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