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


Anonymous said...

Change Air Force to Marines, Atrep to DOD Supe, 60's Hotshot to mid 70's & tower to Approach Control. Thank You for so accurately capturing my story and feelings from 1975-1981. Postings like this are the reason I have continued to keep checking back. This one really carried me back to a time I wish I could forget, but would gladly re-live. Thanks.

No Longer a Factor said...

Thanks for writing and for continuing to check back! You've also reminded me that those years between '75 and '81 were actually much tougher than the subsequent strike recovery years. By the late 70s we had more drama flying around the facility than we had airplanes. I'm glad to learn I wasn't the only one struggling with it all! Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Great memory. Change the uniform to USN and the path is the same. On active duty from 1966-70. Your ATREP experience brings back a pleasant grin. After going the starving student route (GI Bill), I started in late 1973. The first facility was a busy VFR ATCT. We were a mix of young blood and older personalities (both controllers and supervisors) that simply wanted a trouble free shift, both in the tower and on the frequency. The move to a Level 3 up and down facility introduced me to the friction that took much of the fun out of the job. Just let we work the traffic, you can keep the rest. Based on internal positions and personal perspective, different factions took to the stage to push their agenda. The lack interaction with others while working the three team concept helped to further insulate us from out own frailties. We began to believe our own words. Like you I now reflect on the late seventies as the good old days but at the time I did not recognize them.

No Longer a Factor said...

You make an excellent point about the perils of having a facility divided up into three teams. Its the way we worked too. Each team seemed to operate within their own version of reality. I wrote a post on this last March titled "Overtime - Over Time."

Insulated as they were from each other, by the time August of '81 drew near, the general attitude of those three teams had coalesced into a mostly tacit and tepid support for the strike. Amazingly, it took just a handful of true and determined believers to lead an overwhelming majority of sheep off to slaughter. We lost a majority of our workforce. I was lucky. By 1981 I had already developed that attitude you so aptly described as "Just let me work the traffic, you can keep the rest."

Navy were you? A lot of Navy and Air Force controllers were shipped into our facility to help out right after the strike. Now, even though I am an USAF alumnus, I have to say the Navy guys were the best of the bunch. Thanks for you comments. Much appreciated!

Anonymous said...

Never did the military thing, but I did do PATCO for a couple of years, then the union-less interval between PATCO and NATCA, and then NATCA for a few years. Amazing how many controllers don't know how miserable they're supposed to be until there's a union rep around to tell them so. :-)

No Longer a Factor said...

You are right about how the seeds of discontent are sown and grown. This is especially interesting to me because, as we know, controllers are generally a very single minded and fiercely independent bunch who'd rather trust their own instincts than take direction from someone else. I know I always was. Thanks for your comments and for sticking around in 1981.