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


Anonymous said...

As usual, another fine piece of writing. Thanks!

You're right on about the "characters" - every facility has controllers with, for better or worse, distinguishing, um, "features." Place wouldn't be the same without them...

No Longer a Factor said...

I shudder to think what name they might have had for me. Ahh well. We all just did the best we could. I agree that the places I worked and the job itself wouldn't have been the same without those "characters." Without them constantly stretching the boundaries of sanity, it might have been just another job. I loved them all, no matter how eccentric they were. I should write a book someday. Hmmm. Maybe I already am with this crazy blog!

Thanks for the nice words!

NLA Factor

Anonymous said...

You might want to find "Collision Course", a new book about the PATCO strike. I'm just getting into it, but it's got a lot of detail and inside information about what was going on back then - and the parts that I know anything about seem pretty accurate.

No Longer a Factor said...

Thanks for the tip! I'll look for the book.

NLA Factor

AC2usn said...

I like you served in the military from the mid-sixties to the very early seventies. I did not find an ATCA publication but recall the PATCO invitation (1968) featuring F. Lee Bailey. If memory serves the military initiation fee was $50, quite a lot for a barracks living E-4. The first FAA assignment was to a Level 2 VFR tower and I thought the Navy traffic patterns were busy. Not so. The traffic pattern speed was slower but there were a many more aircraft. The observation that helped me through the transition was that 'if the controller next to me can do this so can I.' The only physical move with the FAA was to a Level 3 ATCT and approach control. The traffic numbers were about the same but the speed was higher (so were the egos). This made training progress harder as some had the attitude that 'they looked bigger by making the trainee look small.' Based on deregulation (1978) the facility grew from Level 3 to 4 to 5 and on the Level 11 and now 12. You relay that you were tossed into the deep water on the first assignment. I was able to trend water first.

Thanks for you efforts to pass on your memories, observations and experiences.

No Longer a Factor said...

AC2usn - Great hearing from you again. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

Yes, I recall that first PATCO invitation and wish I had held onto it. Of course, you never think of such things at the time. Along with F. Lee Bailey, wasn't Johnny Carson involved somehow? Maybe that publication will show up on eBay someday.

I salute your service at those Level 2 and Level 3 facilities. In my travels with the FAA, I concluded those controllers often worked much harder than the folks at "Big Time" type places where staffing levels were much higher. When there are only two or three radar sectors in the TRACON, individual controller workload can be just as high as someone working one of 12 radar sectors at a Level 5. We also know that the smaller facilities were usually at the bottom of Regional budget allocations, so the equipment they used was older and there was less of it. Most of the advanced systems went to the big places.

And VFR towers? I can tell you that most Level 5 controllers would be totally lost without their BRITE radar displays and other automation tools. Keeping a six to ten aircraft traffic pattern picture in their head would have been unimaginable!

About the training instructors, your "'they looked bigger by making the trainee look small" observation is right on the money and aptly describes several people I knew.

I've also seen examples of what happens when a small radar facility begins to grow busier and busier. It was very difficult for many of the older controllers who were totally accustomed to their Level 3 work habits. Learning to pick up the pace was impossible for some folks. They ended up retiring or transferring to another small facility.

Thanks for reading and writing!

AC2usn said...

You and I relieved the controller work force hired in the late forties through the late fifties. The older of these controllers handled the traffic growth after WW2 and the early fifties. The younger controllers in the group were hired after the "Grand Canyon" midair. For the most part the experienced controllers wanted the trainees to understand the 'game plan' and realize that minimum separation was not (also) maximum separation. The lesson that the goal of safe, orderly and expeditious were priorities not equals was reenforced over and over again. The ego driven trainers that I worked with tended to be in my age group and enjoyed showing off at the trainees expense.

No Longer a Factor said...

I do recall the old timers talking about the Grand Canyon catastrophe but I think the bigger buzz at the time was about the Staten Island mid-air between UAL826 and TWA266. A turning point, they said it was the event that eventually gave rise to the New York Common IFR Room.

I loved those post-WW2 and Korea guys. A breed apart from today’s controllers, they still had that military mentality. That made them eminently pragmatic in their approach to the job. All they needed was to be given an objective (call it a position assignment) and they just did it. They did it with the same pride and determination they might have shown in a combat situation. There was no whining. It was a “take that hill” attitude that was conspicuously absent in the new guys; even from most of the Vietnam vets I worked with. I guess it was a case of different values and a different kind of war. The times were clearly changing. Then the strike came along, followed by an age of entitlement that was still going strong when I retired.

I can’t paint the entire workforce with that broad brush though. I knew a lot of controllers who came in after 1981, brandishing the old timer’s work ethic, their temperament and their values. We worked a lot of planes and had a lot of laughs.

Take Care AC2usn,