Forget The Coffin

H. L Mencken once said; "A cynic is a man who, when he smells flowers, looks around for a coffin."

So I often wondered; would the ATC profession eventually desensitize me to what I did for a living? Would I become jaded and indifferent to the amazing things I saw every working day? Cloistered away in a control room, would my fascination with flight gradually decomposes into the more practical problems associated with separating airplanes? Let's add to that the incumbent stress, interpersonal issues, frequent changes in equipment or procedures and the distracting squeaks and groans emanating incessantly from the apparatus of Labor and Management. Would all their cumulative effects gradually dissipate my love affair with airplanes; turning it into apathy or utter contempt? Would I turn sour, cynical and sardonic over the career I held dear? I wouldn't have had to ask some of the guys I worked with. The permanent smirk on their faces said it all.

I had my brushes with on-the-job cynicism. You've heard it; "Management doesn't know what it's doing" or "Controller X is just kissin' up to get that staff job" and "My Supervisor is out to get me." Feel free to sing along of you know the lyrics. Back then you might have also heard that "airline pilots are a bunch of overpaid pinheads!" Well, they did make a lot more than we did at the time. Whether any of it was true or false didn't matter. I tuned it out as best I could. It was all negative energy and a needless distraction. Instead, I tried to keep the more positive aspects of our story in mind.

Being an air traffic controller connected me to aviation in a way like no other. We're literally plugged into it. Besides, controllers are the only people capable of straddling the line between sky and sector because we can also be pilots. The reverse cannot be said. You simply won't see any pilots dabbling in the air traffic control arts on their day off. This is a fact that presents controllers with the unique opportunity for insight into what's happening on the other side of a transmission. Such depth of understanding makes many controllers true hybrids in the genus of aviation professionals.

As a controller trainee in the early 1970s, I felt a need for some balance in my aviation knowledge. My brain was being force-fed with all things ATC and the stuff I heard in the break room was intensely one-sided. Knowing there are at least two sides to every story, including ours, I wanted to learn more about that other side. I needed the pilot's perspective. There had to be more to it than making big bucks, looking cool in a uniform and working with a flock of flight attendants. But what? I needed to find out.

Oh, and my GI Bill education benefits would pay for any advanced flight training (Commercial, Instrument rating, etc.) after earning my "Private Pilot" certificate. So . . .

There was a small airport about fifty miles from the city. Those miles made it far enough away to be well outside the TCA, yet close enough that local pilots could occasionally see a distant stream of Big Time's arrivals or departures. It wasn't exactly a grass strip but the paved runway wasn't much wider than your average suburban driveway. There were no taxiways ~ only well traveled trails in the grass. It was the perfect place for a fledgling air traffic controller to begin his flying lessons.

Arriving at this airport early on sunny Summer mornings, I'd walk out through the wet grass to my rented Cherokee and give it a thorough going over. I was able to fly "solo" by then and, although I was itching to get airborne, I knew better than to rush through that preflight inspection. Flying, like air traffic control, is something never to be rushed. Once satisfied that everything was good, it was time to undo the tie-down lines, remove the wheel chocks and climb into the cockpit.

Back then, the runway was nothing but a country road that led to the sky. And damn! I couldn't wait to get on the road! My pulse always quickened when that Cherokee rolled nimbly into takeoff position. Lined up with the runway, I'd cross check the magnetic compass with the heading indicator. There'd be one more check of the controls, flap setting and a few other things to keep me out of trouble. You know ~ all the things my flight instructor drummed into me. Once satisfied, I'd push that throttle forward and feel the rush of a new adventure beginning. As the Piper accelerated I scanned both the skies ahead and the airspeed indicator; waiting for that needle to touch the right number. When it did, a little back pressure on the yoke was all it took for me to be flying.

Leaving the ground was my "Walter Mitty" moment. I may as well have been in the cockpit of a B727 ~ all screaming turbines, streaming smoke and shoving me skyward. I scanned the instruments and the airspace ahead. A blur of airplanes parked along the runway rushed by in my peripheral vision.

A good rate of climb established, I could then enjoy the singular sensation of watching the wide, rural horizon sink slowly beneath the aircraft's nose. Soon, into a lazy left turn out of the traffic pattern, I could see the long concrete stretch of State highway that brought me to this point. Down below, morning commuters seemed to crawl toward the distant city; probably uttering their commuter curses and glancing at their watches. I, on the other hand, was giddy with the elation brought on by 110 knots of airspeed and 2,500 feet of altitude. I trimmed the airplane for level flight.

Straddling the line had its benefits. Safely out of the traffic pattern, I could then tune one of the plane's radios to any of Big Time's control positions. Having those numbers at my fingertips gave me an edge over most of the other locally based pilots. I'd select a TRACON or tower frequency and just listen while I practiced my flight maneuvers. Things I heard from my 2,500 foot perch were almost like free OJT. Call it educational eavesdropping. Sometimes I'd even call it revealing . . . or disappointing.

I was practicing my turns around a point on one surprisingly clear, haze free August morning. There was a large, red barn about fifteen miles from the airport that many of us students used in perfecting this basic flight maneuver. At this point in my flight training, I needed to work on turn coordination while maintaining my altitude. Funny, but when you turn an airplane on its side, it tends to slide downhill. This is unacceptable if, for instance, you're IFR at 5,000 and the controller needs a 360 for spacing. So you practice.

One of my VHF radios was tuned to Unicom. The other I dialed to Big Time Tower's Local Control frequency. I was surprised to hear my teammate Al's voice. Our team was off duty that day so I guessed he must have been pulled in for overtime. Curious. He was one who always warned people to never, ever answer the telephone on their day off!

It was the kind of fast-paced banter one would expect to hear at this "morning rush" time of day. Planes were leaving and landing all over the place. Some were taxiing out to join the long departure queues while others rushed in toward their gates. Everything tumbled along at a furious pace. It was like Nascar, The Blue Angels and Cirque du Soleil rolled into one. Al was apparently doing a decent job of keeping the airport in motion ~ even though he'd be among the first to smile if the entire place dropped into a sinkhole. Al's career had long exceeded his level of tolerance for this business and he should have moved on. Given his jaundiced attitude toward Management, contempt for pilots, constant complaining and waning skills; most of us would rather spend eight hours throwing rotten road kill into a truck than be working anywhere near him.

He'd just cleared a Delta flight to land and was prepping the next departure (a Pan Am 707) for takeoff. It was clear that Al was going to need "an immediate." The arriving Delta had already been asked to try for the first available highspeed turnoff. About 20 seconds later, I heard him clear Pan Am into position. Just as he unkeyed his mike, an Eastern B727 called four miles out on a visual approach. I heard the pilot ask; "Is that Clipper jet rolling?" "In a moment" was Al's terse reply. I detected a bit of strain in his voice as my Cherokee circled around the south side of that red barn. Within seconds, Delta called clear of the runway. "Clipper one-oh-five, cleared for immediate takeoff, traffic three out."

When you're working in the tower, you are always aware of indicators that portend trouble. A controller's nonverbal communications can, if closely observed over time, be a dead giveaway. It might be an impatient fidgeting, a change in voice level or a particular box-step someone does in front of their control position when they're getting anxious over a situation. It might also be the cab Supervisor ~ rising suddenly from his desk with a worried expression on his face. Sometimes . . . well sometimes it's the fact that nobody seems to be breathing. From where I sat, it was all masked by an eerie and seemingly endless silence. In my mind's eye I could see the 707 begin to edge forward. A fully loaded and fueled 707 never did come flying off the blocks like a well whacked pinball and Pan Am was known for being slow on the uptake. I could 'see' the Eastern jet crossing over the four lane highway - now just two miles out. I could 'see' Al sliding strips around on the console and scanning the BRITE display in a faltering attempt to project an air of normality and confidence. I could see this wasn't going to work.
The next voice I heard was the Eastern Captain. "We're going around."

Now, as I fought to regain the altitude I'd lost during my last spin around the barn, I could almost hear Al coordinating with the TRACON. "Eastern is going around. How do you want him?" Then I heard: "Eastern One-Twenty-five climb and maintain five thousand, turn right heading two-four-zero and contact approach on one-two-four point six." Next, he sent Pan Am to Departure Control ~ but not before admonishing the pilot that "Immediate means right now!". Then the bitching would begin. The go-around was, of course, "all the Clipper's fault for not moving fast enough." Oh yes....of course. "Those guys don't know what cleared for immediate takeoff means!" As the story spread, some would quickly agree with Al's assessment while others simply nodded politely. None of his fellow controllers were going to slap him with the cold realities. Call it a professional courtesy combined with the fact that we all have our lapses in judgment now and then.

I thought about those last minute checks I always made when taking the runway in my Cherokee. Important moments. Then I wondered what went on inside the cockpit of a B707 just before takeoff.

The shift Manager would later receive a call from Eastern's local Operations Office and would talk with a pilot who undoubtedly asked some good questions. Apparently the Pan Am pilot also called several hours later. His side of the story was decidedly different from Al's. He also didn't appreciate the bawling out he received from the Local controller. The tower tape was pulled. Al and his Supervisor had to listen to every uncomfortable moment. Al upheld his position that Pan Am screwed him and no one ever implied anything else ~ like the poor judgment that caused it all. Instead, his supervisor's focus was on the unpleasant afterthought of chewing out the Pan Am pilot. He characterized it as unprofessional and unnecessary. The whole episode caused Al to be even less trustful and tolerant of pilots than he was the day before.

I switched off the tower frequency and went over to Unicom. My hour's rental was almost up and I needed to head back. Approaching the airport, I could see the windsock pointing at a nearly perpendicular angle to the runway. Damn! Trying to recall everything my instructor taught me about crosswind landings, I settled onto the downwind leg, taking one last look in the direction of Big Time Airport. Miles away, sunlight flashed briefly off the wing of a departure turning toward ARTCC airspace. I turned base leg. The ride was becoming a bit bumpy; nearly shaking what little confidence I had right out of me. But hey, I was the one who wanted to learn how to fly. Telling myself that didn't make my mouth any less dry though.

Turning onto final, I crabbed the airplane into the wind, while trying to keep it tracking toward the runway. With one eye on the threshold and the other on my airspeed, I gulped, jounced and gasped my way toward the numbers. My flare was a little high but the ride suddenly smoothed out. The Cherokee dropped another five feet or so and bounced onto the asphalt. It wasn't the best crosswind landing ever but it wasn't bad. I sighed, smiled, slowed up and turned the Piper smartly onto the grass.

Taxi in and tie down took only a few minutes. It wasn't long before I was back in my car and heading for a little pub about five miles from the airport. A roast beef sandwich and a cold beer would cap this morning off perfectly. I had a day shift coming up. Maybe I'd get some radar training or maybe even end up on Local Control which, at that time, was my favorite position. Al would probably be holding court in the breakroom, whining about how great this job would be if it weren't for the airplanes. It didn't matter to me. I knew I had the best job in the world and I'd even survived my first solo crosswind landing! Forget the damned coffin! Forever the idealist, I was too busy smelling flowers to look around.

Mencken also said; "An idealist is one who, on noticing that a rose smells better than a cabbage, concludes that it will also make better soup."

Hmmm. Really dude?

© NLA Factor, 2011