Committed To The Game

I wouldn't have admitted it back then. Couldn't have, really. Such solemn disclosures might have played well with "Doctor Phil" but not with a bunch of coworkers who depended on you in a busy air traffic control facility. I wanted to tell them though. I wanted to let them know that coming into work for one of those historically busy shifts often gave me a nasty case of the jitters. Take any hot Thursday or Friday evening in the Summer. Even under ideal conditions, the traffic volume was intimidating enough. But, if you threw in a little adverse weather or took away something from our standard tool chest full of runways, navigational aids, radar, radios and such? Well, even some of our most seasoned stoics might try timing their arrival at the sign-in log; hoping the most harrowing positions had already been taken. I might have been a little more concerned than most though, especially during my early years at Big Time. I was worried. In my four years of Air Force ATC, I'd never seen so many airplanes.

So there I was; a newly certified journeyman; transformed from trembling trainee to knock-kneed neophyte controller. Seasoned or not, we'd all arrive for those tough shifts energized, apprehensive and maybe even a little uneasy. The more experienced fellows would just sneer at heavy traffic. Saturated sectors? No problem for them. They'd stride into the TRACON and take their positions without uttering a word. I, on the other hand, might walk in, chattering nervously with one of the other rookies on my team, glancing from sector to sector and looking for any signs of an impending apocalypse.

You see, it was all about that naive layman's image of the overworked, underpaid and often alcoholic air traffic controllers who held hundreds of lives in the palm of their trembling hands ~ all the while wondering when that one fatal slip-up would make national headlines. I guess every cliché gets its start somewhere. The unspeakable disaster could happen, of course, but that would be about as likely as one of Big Time's controllers forgetting to keep a cold quart of beer and a church key in his car for the drive home.

Still, we rookies worried because of the underlying and veritable gravity of what we were about to get involved in. So we'd stand together, muttering quietly and awaiting our fate. It wouldn't take long before Pete, the Area Manager, would walk up, give us that savvy scowl of his and say something like; "Will one of you fucking idiots get Crock Pot off East Arrival? The other one needs to open up Final Two ~ and don't screw it up!" We'd just smile feebly and move off toward our assigned sectors. The shift was under way.

Insults, expletives and verbal abuse usually broke the tension and were as much a part of the controller culture as headsets and airplanes. Pete was a master at it and even had names for many of the guys on my team. John was known as "Crock Pot."  This was a guy who had come to Big Time from a smaller radar facility. He never outgrew his light traffic mentality and, compared to others, always seemed to be working in slow motion. John was a slow cooker and that pushed Pete's buttons.  "Fry Baby," or Freddy, could push them too. This guy was always getting pissed at one pilot or another. It was usually because somebody didn't comply with a control instruction fast enough or foolishly asked Freddy to repeat something.  Fry Baby would get all hot under the collar, lose his temper, then sit in the break room for as long as possible; whining about everything. It could be the pilots, supervisors, procedures and maybe even one or two of his teammates. Soon Pete would appear in the doorway with that penetrating glare of his and say something like; "Hey Fry Baby! Get your ass up to the tower ~ now!" Freddy was a good controller but he drove me nuts with his bitching.

Back in the TRACON, signing onto one of the control positions was a tense moment. As a new guy, I didn't have enough experience to "read into" either the sector or the controller working there. Whether aggressive, conservative, burned out or crazy; it was sometimes hard for me to understand how and why they got to this point in the picture and where they were going with it. Was this the best plan? Should I dare to try something different? That would be risky because, if I botched things up, people would be all over me later in the break room. If I let things ride, I might end up facing the same heat from my teammates ~ but for a different reason. My mind would race through various options as I listened to the position relief briefing. Like a newborn pony, all I could do was stand on my unsteady legs, use whatever judgment I had assimilated so far and hope for the best.

Surprisingly, it wasn't a rising sense of self-confidence that finally quelled my apprehension. It was usually the sound of the pilots voices on my frequency. Most of them, especially the airline drivers, would calmly acknowledge each transmission and comply. It turned out that calm, just like panic, was actually contagious. I started breathing easier when I heard the pilots quietly acknowledging my instructions. It sounded like they had confidence in what I was doing, so why shouldn't I? With each transmission I made, the traffic picture I'd just inherited was becoming more my own. It felt good.

Because of my long standing preconceptions of FAA life, it would take me several years to reach the level of confidence that gets you in trouble. Those preconceptions started forming back when I was an Air Force controller. I read everything I could find about life in the FAA. Shortly after graduating from ATC school at Keesler AFB in Biloxi, I joined the Air Traffic Control Association (ATCA). I think I must have found a copy of their monthly magazine laying around one of our instructor's offices and ripped out the application form. Their publications were my window into another world of ATC that was vastly different from the Air Force version. It seemed the only thing Air Force and FAA controllers had in common was the phraseology.

There were always interesting articles about new radar systems, control towers, technical innovations and TRACONS ~ plus features about controllers who distinguished themselves in one notable way or another. I ate it all up and licked the plate. Then along came PATCO, which me and my GI buddies joined immediately. The articles in their publications made ATCA's writings seem staid and saccharine ~ maybe even a bit stodgy. PATCO journalism was gritty and radical but probably a bit of an exaggeration ~ or so I thought. Things couldn't really be that bad, could they? What always caught my interest were the pieces written about the pressures a controller was subjected to. There were tales of working long hours on positions, under heavy, unrelenting traffic. Then there were issues involving broken or outdated equipment and having to deal with insensitive megalomaniacs in Management. Apparently, it was all lead to high divorce rates, hypertension and heavy drinking.

Did that scare a 22 year old Airman into deciding he should reenlist rather than jump aboard this train to high anxiety and pandemonium? Nope. Remember; I was twenty-two and, like most in my age group, was producing testosterone at a much faster rate than I could burn it off. I already knew I could handle a few flights of military jets in the bounce pattern at my local Air Base but I needed the chance to prove myself under more challenging conditions. The downsides didn't matter. I had no plans to get married, was already drinking fairly heavily with my Air Force cronies and thought hypertension was something that only happened to old people. As far as I was concerned, my four-year hitch couldn't end quick enough. I thought I was ready for the big league. Somewhere out there, more money, more airplanes and bigger challenges were waiting for me.

Expectations and realities can be like taking your car in for a $200.00 tune-up, only to learn you need a new engine and transmission. My expectations of FAA life and the realities I discovered weren't really that far apart. I expected to find a lot of quivering manic depressive chain smokers who smelled a little like bourbon ~ talking about their girlfriends and boats while deftly working an endless array of airplanes. What I found was only a little different. They smelled more like stale beer.

What I found at Big Time was a facility that had daily traffic counts well into the four-figure range. It wasn't just a little more traffic than I was comfortable with. This was a high volume, high complexity game that tumbled and shifted at speeds I wasn't used to ~ and it was being played by a crowd of crazy people. This was kinda worrisome. What's more; the equipment really was old and prone to sudden failure. Some of the newer equipment was just as unreliable but for different reasons. It had probably been deployed to the field before all the tiny design flaws had been discovered and corrected. No problem though. The controllers would eventually find every one of them and FAA's contractors knew it. Protests from the weary workforce were seen as whining and were generally countered with a grand and imperious apathy. Maybe even a little contempt.

So . . . were the articles I read in those early PATCO publications really true? Were things as bad as they said? Was I in over my head and on the verge of overtaxing my testosterone supply? I'd just have to play this game for a while to decide for myself. Jitters or not, it looked like I was committed to doing just that.

© NLA Factor, 2011


St. Louis Blues

"I hate to see the ev'nin' sun go down
Hate to see the ev'nin' sun go down,
'cause my baby, he done left this town."

W. C. Handy ~ "St. Louis Blues."

'TWAs a different era. Air travel was far more than mere transportation ~ it was an adrenalin rush powered by radial engines, mystique and imagination. Memorable in a good way, people were drawn to their local airport by the glamour and adventure of it all. It was a magical place and stepping out onto the ramp to board your plane was to tread on hallowed ground. What had once seemed impossible would actually happen here as smartly dressed passengers queued up anxiously to embark on their voyage across the cloudscape.
The Sun was rising on commercial aviation and Trans World Airlines was right there, along with a few other airline giants, roaming the nearly empty skies. Back then, their future couldn't have looked any brighter. The evolution of commercial aviation was on a fast track. Bigger, quicker airplanes would fly off the assembly lines. In a temporary triumph of form over function, airport terminals were being designed with style in mind. There were even advances being made in air traffic control. Everything was taking off.  No one could see the storm clouds forming ahead and no one could imagine the shadows they'd eventually cast over some of our most legendary and prosperous airports ~ like St. Louis (STL). 
Giants in the clouds - with thanks to N. C. Wyeth

The aviation landscape would change over the years; its glamour fading into a flying boxcar mentality. Bad business decisions and corporate warfare took the lives of many great airlines and the communities they served. TWA, call it the other Spirit of St. Louis, would disappear forever. Sadly, the fabled Lindbergh Line turned out to be much shorter than it should have been ~ ending on December 1, 2001, after being eaten alive by (the proper euphemism would be "merging with") American Airlines. It was a giant-sized tragedy for air travelers in general and St. Louis in particular, on that sad day when Trans World Airlines made its final approach.

Hub operations would come and go at many other airports; leaving empty terminal buildings, vacant gates and fewer options for air travelers. Infrastructure improvements, made to accommodate hub growth, would be left underutilized. Based on growth projections, St Louis invested a billion dollars on a new runway (11/29). It's now used by only a small percentage their traffic. 

There are plenty of other examples of abandoned hubs.  Take American and Midway Airlines misadventures at Raleigh-Durham (RDU) for instance.  And who could forget the People Express operation at Newark? Here was a true "no shirt, no shoes, no service" kind of carrier that helped turn the magic of air travel into the tedious skyPod, prisoner transfer experience we now tolerate as just another of life's grim realities. 
People Express ~ AKA "Brownhound"

There were those antediluvian days before the corporate feeding frenzies began ~ before merger actually meant murder. When I checked into Big Time back in the Seventies, the terminal buildings weren't all surrounded by airplanes sporting the same logo. I could look down from the tower cab and see some of the names that made aviation so glamorous. Pan American, Trans World, Eastern, Braniff, National and many others ~ now crushed into small pieces of memorabilia you might still find on eBay but never at an airport. They're all gone, taking the heart and soul of air travel with them. Aviation ~ ripped up by its roots. 
Right back at you sweetie!

I've heard folks say that everything is cyclical. What goes around comes around. If so, we might one day expect to see some style and service return to air travel. We won't see aviation giants like TWA, Pan Am or National again though. They all "done left this town."

A brief aside. Back in my military years, back at Desolation Air Base, we would occasionally get late night calls on our approach control frequency. It would be from one of Trans World or Pan Am's long haul international flights, hurtling through the night sky between brightly lit world capitals. When they came within radio range, they'd dial us up and just chat until our signal faded. We had no idea where they were at the time but they'd usually tell us where they were headed. Hearing of those exotic destinations would take me, at least mentally and momentarily, far away from where I was. Listening to those very American voices in the night was a comfort to all of us who sat in that darkened tower cab, far from home.  

© NLA Factor, 2011