless Bob the FAA Air Traffic Representative happened to be around. We never knew for sure but it seemed that Bob outranked everyone. Even Lieutenant John tried to look busy when he was around.

Bob, or the "Atrep" as he was referred to, was an FAA employee; the only FAA employee on the entire base. At one time there were lots of Atreps; each was assigned to a military air traffic facility, where they oversaw operations and acted as a liaison between their military hosts and the FAA. It was a much coveted and difficult job to get. Difficult because no one in his right mind ever gave up an Atrep job until they retired. It was that good.

Bob was rarely in his office and practically never came to the tower cab unless there was a Wing exercise, major overseas deployment, in-flight emergency or if he found out his boss in the Regional Office was stopping in. He'd also have to be on hand to administer CTO (Control Tower Operator) tests and sign off on newly certified controllers. Most times though, Bob was out playing golf with the Base Commander or hanging out at the Officer's Club. During those rare appearances in the tower, he'd tell tales about his ATC career, the people he knew and the airplanes he'd worked. Most of the guys on my crew, Vietnam vets and career Air Force controllers, were skeptical or indifferent to Bob’s rambling recollections. Not me. I was twenty years old and completely riveted by his commentaries on big airliners, bustling terminal buildings and busy tarmacs. For the first time, a vision of my future began to take shape. I finally had a goal in life but needed to finish my military hitch first. Getting into the FAA probably wouldn't be easy but it would surely be worth it. I loved being an Air Force controller but was sure the job would be even better in the FAA.

We'd all heard the stories of Air Force controllers who got discharged one day and went to work in an FAA facility the next. We heard they could make upward to $12,000 a year as FAA controllers! But you know...as an Airman Second Class standing watch in a small control tower ~ looking out at the nearly three years remaining on my enlistment? Getting a controller job with the FAA was nothing more than a pipe dream.

After being discharged, I rushed off immediately to take the Civil Service test for Air Traffic Control ~ only to find the FAA wasn't hiring. That started me off on a long odyssey through several jobs about which I knew very little and cared even less. Time passed. I become depressed and disengaged. Persistent memories of those years spent as a controller only made things worse. Although not exactly in Dire Straits, I did have to "move those refrigerators" and color TVs to get by. Never say fate doesn't have a great sense of humor though. No sooner did I finally land an interesting job that paid me something other than a pittance and a promise when the FAA called. Grabbing the ring, I soon found myself checking into Big Time Tower as a trainee; where I would come to realize that life as an FAA controller wasn’t as easy to understand as my Air Force life had been.

Unlike the Air Force, life as an FAA controller was not so simple. Rules changed, it seemed, every time I opened the "Read and Initial" binder. Gone was the constancy of military life. My world was now a large gray area; where issues and edicts could be debated ad infinitum. I could wear whatever I wanted to work, as long as I maintained "a neat, businesslike appearance." Nobody cared how long my hair was and, for the first time in my controller career, individual goals and ideologies were permissible. The coalescence and lockstep compliance required of a military unit was not applicable here. Open conflict with superiors, although officially discouraged, was tolerated and widely practiced by many of the journeymen. Even the Supervisors got into it but usually fought their battles behind closed doors.

There was a union, who’s job it seemed, was to highlight management’s incompetence, provide cover for clumsy controllers, ensure everyone understood just how oppressed and underpaid we were and have monthly meetings at a nearby bar ~ where we'd usually end up getting drunk and amusing the local women. Okay ~ so there was at least one similarity between the Air Force and the FAA. There were union Contracts, new and old, containing sundry Articles, the meanings or intent of which were often debated ad infinitum. This often resulted in grievances; usually denied, which could lead to arbitration and possibly another interpretation of the Article in question. It was stuff that ole' Bob the Atrep never talked about and couldn't even have imagined.

At first, I didn’t have the time to really appreciate the sharp contrasts between the Air Force and FAA's working environment. On my first day at Big Time, I was handed a copy of the point sixty-five, along with several Change Notices that needed to be posted. Then came the letters of agreement, Facility Standard Operating Procedures Manual, Emergency Operations Manual, copies of all applicable SIDs and approach plates, the Airport Operations Manual and, of course, a list of nearby restaurants that delivered to the tower. The Training Officer pointed to a couple of large loose-leaf binders filled with Facility Orders, Notices and Memos. Required reading.

I took it all home and dropped it on the coffee table. Familiarization, memorization and successful completion of the periodic written exams would be my ticket out of the Training Department and into OJT ~ a place where I'd actually talk to airplanes again. I opened a beer and started to read. Wading through the reams of reference material was a pure pleasure to me. My "pipe dream" of becoming an FAA controller was coming true. I was making good money, or so I thought at the time. If I made it through the training program, there would be even more money in my pocket. Coming in from a lengthy run of minimum wage jobs with no benefits; I felt like a lottery winner. Once again, I thought I had the coolest job ever and I felt lucky to be there.

The Training Department, however, was apparently some kind of "cocoon" that kept me insulated from the constant sawing and hammering of labor/management relations. Every now and then the local PATCO President would stop in to brief me and the other trainees on what was happening. I was astonished to learn just how bad things were out there "on the boards." Outside my little cocoon, a tempest of grievances, Unfair Labor Practices and Unsatisfactory Condition Reports raged on endlessly. We were encouraged to stay alert, support PATCO and push its initiatives. I was confused. I couldn't reconcile what I was hearing with my fond memories of Air Force ATC. Could the career I'd been craving all these years really be so bad? It would take PATCO to eventually help me understand the dynamics of what was going on here. Meanwhile, I just nodded my head stupidly. Well; I was so young back then, easily influenced and eager for acceptance.

It took a while but I finally got out of the Training Department and into OJT. These were happy and humbling times. I quickly learned that hotshot Air Force controller of the late '60s was now an idiot who knew nothing about air traffic control. I was a Gong Show reject among the true artistes. As promised, I put my shoulder to the wheel whenever I could and, along with the other PATCO members, pushed the union's campaigns against management. What I eventually learned was; no matter how hard one pushes against an obstacle, it may never move. That's not so bad though. The real problems begin when the obstacle starts pushing back at you. So it was with our PATCO Local and facility management.

It didn't take long for the union to convince me of just how bad things were. Looking back, I see it mostly as a self-fulfilling prophesy. For every problem I was told about, I would see at least two examples per day. Every time PATCO hassled and nit-picked at management, the reaction became more severe. The more defensive and unreasonable they appeared, the more we hassled and nit-picked at them. Within a few months I felt myself becoming disgruntled, frustrated and irate but I wasn't really sure why. I was progressing normally through the training program and should have been satisfied, if not exuberant. But the constant droning of dissent was inescapable and seemed to suck all the joy out of my success at the job.

My descent into full discontent took place at a glacial pace. It was a slow leak in my morale that eventually left me deflated and disconsolate. Having once believed I had the coolest job ever; only to learn it was mere drudgery took a while for me to accept. Did I feel lucky to be here? Well yes ~ but only when I was controlling airplanes. Once unplugged from my console I couldn't avoid hearing that sawing and hammering again. Oh there were still those loud monthly union meeting/beer parties. Lots of fun but the next day always brought back a hangover of cynicism and resentment toward management. It was a situation that would take me years of listening, questioning and self-scrutiny to climb out of.

Then one day I thought of those mentally disabled guys I used to work with back in my department store janitor days. It wasn't so long ago and yet I'd completely forgotten how humble and happy they were with their work. Back then I was just marching in place till a real opportunity like the FAA came along. But to those guys, cleaning floors and bathrooms was their career and they were proud of it. It was probably still their career and, if so, they'd still be coming to work with that "lottery winner" attitude. What would they say of my current situation, salary and attitude? Once again, just like back then, I began feeling ashamed of myself. Was I the underlying cause of my own discontent? Was I simply making my personal situation worse? Was it possible to tune out the caterwauling negativity and just enjoy the job I loved? In a word: yes!

© NLA Factor, 2011