Another Groove

The Eighties were finally coming to an end. By now, I felt like a projectile that had been fired through the entire decade at 365 days per second. The Nineties lay just ahead and I knew I was going to miss my mark unless I changed course. Time was moving on quickly and taking all the opportunities I ever dreamed of along for the ride. I felt a nagging sense of urgency ~ a need to catch up before being left behind. In haste, I threw all my career aspirations into a knapsack, ran along side and jumped on board. What this air traffic controller saw in the next ten years would eventually have me wishing I'd listened more closely to Timothy Leary, who said; "If you don't like what you're doing, you can always pick up your needle and move to another groove." I did stop liking what I was doing and came to realize it was time to find a new groove. But it would take time.    

I knew my career progression wasn't particularly linear. Rather than climbing a series of rungs on the ladder, my advancement appeared to be taking me upward but, at the same time, in circles. It was actually more like climbing a spiral staircase. I advanced upward but in continuous arcs, where every 180 degrees of travel had me heading back in the direction I'd just come from.

Sometimes though, I did seem to be putting distance between myself and the front line air traffic operation I still thought of as home. During those times, I felt myself becoming ineluctably absorbed into the cult of management. Those were the days when my old controller comrades would simply look on, shaking their heads at the mention of my name, while murmuring about how "another one" sold his soul for a desk and a title.

Then there were the times I'd seek refuge in that "home" environment where I was always most comfortable. Sadly though, It's true what Thomas Wolfe said. "You can't go home again." Giving up my headset meant I could no longer talk to pilots the way I used to. It also meant I couldn't talk to controllers the way I used to either. There was a "stuck mike" effect where I could hear them but they couldn't hear me. To the controllers though, the effect was just the opposite. In such situations, the usual outcome is that each side eventually tunes the other one out altogether.

One of my stops along the way around was one facility's Plans and Procedures Office, where I served as Manager for a few awkward, baffling and challenging years (I'll just call that the "ABCs of management"). Still well connected to my tenacious controller roots, I hadn't yet developed the casual indifference typical of a professional staff functionary. The control room environment still energized me. Whenever my office window rattled with the roar of a departing heavy jet I'd usually jump up and look. I guess I couldn't (or wouldn't) break free of those damned roots. Nonetheless, I was expected to assume my new role, memorize a lot of unfamiliar lines and act the part.

One way that every Manager acted out their role was in a power play known as the meeting. With its diverse cast of characters, diverging interests, digressions and duplicities; the meeting could shift quickly from drama to comedy or even tragedy before finally being declared a farce. Important discussions and negotiations routinely took place between people who knew little or nothing about their adversary's area of expertise. Trust was always essential but usually foolish. The hidden agenda was a competitive sport.
It took time but I eventually realized the way for me to partially overcome this conundrum was simply by not limiting my contact with the other players to the narrow scope of a meeting. I engaged them at every opportunity and without an agenda (hidden or otherwise). From this, I gained a little understanding of their world and a lot of respect for their place in it. Once mutual respect was established? Well, it became a lot easier to build a sphere of trust around some very disparate organizations.

Building that mutual respect wasn't easy and it not always possible. It required an openness with others that many of my management colleagues weren't very comfortable with. Sadly but not surprisingly, gaining the trust of people in other offices and organizations would eventually cost me the trust of some folks within my own. The funny thing was; I could see this happening over time but didn't really care. I pushed on, doing what I believed was the right thing.

Some people were easier to work with than others. From the various airline and other aviation advocates, to the many offices of our local airport authority ~ meetings with those folks were normally cordial, constructive and enlightening. Generally speaking, they were an honorable bunch; knowledgeable, open and eager to share. Our own Airway Facilities (AF) Office was a prime example. Here were the people who serviced and certified nearly every piece of equipment we relied on. They took a lot of pride and care in their work; knowing that a sudden outage could bring air traffic to a halt or worse. A few controllers might end up soiling themselves.

Meeting with AF meant there'd be no hidden agenda. An issue was simply placed on the table for all to dissect. It could have been the scheduling of a required radar shutdown for maintenance, the installation of new equipment in the tower cab or any number of other issues adversely affecting ATC operations. Requirements, needs and impacts were discussed and agreements were eventually extracted ~ just like painless dentistry.

Sitting down with folks from the local airport authority was equally satisfying. These were usually large meetings, including individual airline representatives, general aviation advocates, fixed base operators and maybe even the military. Topics ranged from relatively minor airfield activity to long-term projects of epic proportions. We talked of snow removal plans, runway or taxiway closures, lighting repairs, grass cutting around movement areas and everything else needed to keep the place running. Everyone had a chance to articulate their concerns and provide input. I always left such meetings completely satisfied, if not happy. All my questions were answered and I was sometimes even able to influence the scheduling of certain work that would seriously impact air traffic.

Meetings that included other FAA offices, such as adjacent air traffic facilities, were usually a different story. They could be a kind of "rehab session" for the habitually well intended and trusting. This was where participants could relearn or reinforce their skills in deception, parochial position taking, posturing and plain old back-stabbing. It was all in good fun, of course. After all ~ humiliating, devaluing and disappointing one's adversaries at the meeting, while asserting one's own authority or facility sovereignty, was a time-honored tradition.

If the agenda included proposed interfacility airspace and/or procedural changes, you could bet the meeting would be contentious and likely to attract the Region's scrutiny. Such meetings typically included both staff and controller representation from each facility. Since controllers and management nearly always viewed operational matters differently, just gaining consensus among our own facility's negotiators could be hard. Nobody wanted to change or give up anything, unless doing so would solve at least one of their own problems or get them something in return. Nobody wanted to take on additional duties and responsibilities unless they were accompanied by some kind of "dowry" ~ usually in the form of increased staffing and/or added equipment. The Region's solution would be simpler, more imaginative and far more cost-effective. Their guidance? Do something and make it work with existing resources. Somehow, we never thought of that ourselves.

This brand of meeting made it obvious that some issues simply could never be settled locally. Faced with having to resolve dicey and disputable subjects, each facility's ideological walls were often raised and ringed with parapets. Drawbridges were pulled up and the moats were mined. They became fortresses; fending off change and vilifying its agents. Participation in these meetings should have entitled attendees to combat pay. I'd usually find myself in the middle of long and loud arguments, wishing I was back in the TRACON vectoring airplanes. The "alphabet groups" (ATA, AOPA, NBAA, etc.) would sit, metaphorically, on the sidelines ~ watching the battle while hoping for a profitable outcome. If they observed too much wheel-spinning, head-butting or a simple efficacy deficit; they might play a card that none of us had in our hands. It was a trump card, played judiciously and very effectively. They could go over our heads.

Those alphabet aviation advocates could pick up a phone and make their case directly to our Division Manager, Regional Administrator or even the top guy at 800 Independence Avenue. This card was played only when the stakes were high enough to warrant such a brash move. Shortly thereafter, we'd all receive some help and inspiration from our Regional Office. Depending on how highly visible or politically charged an issue was, the Region would send either a specialist or a particular Branch Manager. More often than not, whoever showed up would eventually side with whichever Facility's Manager had the most influence. Back then, you see, facilities were fiefdoms and their managers were lords. But as supreme arbiters, the Region's decision was sacrosanct. Really though. Could there have been anyone any further from the problem, in either proximity or perspicacity, with the power to impose a solution? Doubtful. On the other hand; there really were legitimate problems on the table, shrouded by a lot of saber rattling and rhetoric, and we seemed unable to solve them on our own, so....
By far, the most perilous of meetings were between Regional and facility management. These were, at their essence, akin to living with Lizzie Borden. You never knew who was going to get whacked or why. If the Division Manager showed up for a meeting, it was probably to either give someone an award or take someone's head. With luck, it wouldn't be yours. Once the deed was done and word got out, everyone would feign surprise and disbelief, then agree the victim had it coming.

These were strange days ~ a learning experience I suppose. Rife with ritual, arcane complexities and nuance, they're hard for me to describe. I guess you had to be there. Perhaps you were. If not, just be glad. I did have to be there. It was the path I chose and I followed it until I began to feel lost. I was an air traffic controller in an unfamiliar place far from home. In the long run I would come to realize it was time to pick up my needle and "move to another groove."

© NLA Factor, 2011



My trip back to Desolation Air Base was waylaid by a twist of fate and a couple of contemptible Colonels. I had thousands of miles to travel and less than sixteen hours to go before I'd be deemed AWOL (absent without official leave). Even worse, the Sergeant in charge of air traffic operations didn't have the most empathetic ear, so I knew there'd be big trouble if I missed my next shift. It's not like I would have been the first ever to be late returning from leave ~ but I knew I'd have been the most recent one. That was a bad place to be, because the Sergeant's tolerance for any particular infraction seemed to dwindle with each successive occurrence. Over half-way through his second tour of duty in Desolia, he was already a fairly manic guy. It wouldn't take much before he'd go completely maniacal and I didn't want to be in the cross hairs. 

This little odyssey began when I decided I was long overdue for a getaway . . .

I needed to be somewhere else for a while ~ a place far away from these airplanes, this authority and the monotony of barracks life at a remote air base. Burned out on barely edible food, incredibly dumb pilots and the omnipresent dust, I needed to find that place where, as Billy Strayhorn once wrote; "one relaxes on the axis of the wheel of life ~ to get the feel of life." The feel of life?  Oh I needed some of that. The lush life was calling.

My deteriorating temperament was telling me it was time to put in for some leave. There was no shortage of good reasons to go. I was tired of listening to Mr. Fye, Desolia's sweaty and malodorous tower interpreter, trying to explain away the almost daily close calls between our air traffic and theirs. I needed food that didn't give me diarrhea. I needed a bed someplace where there were no other shift workers clamoring around while I was trying to sleep. I figured it was time for a break when the local beer, which normally tasted like it had been filtered through old gym socks, started tasting good to me. To quote Strayhorn again; "A week in Paris could ease the bite of it" but who could afford Paris on an E-4's pay? At least I didn't have to worry about airfare. The odds of my getting leave approved gave me enough to worry about.

Tower staffing numbers changed frequently, depending on how fast you could count backwards. Most of the Air Force's controller inventory was spread out across Southeast Asia. Some of the relatively few who were left got sent to backwater bases like Desolation. There weren't many of us here, so I worried. Asking the Sergeant for leave would be like asking if I could take his 19 year old daughter along with me. I put in my paperwork and hoped for a miracle. It came back approved. Maybe the Serg was drunk at the time or maybe he just wanted to punish the last guy who took leave by making him take on extra shifts while I was away. I didn't know and I didn't care. The smell of freedom was in my nostrils.

The troops stationed at Desolation Air Base got to take at least one trip per year on military aircraft. I started wondering about every destination we sent transport-type airplanes to. Those planes came in from almost everywhere and that's usually where they went when they left. North African, South Asian, Middle Eastern and European airports were at the far end of many flight plans ~ some further than others. I was most interested in a city that had decent hotels with rates to match my finances, good food and, hopefully, some interesting things to see. I wanted to live that "Lush Life" for a couple of weeks. As the starting date of my leave drew near, I had to make a decision.

Athens, Greece met all of my criteria ~ amazing archaeological sites, interesting food, friendly people and a favorable currency exchange rate. But best of all; it was far, far from Desolia. I just needed to get there.  I knew we had a couple of flights headed that way each week so I started doing the necessary paperwork. Then, one dusty morning in May, I walked out onto the ramp and boarded a C-141 bound for Athens.

When the crew found out I worked in the control tower, they invited me to ride in the cockpit. I wondered; did they think I might serve as some kind of talisman ~ a "lucky charm" that would protect them from those menacing mishaps our airspace was known for? The Captain in command, a guy around my age named Max, radioed the tower that I was on board. This, to me, was kind of like informing a mugger you have a four-leaf clover in your wallet. It wasn't going to change the outcome.

We taxied out amidst a flock of the Desolian Air Force's F-84 trainers ~ all chattering away in the local lingo. Not knowing what they were saying only heightened the anxiety on the Starlifter's flight deck. Several of them took off ahead of us; turning left or right and vanishing into the turbid haze. As we started our takeoff roll, I took a deep breath, scanned the skies and crossed my fingers. We'd be relatively safe if we could somehow make it a hundred miles or so from the airport without being side-swiped by one of these low time trainees. From experience, our local pilots understood the probability that evasive maneuvers might be needed forthwith. By the same token, we controllers knew that steep turns and rapid altitude changes always took precedence over our control instructions. The deal was simple. Be ready for anything. But Max and his right-seat buddy weren't from around here.

The departure was blissfully uneventful but I could neither exhale or take my eyes off the sky ahead until we were well up into the flight levels. The two guys flying this thing were surprisingly cordial, given our Officer/Enlisted man relationship. They even insisted I call them by their first names while on board. Captain Max and his partner were based in The States but spent most of their time traveling along these high roads, doing pick-up and delivery everywhere. Reaching cruise altitude, we talked about some of the other bases they flew into, the latest news out of Vietnam and our home towns. Max was from Macon, Georgia where, as a teen, he watched the B-52s and big cargo planes flying in and out of Robbins AFB. He said it was his inspiration for joining the Air Force.

By far, the most popular topic was this amazing airplane. They were brimming with enthusiasm over it. In the long enroute hours we spent together, they explained every system that Starlifter had. Then, after one intermediate stop along the way, we arrived over the Aegean coastline. There were a few descent clearances and we were eventually turned over to Athens Approach. The Acropolis and its crown jewel Parthenon came into view. I was glad to be riding up front and able to take it all in while the flight crew set this huge machine up for landing.

Athens was all I expected and more. If ever there was an axis on the wheel of life . . . or civilization ~ this was it.  Two weeks of palatable food, potent wine and perpetual Hellenic sunshine were exactly what was needed to rejuvenate my spirit and stamina. When it was time to leave, I was ready. I stuffed my jeans and tee shirts into the suitcase, climbed back into my Air Force uniform and called for a cab to the airport.

There was a military transport scheduled to depart Athens that day. After an intermediate stop, it would end up at Desolation Air Base. Seating was always contingent on space available and was normally assigned on a first-come, first-served basis. Not wanting to take any chances, I got to the airport very early and had my name added to the stand-by list. Although there were a few names ahead of mine, the airman working the counter was encouraging. According to him, not many people ever left sunny Athens for dusty Desolia. I listened but couldn't believe there were guys like me actually stationed here! This was his job ~ in Athens, Greece! Where the hell did I go wrong.

I sat down next to my suitcase and stared out at the Air Force ramp. The military terminal was a small gray room in need of repainting. A Greek travel poster hung on the far wall, just behind a table holding two empty coffee pots and a stack of paper cups. The whole place smelled like burned coffee. I looked at my watch, waiting for something to happen while thinking about resuming my nightmare back at work. Two C-130s were parked on the far edge of the ramp and one was taking on cargo. I watched for a while; wondering where they were headed. Then I started looking for something to read.

In an hour or so, a C141 taxied in. The crew climbed out, walked through the terminal with their duffel bags and disappeared. The guy behind the counter didn't even look up. A few more Air Force troops showed up and went to the desk. After some talk, they too settled in to wait. I wondered if they were also headed to Desolia. We all waited. Another Starlifter rolled into the ramp. One of the crew members came in, stopped briefly at the desk, studied the stand-by list then went back out to the aircraft. I got up to double check the number of people who were ahead of me on that list. There were just three; all enlisted airmen like me. That didn't worry me. These airplanes were pretty big.

A short while later, I heard some loud discussion behind me. The racket was coming from two Colonels, standing beneath the check-in sign, arguing with the airman behind the counter. I couldn't hear exactly what was being said but it didn't go on for long. Arguments between airmen and officers were usually pretty brief. Within a few minutes, the two officers took their seats in the waiting area. One was shaking his head and laughing. Then I heard; "Will Airman Factor please come to the check-in counter? Airman Factor please." I sighed and got up. This wasn't a good sign.

The Pilot in Command had advised the desk there was room for just five people for the flight to Desolation Air Base. At number four on the list, I would have been one of them; except that the two Colonels had somehow muscled their way into the top two positions. This pushed me down to number six. In other words; I was screwed. The airman behind the counter was doing his best to empathize with me but all I could really hear was my Crew Chief hollering about how I should have started back to the base sooner. I was starting to feel like I was being crushed under that "wheel of life."

I started thinking about how to get word to my duty section. Would this guy behind the counter let me use the military phone system?  Or maybe the flight crew could let the people I work with know about my situation. I was starting to feel like I did before I went on leave; totally stressed out. It got even worse when I heard the boarding call and saw five people get up and head for the aircraft. The two officers were still chuckling about something as they walked by. Neither of them gave me so much as a glance. It got very quiet in that waiting area.

My mind was in turmoil as I stared off into the ramp space. An airman scurried around the aircraft, pulling the chocks away from its wheels. All the doors were closed and I thought I could hear one of the engines starting up. Feeling a little queasy, I wondered if there'd be another flight to Desolation that day. Naah. My fate was sealed up as tight as that Starlifter. Then one of the doors opened again. A guy in a flight suit stepped out and started jogging toward the terminal. He came in, went straight to the check-in desk and picked up the stand-by clip-board. In a moment, "Airman Factor, please come to the check-in counter. Airman Factor please."

The guy in the flight suit was a tough looking old Senior Master Sergeant. He told me to grab my bag and follow him. I wasn't sure what was going on but followed his orders and hoped for the best. Coming to Athens was exciting but being stuck here while my leave expired would lead to excitement of a different nature. We crossed the ramp and climbed into the aircraft. I didn't know how but it appeared I'd been saved! As my eyes grew accustomed to the murky darkness inside the fuselage, I could see those two Colonels strapped into their seats like a couple of high-ranking packages among the pallets of cargo. They weren't laughing anymore. I sighed. It looked like this trip was going to be a long one ~ in more ways than one. I started searching for an available seat but it didn't look like there were any left. Puzzled, I heard a vaguely familiar voice. "Hey airman, get yer young ass up here, and that's an order!" The voice came from the direction of the cockpit. I squinted and saw another guy in a flight suit, wearing Captain's bars. What a coincidence. It was Captain Max!

The two Colonels watched, looking a little stupefied, as this airman three-striper turned and marched toward the flight deck. I just smiled, knowing I'd be back at Desolation on schedule. That "feel of life" was returning.

I saw Max a few more times during the remainder of my tour at Desolation. He'd always call the tower and ask for me when his route brought him through. If he was remaining overnight, I'd find him some civilian clothes and sneak him into the NCO Club. It was a wild place where drinking to forget cost very little. It was also strictly off limits to officers. We'd go in, share a few pitchers of beer and have some laughs. The next morning, he'd be gone. The last time we spoke, he told me he was leaving the Air Force after this hitch and going for a job with the airlines. I hope he made it. Who knows? Maybe Max was one of the countless thousands of voices I heard coming from the skies during my time on the boards. Less plausible coincidences have happened; like that day he appeared, literally out of thin air, to became my lucky charm and save my "young ass" in Athens. It made me wonder; was his route of flight that day simply a coincidence or was it not-so-simply a milestone in some magnificent plan?

That brings me to the question I've often pondered while making my way through life's long labyrinth. Are coincidences really coincidental? As one who believes that everything, good or bad, happens for a reason, I'd have to say no.

© NLA Factor, 2011