So Indispensable!

Merry Christmas and a happy new year to everyone!  Enjoy this behind the scenes look at an air traffic controller.

© NLA Factor, 2012


Destination - Chapter 11

Happy Thanksgiving from all of us at the Old Controllers Home!

© NLA Factor, 2012



It was Summertime but sometimes the livin' wasn't so easy; especially when I was working the swing-shift. Although seasonal traffic increases were among our daily expectations, thunderstorms were not as predictable. Convective weather often moved in and rained on our parade quicker than you could say; "Wind shear alert."
West Arrival fix - 4:15 PM

If you happened to be in the TRACON around 4:00 PM on a Summer afternoon, you might see the trouble building. Always spoiling for a fight, Pete would already be arguing with The Command Center about arrival restrictions. He knew what we'd need when the impact of those little green specks of precipitation appearing on our radar was fully realized. At the moment, they were relatively innocuous little storm cells but they'd soon begin expanding upward and outward, powered by strong convective currents rising from the overheated landscape. In the time it took for a coffee break, those things could burgeon into 40,000 foot high behemoths that stormed across the sky, spawning severe vertical winds, spitting out lightning and striking fear in all who flew near. They didn't do much for a controller's peace of mind either. Thunderstorms. The worst of them usually formed in the West/Northwest quadrant of our airspace ~ right in the middle of a couple departure routes. It's also where two of Big Time's most active arrival fixes were located. From there, everyone would be taking vectors to one of the approaches in use. Or maybe not.

West arrival fix - 4:30 PM
It was only a matter of time before pilots started refusing the controller's heading assignments. They would either ask for deviations or simply turning on their own and tell us as they did it. For Arrival controllers with increasingly limited lateral and vertical airspace, the situation could become unmanageable pretty quickly. When their airplanes started deviating into adjacent sectors; a whole new set of problems ensued. Someone had to warn the affected controller/s, who were probably dealing with their own weather-related issues. Those guys, who now saw additional traffic being forced into their airspace, had to adjust their own traffic flows to accommodate the unplanned intrusions. Everyone began getting pissed off at each other. Obviously the weather was nobody's fault and neither were the deviations ~ but blaming the guy working an adjacent sector was some kind of convoluted stress relief. A rousing chorus of "Get that fuckin' airplane outa my airspace!" was an appropriate segue to stopping Big Time departures and/or shutting off the arrivals until order was restored.

As weather conditions and controller patience deteriorated, the TRACON became a bad place to be. Phones were ringing at every console. Controllers were shouting at each other or into handoff lines while Supervisors dashed from sector to sector in an attempt to keep anything troublesome or tragic from happening. Watching it all, you'd have thought this was the first thunderstorm we ever had to deal with. For some of us ~ it was.

When my team was on duty, I could see the more subtle signs of tension among those I knew so well. Freddy would stare, unblinking, at his radar display. His left elbow on the console; he would massage his forehead while issuing control instructions in a monotone voice. In his right hand was a dead cigarette butt that he kept tapping and swirling on his ashtray. Chip pumped his left leg up and down, blurting out a few carefully conceived control instructions. At some point, he'd abruptly stand up, as if to get a better view of the traffic. He'd mutter to himself, glance around to see if anyone was watching, then sit back down to work more airplanes. Visibly annoyed, Dick would transmit to a flight, un-key his microphone and, throwing both hands out toward the radar scope, exclaim something like; "Goddamnit Captain! How many times do I have to tell you?" Or ~  "I wish these fuckin' clowns would just stay home when it rains!" Whatever he said; it was loud and loaded with expletives. A moment later he'd key his radio again and make a very calm, coherent transmission. We all had our own peculiar ways of handling the tension. The trick was to make bedlam sound to the pilots like a slow Summertime day in utopia. You know . . . when the fish are jumpin' and the cotton is high.

But really? Out on the airport, departure queues grew long at the runways until a decision was finally made to keep most of them on the ramps. Holding patterns would begin filling with Big Time's arrivals; both at the fringes of our airspace and hundreds of miles away in the ARTCC's sectors. Eventually, the backward tumbling dominoes would fall onto some distant departure points, where pilots were told they couldn't even leave the gate if they were going to Big Time. But for now, unless it became unbearably ugly at the airport, the tower would continue flushing departures out until either the next one in line refused to takeoff or the TRACON hollered "Stop!" Arrivals would continue to be threaded, a few at a time, through gaps in the storm until the gaps closed up.

Tower controllers stood watching bolts of lightning strike the city skyline as airport visibility gradually decreased. Wind directions oscillated and speeds picked up. Pilots were beginning to report turbulence and occasional tailwinds on final. Down in the radar room, controllers could barely hear the incessant rumble of thunder over the sound of our antique air handling system, as it exchanged the stink of cigarette smoke and body odor for the reek of jet exhaust from the ramp. The symphony of swearing and sarcasm kept cadence with everyone's struggle to reorder the entropy in their sector. 

Meanwhile, in an airline cockpit, some forty miles out and several thousand feet up - each transmission emanating from Big Time Approach sounded incredibly normal. It had to. Our "livin' is easy" voices rarely revealed the prevailing control room chaos. You couldn't tell that everyone was running on anxiety, anger and adrenalin. Relying heavily on experience and hoping for the best from our equipment, we were uneasy, unsure and worried. Some controllers would became gruff with Supervisors, who quickly returned the fire ~ even as they stepped in to assist. It was an exhausting environment that persisted until the bad weather either dissipated or moved on.

So, where was I in this messy milieu?  I could have been on Ground Control. There, I'd be fiddling with my felt-tip marker and fielding questions from the crowded taxiways about when departures would resume. In time, a voice from the middle of one queue would announce he had to return to the gate for fuel. He'd have to wait till the line ahead inched along to the next intersection. 

Or I might have been stuck on Flight data/Clearance Delivery. In that case, I was probably working on reroute requests. Damn! Entering new or amended flight plans and coordinating them with the Center usually required more time than it took for the weather to move. Right about the time a reroute was fully coordinated, the pilot's original route might have reopened. If so, the alternate route I had just worked on for 30 minutes (with another bunch of frazzled, pissed off controllers) would now, if taken, lead an airplane directly into the eye of the beast. Plan "C" would be to re-coordinate the pilot's original route. I think my original route into insanity might have started here. All in all, it was more fun than boils on the balls.  

If you had to be in the tower, the best place to work was Local Control. With so many constraints in the system, very few planes were flying in and out. Soon, nothing would be moving but Freddy's cigarette butt and Chip's left leg. As the worst of the storm passed over the airfield, the low clouds and heavy rain made it look like nightfall at 6:00 PM. We'd all sit, staring out into the murk, listening to the shrieking wind and worrying over what sounded like gravel being flung against the windows. 

If I was down in the radar room, I was probably concealing my concerns as best I could - caught up in the moment like everyone else. Maybe the last two airplanes to attempt an approach refused to go any further than the outer marker. Although not uncommon, it was bad news for arrival controllers who probably had a few more airplanes on vectors toward the field. They'd quickly pass the word back to all Center sectors that fed us traffic. There might already be long lines of Big Time arrivals stretching across several states, so the probability of enroute holding was high. The weather would eventually rage across the airfield and bring everything to a halt. We couldn't hear the thunder down in the radar room but could sure feel the floor shaking and see the alphanumerics on our radar displays begin to blink. Emotionally, we'd be shitting ourselves. We all knew that if lightning struck the radar antenna or radio equipment, our entire operation would go down the toilet.

My earliest experiences in the TRACON with this kind of weather were when I was certified only on the Departure sectors. They were usually fun to work ~ unless the weather was like this. To use a sports analogy, I always thought of Departure Control as a kind of "Pitching" position. We were pitching Big Time's departures against another team; that being the enroute Center. If Big Time was dealing with the challenges of convective weather ~ the Center was too. Not knowing much about what was going on in their sectors, there was always the strain of wondering if they'd take our handoffs or, metaphorically speaking, bat them right back at us. Communications between facilities wasn't always so good and, quite often, the first sign of trouble was a refused handoff. 

Once planes left the airport, all a Departure controller could do was provide the spacing they requested, get the handoffs going, then hope for the best. This, as opposed to Big Time's arrival sectors. They were "Catchers" who were expected to accept handoffs from the Center. It was less risky for them because the arrival controllers had a pretty good idea whether they'd be able to get their airplanes through our airspace and onto the airport. But the Center controllers who had all those Big Time arrivals lined up and speeding toward our boundary? Oh, they were probably biting their nails, just like I was, in my little corner of the TRACON. They were pitching at us, and if Big Time "shut the door" on them ~ their traffic picture might go flying apart like a house of cards in a hurricane.

Handoff lines crackled constantly. It could drive you nuts. Under normal circumstances, handoffs were automated and therefore needed little to no actual voice communication between controllers. Convective weather temporarily removed "normal" from our lexicon. Under these conditions, nearly all the handoffs were accompanied by some anxious dialogue on the landlines. 

The suspense that filled the space between initiating and completing a handoff was just one of many factors that contributed to the stress of a stormy shift. There was an ever increasing aura of tension in the TRACON that eventually got thicker than the cigarette smoke. Noise levels ranged from fortissimo to frenzied. Unreliable equipment, uptight controllers, angry Supervisors and apprehensive pilots all contributed to the general aura of angst. It didn't matter where you worked. Whether it was in the Center, Terminal or a cockpit ~ everyone had a long, hard fight getting to the end of their workday. But that wasn't always where it ended. 

Many of the delayed flights, both in and out, didn't start moving till around midnight. The airport could become uncharacteristically busy at 1:00 AM. That being the case, a few of the evening shift controllers were held over for a couple of hours to help the mid-shift crew (two in the tower, two in the TRACON) clean up the mess. After a full shift of what felt like shingles on steroids, a little overtime money wasn't fair compensation for the added agony. The guys would stay though; knowing the mid-shift staff wouldn't be sufficient to handle all that pent up demand. When our carpool finally hit the long road home, we were completely wound down ~ like clocks that had run out of time. Somehow though, we all had enough energy left to relive many of the horrifying highlights of the shift through anecdotes, exaggerations, criticisms and complaints. It made us feel a little better. And up ahead was our favorite bar. That always made us feel a lot better. 

So it was Summertime and the livin' was queasy. It sure wasn't the Ella Fitzgerald, sultry swing of a Summertime that rocked my hammock. Not this one. This one was more of a Janis Joplin, shrieking, soulful kind of Summertime that shook my nerves and scared me shitless.

© NLA Factor, 2012


Don't Come Back Till Spring!

Trying to drive a hardly heated, subcompact car on a partly plowed, subfreezing road was bad enough. Snow hadn't been my friend since the days when it got me out of going to school. But now I was up to my hubcaps in it, lurching along in the ruts made by larger vehicles and hoping I could reach the airport without sliding sideways into a ditch. Meanwhile, the usual assortment of Winter driving 'experts' showered me with slush as they flew past in four-wheel drive. My wiper blades were starting to seize up and the windshield defroster wasn't working. What could make it worse? How about this; I was heading to the airport on my day off.

A sizable snowstorm hit the region over night and, by morning, everything was buried under 18 or more inches. High winds had driven a four foot snowdrift onto my driveway and across the front yard. The only way out of the house was through the back door. It was a good day to be home so I sat in the living room, drinking coffee and watching TV . . . probably "Lucy" reruns. The only thing I had to do today was get the driveway cleared ~ but I figured there was no hurry. Streets in this neighborhood wouldn't be plowed till late afternoon anyway. Then, at around 10:00 AM, I got a call. Picking up the phone, I regretted it immediately.

It was Hank ~ one of the day shift Supervisors. I was sure he wasn't checking in to tell me I'd won the football pool. He said there were only eight or nine controllers in the facility. That wasn't a problem though. Since all runways were closed and any traffic coming to Big Time had been ground-stopped, I knew that most of those controllers would be loitering in the break room with their own cups of coffee. The real problem was looming for the evening shift. That's where I would come in - literally. One runway and a few connecting taxiways were expected to open around 2:00 PM. The ground stop would then be replaced with some hefty mile-in-trail restrictions on arrivals. The problem was that many of the evening shift guys had already called to say they weren't going to be able to get to work. How about me? Would I be able to make it in?

Hank could have simply ordered me to work but was hoping I'd volunteer first. His voice dripped with desperation. I felt sorry for him. The situation had to be bad because trainees like me, who were certified only in the tower, rarely got called for overtime.

Big Time was an airport surrounded mostly by urban blight and highway interchanges. None of us lived nearby. Everyone lived at least 40 minutes out in suburbia and many were much further away than that. I was in one of the nearest neighborhoods and, painful though it was, I couldn't bring myself to decline Hank's plea for help. Besides, the extra bucks would be handy. So, after a couple of hours spent clearing the walk and driveway, I set out to collect a little overtime pay. It was not going to be worth the money. I figured this would be a long, agonizing ordeal but I had no idea. Attempting to stab myself to death by planting a carrot seed in my belly button would have seemed quicker and less painful.

When I arrived at the TRACON to sign in, the place was nearly empty. All of the radar sectors were combined at two positions and, even at that, neither of the guys were busy. I started thumbing through the "Read & Initial Binder," looking for anything new. One of the Supervisors walked by and muttered "When you're done there, go on up to the tower." No surprise. At this point in my training, I was only certified in the tower and two TRACON Flight Data positions.

The tower saw most of the action during snow situations. Looking down on one of the gate areas, I could see plenty of activity. Ramps were mostly plowed and several aircraft were being deiced. Across the airfield, I saw the lines of snow removal equipment moving in formation down the runway. It appeared they'd be done on schedule. Good thing. There were already airplanes from the more distant departure points airborne and headed our way. Airports closer in would start getting releases fairly soon.

Big Time sat quietly in the snow. It was like a well shaken bottle of beer and the cap was about to be pulled off. Worried as usual, I waited for orders from the Cab Supervisor. He was on the phone to the TRACON but finally glanced in my direction and said "Better open up Ground."  Traffic was currently so slow that Ground was combined at the Local Control position. I felt a sense of relief. Ground was going to be challenging enough but Local? I had no clue. Since my tower training had started and ended before I had the chance to work under these conditions - I was a bit 'snow blind' to all the realities of Winter operations. Lucky for me, an older journeyman had already been assigned to Local. I saw a chance to get a little learning done if I could just pay attention to what he was doing.

A half-hour after I signed onto Ground, the Airport Authority opened the first runway.  A few airplanes asked for taxi instructions and I started steering them toward the only available way out of here. More airplanes were being deiced at the gates and I even saw some movement on one of the General Aviation ramps. Big Time was shaking off the snow and waking up. So far though, there were still no arrivals visible on the tower's BRITE radar. I heard someone coming up the tower steps.

It was Jack; another trainee. Jack was only certified through Ground Control, which is where the Supervisor sent him.  I was to relieve the Journeyman controller on Local, who was now needed in the TRACON. Apparently Approach Control was beginning to see some of those arrivals we'd been waiting for. I took a deep breath, plugged my headset in and looked out across the airfield. Gusty winds were blowing a lot of snow right back onto the plowed surfaces.
Within twenty minutes, there were several aircraft lined up, both at the runway and on the final approach course. The TRACON was under orders to give us at least eight miles between inbound flights. That should have been sufficient spacing to allow me to get one departure out between arrivals. Normally, eight miles would be excessive spacing on final. The thing was, we had to compensate for the fact that pilots were dealing with packed snow on the runway (braking action fair) and only two cleared exit taxiways. Missing the first turnoff would mean a slow taxi to the runway end, while the next departure rolled gingerly into position. Runway occupancy time was going to be high. That was normal for such conditions. The real problem was my low experience level and unfamiliarity with the ways of Winter in tower operations. Runway occupancy time? What the hell was that?

The simple act of getting the next departure into position, normally something clocked in seconds, could take twice as long under such dicey conditions. It seemed the larger the airplanes were - the slower they rounded each snow covered corner.  It was the same at the far end of the runway as each arrival decelerated, then began creeping toward the next available exit point. All the while, another arrival would be bearing down on the landing threshold - hoping the plane sitting there would start rolling soon.

The tower Supe was a gentleman known around Big Time as "Tampa," in recognition of his home town. Tampa was cool. A quiet guy, never excitable, you might not even know he was there. Tampa could enter a room like smoke under the door. Suddenly he'd be right behind you. He had an uncanny talent for knowing where the trouble was or soon would be. Tampa also knew I needed this Wintertime experience on Local Control. He was probably weighing the benefits of allowing me to get it against the complaints he'd hear from the TRACON, the airlines, the Command Center and everyone else who expected a perfect world under imperfect conditions. Until I got my timing down, there'd be missed approaches, missed EFC's (Expect further clearance times) and missed departure opportunities. Like I said though, Tampa was cool. He knew we all had to learn sometime.

So, down came the airplanes from their holding patterns. Then, after a few vectors across the outlying Counties, they'd turn onto a downwind leg. From the tower, I could see them descending through the bright, Winter sky and rolling quietly onto the localizer- still miles away. The previous arrival having just touched down, I promptly cleared the next departure into takeoff position - using my most authoritative "Prepare for an immediate!" Halfway down the runway, reverse thrusters were kicking up great billows of loose snow as the last to land made its best effort to slow up and get off the runway. Tampa stood silently in the back of the cab; watching and listening to everything. From the B-727 on a 4 1/2 mile final; "Tower, are we cleared to land?" My last to land had missed the only available high-speed taxiway and was now heading for the runway end. I asked him to expedite but that wasn't going to happen. He was moving at a speed that made things go wrong quickly.

Everything seemed to be happening in slow motion. Everything, that is, but the Boeing, now on a three mile final. My departure had nudged forward across the hold line and made a slow 90 degree turn onto the runway, where it stopped.  I glanced at the last to land - now at the far end of the runway and beginning to turn. I refocused on the arrival, now less than three out. "Allegheny two-eighty-five, cleared for immediate takeoff, traffic two and a half miles out." (Sometimes we fib a little. Call it providing impetus.) Seconds ticked by. I saw a cloud of snow rise behind the DC-9 as its engines spooled up.  This wasn't going to work. The B-727's gear was coming up.  "We're going around." was all the pilot said. I squinted out the tower window, wondering why I answered that damned phone this morning. Tampa was already talking to the TRACON Supervisor about the go-around.

Cursing to myself, I issued missed approach instructions. Then I pushed a button on the console that put my voice directly into the Departure controller's headset.  "Eastern is going around." By the time I got additional instructions from the TRACON on where to send the missed approach, my departure was lifting off and heading skyward. An annoyed sounding approach controller's voice in my headset said; "Gimme the Eastern on a two-forty heading and up to five!" I looked at the BRITE radar. By now, there were arrivals all over the place and I was giving the guys downstairs another one.
Allegheny had been switched to Departure Control and was into a climbing turn. I cleared the next plane in line for takeoff, just as another flight called outside the outer marker. Tampa sidled up next to me. "Try to keep 'em moving" he said in a low tone. I'm sure I gave him a puzzled look. "The departures" he said. "Try not to let 'em stop on the runway. Once they stop, you've gotta get 'em movin' again, and that takes time! After your arrival touches down, you need to watch it and wait a few seconds. If it looks like he's gonna miss the high-speed turnoff, wait till he's close to the end, then put your departure into position. It's all in the timing. The idea is to clear him for takeoff before he has to stop. Approach is giving us plenty of room between the arrivals. You need to make it work!" Jack, the new Ground controller, was listening intently to everything Tampa said.

Sometimes I made it work and sometimes I made a mess. I was learning though. Tampa left me on Local Control for nearly two hours; alternately coaching, cringing and answering angry calls from the TRACON Supervisor. They got pissed off whenever I gave them back an airplane they'd somehow have to squeeze into the arrival flow. By the time I was radar certified, I understood why. You start setting up your required mileage interval between arrivals as they leave the holding patterns; tweaking it with a little vectoring and speed control, then allowing for some compression as they turn onto the final. Trying to fit an eleventh airplane into the middle of a nicely spaced line of ten usually required a lot of vectoring and speed reductions.   It was a lot of work for the controller, made the Approach frequency noisy and put the pilots on edge.

Tampa's advice was good. I had a lot to learn and needed hone my skills. In air traffic control, timing was always important but under these airfield conditions, it was everything. With a little prompting from Tampa, I began getting the hang of it.  An arrival would fly over the runway end and touch down six to 800 feet later. Reverse thrusters would kick up some snow as the plane started slowing up.  Resisting the urge to get my next departure into position, I kept an eye on that arrival to see if he was going to make the first turnoff. Then a quick check of the next to land's distance from the runway and groundspeed.  If things looked reasonably good, I'd get the departure moving into position; hoping I could clear him for takeoff before he had to stop. Tampa stayed within arm's length of the TRACON hotline as we both watched that next arrival, now less than three out. My previous arrival turned off the runway just as the departure rolled onto the centerline. It looked sweet.  "Cleared for immediate takeoff, traffic two and a half miles out."

It worked . . . well . . . most of the time. There were a couple more go-arounds but I wasn't nearly as 'snow blind' as I was at the beginning of the shift. When Tampa finally had me relieved from Local, he told me to get the hell out of the tower and with a wry tone quipped; "And don't come back till Spring!" Then he smiled, told me to "Take ten," then relieve the guy on Clearance Delivery.  I headed downstairs to the break room but Robbie, one of the older journeymen caught me in the hall. "You're a god damned idiot, Factor! But you're learning." Nodding stupidly, I recognized the kind of compliment a trainee gets. If he'd only glared at me and said nothing I would have been in real trouble.

NLA Factor, 2012



A Matter Of Time

There is an old Arab proverb: "Man fears time, but time fears the pyramids." Personally, I don't think either of us has anything to be afraid of. Time always wins. The pyramids are shrinking and will one day be gone without a trace. It just takes time. As for man? I guess I'd be more fearful of time coming to a stop than I would of it marching on past that "moment." What moment? Well, it might have happened when someone placed the last stone on a pyramid or the last stitch in the fabric of a biplane. It was the moment we actually believed we had reached the apex of an endeavor. 

Fortunately, time does pass, evolution creeps onward and new ideas make the old ones obsolete. Without that forward movement,we might still be building pyramids and plying the skies in biplanes. But just imagine how the guy in this biplane must have felt as he cruised past the great pyramids of Giza. He'd reached the apex. He was on top of the world ~ or so he thought. Everything goes obsolete and comes to an end ~ whether it's the the plains of Giza, the planes of modern aviation or just plain old people. They'll all vanish. It's just a matter of time.
There were days in life when I wished it could go on forever. Everything. But somehow the passage of time brings an awakening; an insight heretofore unavailable. Just as we may have to pick our way through miles of rock to reach the gold; we might have to pick our way through many years to reach the understanding that nothing lasts forever, nor should it.

But there is one thing that, for me, remains timeless. That would be my love of all things aviation. It seems to have been with me forever, but when did it begin? I don't think I could turn my clock back far enough to find out. It was long before I would call myself a pilot or an air traffic controller. It was many years before I'd reached the first of several dead-ends in my life. Perhaps you can recall that day when your sky got a lot bigger and the world got a little smaller. Although I can't remember when it began for me, I do remember when it really took off. . .
I finally landed that FAA controller job I'd been waiting for. Everything was coming together! I could feel it ~ especially after the long years when everything seemed to be coming apart. These were the high times of forward momentum, fueled by surging self-confidence and optimism. I was gaining speed, checking off my career goals and only looking back to marvel at the distance I'd covered. How naive I was. As time passed, I should have been savvy enough to be looking out for those who were running up behind me with swords, scimitars or who knows; maybe even shish kabob skewers. But all that turmoil and treachery wouldn't catch up with me till much later. In the beginning though, it was all about air traffic control and the people I knew who made it happen. We had common goals, common adversaries and were so close that you couldn't have held a dollar bill between us.

I was lucky to have worked with the best there were ~ in every sense of the word. One of the key parts of the job was the teamwork it required. As anyone who's worked at it knows, air traffic control (ATC) can't be done alone. It's not a solo venture. The most successful shifts were the ones where you went home shaking your head and thinking about the controllers who helped get you through it. If, on the other hand, you headed home feeling like you personally just knocked one into the bleachers, you may have actually struck out. I don't know but I hope today's ATC game is still played that way.

A superior shift was made of many individual successes that, when added up, amounted to an illusion of effortlessness. It took an artist who also knew the magic and could do the trick. For example; tweaking airspeeds and issuing a few artful vectors to fit an extra aircraft into the approach sequence, where there didn't really seem to be enough room, could take pressure off the holding patterns. A center controller who accepted early handoffs so the departures didn't have to stop climbing was ultimately helping the tower keep the departure queue moving. The Local Controller who didn't complain about a tight arrival interval and, in fact, got the departures out in spite of it made for happy approach controllers. If you could just watch such things, without ever hearing the radio transmissions or interphone calls necessary to make it work, you might think it was easy. But this wasn't the "pulling rabbits out of hats" kind of trick.

Watching the controllers who could do the magic was always a treat. The only thing better was learning how to do it myself.

Of course there were also times of defeat and discouragement but we all have them, don't we? Anyway, I was cocksure those times wouldn't last and, somehow, they never did. Besides, there were usually more things to learn from a single setback than there was from a single success. I guess I always tended to analyze my failures more closely than I did my victories. As an air traffic controller, it kept me fairly busy. Still, life on the boards challenged, sustained and satisfied me for many years. Then, one day, I must have experienced that "moment" referred to earlier. I felt an urgency, like I was late for an important appointment. I needed to move on ~ but where to? Was I really embarking on a career path or was this more like pinball, where I'd simply bounce and bump around until someone yelled "Tilt!" and the sign said "Game Over?" Only time would tell.

I have to say though; moving on in this material world took me, far too quickly, through many situations where I should have lingered longer and enjoyed more. At the time, I guess I didn't want to be stuck there forever. One place I should have stayed at least a little longer was among the controller workforce. I still remember what Pete, our Area Manager, said when I told him I was thinking of bidding on a staff job. "Why the shit do you want to do that? You've already got the best job in the Agency!" He was right, of course. Later that day, he banished me to our most intricate radar sector to train our most argumentative developmental. Pete had a peculiar style. It was okay though. I needed a fresh headache and it actually helped me make up my mind about that staff job.

Whenever I reflect on my days of working traffic, even with those inherent headaches, it still gives me a good feeling. I'd run out of adjectives before I could adequately describe it. But I moved on because it was time and there was an opportunity. You know what they say; "Time waits for no man?" Well I can tell you now that opportunity is far less patient.

Moving on, I found that staff and Management work wasn't nearly as gratifying as any of those "superior" shifts I completed as a controller. So, what else is new? Like I said earlier, the passage of time brings an awakening. The facts were that a controller could get something pivotal, propitious or profitable done in moments. Instant gratification. Meanwhile, over in the gladiator arena euphemistically referred to as Management, self-actualization remained illusive. Whenever I finally got something significant accomplished, it could have taken weeks, months or even years. Oh, and this was when I became aware of those guys at my back with the swords and such. Again, I began thinking there were more important things to do elsewhere. I hoped there'd at least be a less duplicitous bunch of people. I was ready to move beyond another of those moments in time.
So anyway ~ life is good and yours should last as long as you want it to. But one of many things I learned is that life, spacious and special as it is, should not go on without end. Immortality is a fool's dream. The ceaseless cycle of good times and bad taught me that immortality would simply mean being stuck here forever. Talk about a fate worse than death. Fortunately, we'll all move on one day. At the moment, I'm far from ready. But it's just a matter of time.

© NLA Factor, 2012


Reflections In A Fun House Mirror

This is how they look to us ~ but what did they really look like? 
This is all we have to go on . . .
Criticism. Its astonishing, but most people I've known didn't like criticism. It seems those who did only abided it as long as they weren't on the receiving end. As controllers, we got used to it. We had to. It was just one of those professions where, somehow, everyone else knew of better ways to do it than we did. They could take an inconceivably complex system of rules, technology, techniques, human factors and other intangibles, then oversimplify it all the way down to one short phrase like "You could have done it better." Translation: "You should have done it my way." 

Sometimes the critics would try to mollify their appraisals and proclamations by calling it "constructive criticism" or something more trendy like "feedback." Whatever. As long as it was purely verbal, you could either let it get under your skin or roll off your back. But what if it was a written critique? And what if that written critique was widely read by people who never actually had first hand knowledge of the performance in question? If that written critique was all they had to go on; is it possible they'd be looking at a virtual "fun house mirror" that might have intentionally or inadvertently distorted some critical realities? Did they know or even care to know what we really looked like? Once upon a time . . . 

There was no irony like being chewed out by a First Lieutenant who knew even less about air traffic control than me; a naif of an Airman Third Class who, just months ago, graduated from Tech School, smelling like the bottled beers of Biloxi. I felt like a guy who'd finally memorized the first four letters of the alphabet ~ being yelled at by some jerk who could only make it from A to B. But John, our baby-faced Flight Facilities Officer was putting his heart into it.

Listening to John, you'd have thought he actually separated airplanes for a living, rather than the papers in his file cabinet, which he could barely separate alphabetically. Well...he had some higher ranking officers to impress. Across the room sat two Colonels in flight suits, holding pens and clipboards. As they made their way through the list of grievances they'd accumulated that morning, John nodded in solemn acknowledgment of our alleged errors and oversights ~ glancing grimly at me and a few other guys from the tower and radar unit. I thought he was probably attempting to look like the Captain he wished he'd been promoted to by now. In reality, he just looked like a Lieutenant with a migraine ~ a condition also known as "controllers."

Bob, our fearless FAA Air Traffic Representative (ATREP), sat next to John but his gaze seemed to be fixed on something outside the window. As the two Colonels droned on about their morning's experiences in our traffic pattern, there was a sudden thud of afterburners lighting up at the runway. Their sound rattled windows in the small, stuffy, mausoleum of a Flight Facilities Office where we controllers sat sweating ~ eyes glazed over like sad corpses. The noise jolted me. I glanced at old Bob and guessed he was recalling the sound of Viscounts and Super Constellations running up on the long forgotten taxiways of his propeller powered controller days. He hadn't worked airplanes in at least a decade but was, nonetheless, our resident windbag ~ or "expert" if you'd prefer. Bob had seen these kinds of meetings many times before. He knew how to tune them out and could afford to do so. In my callow mind though, I'd been envisioning my eventual court martial, reduction in grade and transfer to the base Supply Squadron. Well at least my agile imagination was able to escape this dreary gathering, even though the rest of me couldn't. I sat, listening to the afterburners rumbling across the airfield, then fading away in the distance. Life flew on without us.

So, who were these two malcontent Colonels? Looking back, I'd have to say they were envoys from my future.

They were pilots. There was an entire squadron of them. I think they were based at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois. From there, they'd fly off to visit all the stateside Air Force Bases. Every once in a while, their flight plans would bring them to our little slice of Paradise, where they would spend a couple airborne hours evaluating our level of service, proficiency and adherence to regulations.

Referred to among the ranks as a "Service Eval," we controllers weren't supposed to know when they were coming. From their standpoint, the whole process was more effective if it was a covert and candid peek at the way we operated. To maintain anonymity as long as possible, their flight plans were filed using the aircraft tail number rather than a tactical callsign. The inbound was called in to the tower by our Base Operations as something like "Air Force 70561, a T-33." We got a lot of T-33 traffic, so when an inbound was called on one, we'd always check "the list."

The list was a sheet of paper taped to the back of our base regulations manual. On it, we recorded the tail numbers of every known Service Eval aircraft to have ever visited the place. It was our secret and whenever an unlisted T-33 was revealed to be a Service Eval, we added the aircraft's tail number to "the list." Even though Service Evals were rarely a surprise, knowing they were coming never reversed any one controller's bad day or deterred us from making enough stupid mistakes to prompt a meeting.

Service Eval missions were always flown in T-33s. That way, the front seat could fly the airplane while the back seat handled radios and made copious notes. They'd usually start the evaluation by working the radar unit for a while; requesting at least one precision and one surveillance approach; perhaps even a no-gyro. Their trick was to intentionally deviate off the final approach course or glide slope ~ just to measure the controller's corrective reflexes. Maybe they'd pretend to lose their radios (NORDO) to see how quickly the controller picked up on it.

Once they had sufficiently exercised the radar guys, they'd switch over to our tower frequency. From their subsonic perch in the traffic pattern, they grilled us on phraseology, procedures, base regulations and anything else they figured might throw us off our game. They might even ask for a DF steer or two. The whole thing made me nervous. After all, this was the U.S. military ~ the same guys who, less than a year ago, had yanked me out of my comfortable civilian life. We were even at war! This added up to some serious shit for a twenty year old. I stammered and stuttered like Porky Pig whenever I had to handle these guys.

F-100 Super Sabre Cockpit
Of course the entire exercise was about quality control. The Service Eval was a necessary tool, albeit somewhat intimidating and sometimes nerve-racking. Most of the aircraft we worked were high performance, single seat fighters like the F-100. Compared with today's Air Force inventory, these airplanes were temperamental antiques equipped with the relatively primitive flight controls and avionics of the day. To fly one of these things, especially solo and in instrument conditions, had to be difficult enough. The pilots who flew them didn't need the added challenge of dealing with a clumsy or incompetent air traffic control facility. But then, what pilot does?

Generally, we did a pretty good job but knew the Service Eval pilots would probably find something to squawk about anyway. It was their job. I suspect they had their agenda, just like the folks who evaluated us during my FAA years. The Agency used several different approaches to quality control checks. Some were done by facility personnel while others were done by other offices. Most were insulting but a few were purely insufferable.

There was the "Tape Talk" program. This was an internal check which would have fallen into the "insulting" category. Here you had a specialist from the Training Department making tape recordings of controllers while they worked a particular tower or TRACON position. The recordings, which included all radio and landline communications, were made remotely and, more importantly, in secret. Controllers never knew they were being taped for an evaluation until well after the fact. First, someone from the Training Department would listen to the tape, noting specific deviations and providing applicable references to local and/or national directives. When that step was complete, everything would be sent to the controller's Supervisor, who would schedule a one-on-one review. Forms verifying this review would be signed by both parties, returned to the Training Department then filed away for future reference.

This kind of review was not well received by controllers or their Supervisors. There was a note of hypocrisy tacked to the idea of being critiqued by a Training Specialist who had already lost much credibility simply by taking a staff job. Adding to the insult was the possibility this particular staffer may not have been the most able or procedurally correct controller himself before landing that office job. I was shocked to learn that some controllers bid on staff jobs because they just couldn't deal with working traffic anymore. Even more shocking? They often got the job. Anyway, there sat the Training Specialist ~ passing judgment on his peers, making entries in their training records and occasionally grinding axes over former coworkers. Does hypocrisy smell worse than criticism? You betcha.

Another means of internal analysis was known as an Over-the-shoulder (OTS). Only mildly annoying, the process required a supervisor to plug in with his or her controller and monitor the sector for an hour or so. Since the OTS was performed by a Supervisor, it was about as credible as that particular Supervisor was. Equity was another problem here. Objectivity in this kind of evaluation was often influenced by interpersonal relations. If a particular Supervisor and controller were good friends or that controller was highly regarded by others, some deficiencies might be overlooked. Conversely, if a Supervisor and controller did not work or play well together, the OTS could be merciless. As always though, forms would be completed and notations made in the controller's official Training Record.

We also had what was known to us controllers as a "spy-in-the-sky" kind of evaluation. Generally insufferable, these were performed by someone from the Air Traffic Evaluations Branch, riding in the jump seat of an air carrier. On a typical cross-country flight, they could monitor several facilities and literally dozens of controllers ~ collecting data all the way. At Big Time, we never knew what hit us until the letter arrived from our Regional Office. In it were specific dates, times, control frequencies and alleged infractions. This, of course, triggered a mandatory internal investigation, follow-up and a written response to The Region, addressing each of the evaluator's assertions.

Whether we agreed with them or not, our air traffic service, like any other service, needed an occasional appraisal. No doubt it was necessary for the FAA to take quality control measures. We all knew there were weak links and signs of complacency in our facility. Sometimes we could rectify them ourselves but sometimes the issues called for added emphasis by way of outside intervention. The Air Traffic Evaluations Branch, or "Evaluations," as we referred to them, was there to provide such intervention. An FAA Headquarters organization; their primary mission was to perform periodic assessments of air traffic facilities ~ much like the old Air Force "Service Evals" did. But they had one additional tool that could look much deeper into a facility's internal workings and it wasn't always with an unbiased eye. This was known as a full facility evaluation.

By far, the most deprecating of them all, this variation on the evaluation called for sending five or six specialists in to examine all aspects of a facility's operation. They'd arrive like ants at a picnic, crawling into everything and looking for anything they could chew on.  Working from a lengthy checklist, team members scrutinized all things operational and administrative. Some monitored controllers working tower and TRACON positions while others picked through local directives, training programs and record keeping.  The general appearance of the facility was noted and critiqued. One-on-one interviews would be conducted with controllers, supervisors, union representatives and administrative staff. They'd even interview non-FAA entities on the airport, such as airline representatives and airport management. We thought we looked good. Not a hair out of place. But that was just the way we saw ourselves.

Briefings would be given to the facility's office staff each morning, updating them on what problems the evaluators had found so far. There was also a final "out briefing" when the evaluation was complete. During these briefings, Management might hear some things they didn't agree with. While it was okay to poke and probe a little, it was never a good idea to dispute their appraisals too strongly. That could be as risky as dumping bullets into a blender. It might get noisy and, even worse, someone's career might be mortally wounded. How's that you ask? When these guys got back to their own office they'd write a lengthy final report, with copies sent up the chain to our Regional Office and Washington Headquarters. By the time that happened, it would be way too late for us in the field to influence the situation.

That report was the image FAA's hierarchy saw. What they didn't see were the hundreds of airplanes flowing safely in and out of Big Time each day. They didn't see the controllers and Supervisors making it all work. They didn't deal with the equipment problems, workforce and user complaints. They didn't have to expend scant staff resources or piss on each other whenever someone in the Regional Office yelled "Fire!" A full facility evaluation, not unlike the other ways of assessing air traffic control, was often stained by preconceptions, bias and subjectivity. Truths could be shaped, stretched or twisted and new "truths" could be forged out of nothing. Big Time would eventually be boiled down by bureaucrats ~ reduced to several thousand words on a couple dozen sheets of paper. That's what the big wigs sipping coffee in their corner offices saw. It's all they had to go on. They couldn't tell what we really looked like.

The Final Report - on a short, fat family?
There might be better ways to evaluate an air traffic facility's performance but, at the time, these were the best tools we had. Irritating but essential, exaggerated, underrated, nerve racking but necessary. The alternative would be a free-wheeling ATC system where problems and deficiencies would only be brought to light by system users, whistle blowers or the National Transportation Safety Board. Oh, the news media might attempt to make an erudite observation now and then but the picture they'd portray wouldn't be much more accurate than the one above.

Which is the accurate image?
Even an aberration can contain some measure of truth but I'll always wonder . . . If it was somehow possible to inhibit the distortions, agenda-driven bias, preconceptions and misconceptions normally brought to our facility evaluations; what would we have really looked like? I guess we, as the ones being looked at, didn't ever know for sure. We had our own ideas about how we thought we looked ~ how we hoped we looked and how others wanted us to look. In the final analysis though, I guess we ended up looking like what other people elsewhere read about us. It's all they had to go on and, unless they worked at Big Time, they might have been looking at a distorted image. So . . . what did we really look like? Is there any way to know? It starts by trusting your gut feeling.

There are a few likely indicators that a facility's reflected image wasn't a pretty one. If you're interested and not too busy working traffic, you might notice them. Is the Manager unexpectedly "selected" to participate in a special project at The Region or Headquarters ~ then subsequently replaced? Does he or she abruptly announce their retirement? Perhaps one or two of the staff Managers are offered a "career enhancing detail" somewhere else and you never see them again? Don't be too concerned. It's just life in the fun house. 

© NLA Factor, 2012


Airway Facilities & Abilities

Sometimes I dream in VFR ~ only to awake amid rapidly deteriorating conditions. Why am I always surprised? Pilots and controllers know full well that clouds can conceal some pretty nasty twists, so we should also recognize that even the most ideal flight conditions might take an unexpected turn against us. In perfect VFR weather though, we're not always as mentally prepared for problems. Favorable conditions, complacency and high expectations are powerful drugs. They could make me so high that unforeseen troubles and the subsequent emotional plunges would result in harder landings and longer recovery times. When those nasty twists occurred at work, I was always thankful for those who could step up and somehow clear the air. If the twist involved one of the many tools of our trade, I was thankful for the technicians of our Airway Facilities staff.

Late 1970s, early November. It was one of those days when the idea of going to work really energized me. From the first morning cup of coffee to that last post-shift bottle of beer, life was going to be good. When I met up with my carpool buddies, I could see they were equally anxious to strap on their headsets. As we sputtered onto the main highway in Carl's slightly out-of-tune Beetle, everyone bubbled enthusiastically about the great weather. Winds were light, so the airport would most likely be running on our optimum runway and airspace configuration. Visual approaches would rule the day and there'd probably be very few departure restrictions. In other words; it looked like we were in for a high volume, happy to be here, whipped cream kind of shift. We knew it was going to be smooth, sweet and a hell of a lot of fun!

When Carl's VW finally skidded to a stop in the facility parking lot, everyone clambered out and peered over at the airfield. As expected, things were looking good. Aroused by the possibilities, we started our brisk walk into work. Carl was so excited that he didn't even notice the Beetle's right front tire was going flat. Neither did the rest of us. We wouldn't discover that till shift's end, when it would be referred to as the last straw.

Arriving at the facility's secure entrance, someone swiped their badge, punched a code into the keypad and the four of us hurried, in tandem, toward the sign-in log. Unlike most evening shifts, I was actually hoping for a tower assignment. Conditions were perfect for watching airplanes and Big Time's lofty tower cab was the place to do it. I really needed some tower proficiency time anyway, and a "CAFB" day like this was the best way to get it. I just needed to convince Pete to send me up. That wasn't going to happen.

Entering the TRACON we immediately noticed something different about it. But what? There was still the usual cacophony of control instructions, the hollering back and forth between sectors and, of course, the cigarette smoke. Actually, there was a bit more smoke than normal. It was so thick, in fact, that I couldn't tell whether it was coming from the ashtrays, the equipment or both. Still, there was something missing from the continual din of our musty, timeworn radar room. I noticed an abnormally large group of people standing at our Flight Data position. That's when I realized what was different. The incessant chatter, usually emanating from our Flight Strip printers (FSPs), was missing. 

There were three printers mounted at the Data position. One printed the arrival and overflight strips, one printed departure strips and the third machine was a spare.  Under normal circumstances, the arrival and departure printers ran nearly non-stop. Sounding like a chorus of teleprinters, they banged out new and amended information controllers would need on traffic entering or exiting their airspace. 
Sample departure strip from a little aerodrome in Texas.
Strips would be slid into plastic holders and disbursed to the appropriate radar sector. This particular afternoon though, in the smoky chaos of the pre-evening rush radar room, they sat like cinder blocks ~ stone still and silent. There was, however, another ominous noise coming from the Data position. It would be the sound of those deteriorating conditions I mentioned earlier.

What met our ears sounded less like an ATC facility and more like a call center in the basement of some desperate and acutely confused telemarketing company. I heard one controller muttering; "Yeah . . . yeah . . . uh huh. What was the airway after Falmouth?" As he spoke, he was writing on a flight strip. Two other controllers stood at the data console; each one scribbling frantically on blank strips. A couple of Airway Facilities technicians wearing worried faces brushed quickly past me. They were pushing a cart piled high with parts and tools. That was the moment when I realized this was not going to be a "whipped cream kind of shift." It was going to be some kind of nightmare. Imagine your Sunday paper not showing up on the doorstep. Maybe a wheel fell off the kid's bike? Who knows. So the phone rings. You pick up the receiver and a guy says; "This is The Gazette calling with your Sunday edition. Are you ready to copy?" You scramble for a pen and several large pads of paper. That kind of nightmare.

For some reason, the whole scene made me think of my old Air Force roommate William.

The old AFCS patch
I lived in the barracks during much of my Air Force time. It was a building that controllers, radio and radar technicians, plus many of the other enlisted troops who had jobs in the Communications Squadron called their home. The place was more like a college dormitory where everyone wore uniforms for half the day. The rest of the time was usually spent in civilian clothes, planning and executing forays to any of the many bars and clubs that thrived outside the base perimeter.

 William, my first roommate, was a freckled redhead from central Pennsylvania. A radar technician ~ he was one of the guys who, armed with a selection of scewdrivers and diagnostic tools, kept our aging GCA unit operational. The two of us shared a bathroom, ate at the same table in the chow hall and trekked across the base together when it was time for work. I'd often find voluminous technical manuals strewn around our room; each opened to a schematic of one of the many systems he maintained. William studied a lot and I admired him for it. After all; two or three chapters in just one of his books were thicker than the entire Air Traffic Control manual I kept, mostly unread, under my bunk. He and the other guys in his shop were all that stood between us controllers and the huge pain in the ass of a radar failure.

Ground Controlled Approach (GCA) Unit
There were several technicians in my squadron. Their areas of expertise covered radios, radar, telephone equipment and nearly everything else a controller needed to get through the day. Some of the techs even maintained our VOR and TACAN sites. We had no idea what they did between equipment outages and didn't really care. As long as someone showed up when something broke, we were happy . . . very happy.

Although the pilots in our Base's fighter wing flew the most advanced aircraft in the Air Force's inventory, our ATC equipment was fragile, antiquated and capricious. Somehow though, our techs kept everything running fairly well. They saved our asses nearly every day and, for that, we regarded them as peers and partners in the mission.  Still, during those after-hours forays into inebriation, we'd rib them mercilessly and they'd do the same to us. The truth was that every Air Force controller I knew had the highest regard for those guys. We'd lie for them, trade countless rounds of drinks in the local gin mills and, when they transferred out, we'd lament their departure. Years later, I would discover a kind of caste system in the FAA that placed Airway Facilities (AF) personnel a few notches beneath the "Air Traffic elite." It seemed AF existed solely to support us and, in the opinions of many, that could only be done from below.

Standing in that late afternoon TRACON, with three inoperative strip printers, I could hear frenetic muttering coming from the Flight Data position as controllers hand-copied flight plans, subsequent amendments, GENOTs and other data from the Center. Information on departing flights would then be relayed to the tower, by phone, where another controller had to make a copy for Clearance Delivery, Ground and Local Control.

I could also hear an undercurrent of dissatisfaction and mild contempt coming from controllers seated at the approach sectors, like "What the hell is the point in having a spare printer if those idiots can't keep it working?!!" They were writing their own arrival strips by using information from the alpha-numeric data on their radar displays. This was a time-consuming and annoying distraction that only intensified as the evening rush of inbounds began creeping toward the outer fixes and the airplanes needed more and more attention. Although we had Handoff positions, where someone could sit next to the radar controller and write strips, they were rarely staffed. Today was no exception. There was a lot of angst and anger in the air, and it was all being directed at the Airway Facilities technicians who just couldn't seem to get those printers running.

Those damned printers, among the most plain and plebeian pieces of equipment in our inventory, were major labor-saving devices. As with most things, we took them for granted until something went wrong. Then we wondered why such a basic device couldn't either be fixed quickly or replaced. In this case though, replacing any of them wouldn't have helped. None of the three devices were working and we were far beyond the quick fix time frame.

More problems emerged. The extra manpower needed to make calls and write strips was wreaking havoc with the break schedule. Guys were working well beyond the desired two hour limit on their sectors and people were getting testy. Arrival restrictions had been imposed on all surrounding facilities and departure delays were beginning to mount. Phones kept ringing at the Watch desk but no one was there to answer. The TRACON Supervisor kept glaring at those technicians ~ expressing his frustration in any way he could without interrupting their work. Outside, the sun was setting on what should have been a perfect day for working airplanes.

By now, a Data Systems Specialist had joined the group huddled around the inert printers. He was talking to his counterpart at the Center. Apparently the issue was not a mechanical malfunction after all. It took an hour or two of disassembling and diagnosing but someone finally determined that Big Time's printers were actually in fine working order. They were simply not receiving data from the Center's host computer (from which all our flight data originated). It would later be discovered that someone using a backhoe, many miles from the airport, had inadvertently ripped up the cable that connected Big Time's FSPs with the Center. Repairs would take more hours than we had left on our shift.

The two AF techs vanished but the mayhem continued. We kept making calls, writing strips and working airplanes. A few controllers were asked to stick around for a couple hours of overtime. I felt bad for those AF guys. They had been the focus of much derision for several hours but took no exception to it. Understanding they could do nothing more to help, they packed up quietly and went back to their office. Nobody apologized to them and no one thanked them for their trouble ~ myself included. By the time they left, I was too busy arguing with a Center controller about the spacing between two arrivals.

The shift finally ended. Walking out of the facility, I felt sluggish, like I was wading through quicksand. A mild breeze wafted the smell of jet exhaust across our path as we four carpoolers trudged toward the parking lot. Feeling pretty deflated by events of the last eight hours, nobody had much to say. All we wanted to do by now was have a few beers and head home to bed. As we neared the lot, it looked like the right front wheel of Carl's Volkswagen had rolled into a pothole. When we realized the tire was flat, we were relieved to learn that Carl had a spare. He popped the trunk lid, only to discover the spare was also deflated. Feeling fairly flattened ourselves, we were almost too tired to figure this thing out.

Although sympathetic to our plight, none of the other guys in the lot were headed in our direction. They were   also as anxious as we were to get home. In less than five minutes, we were all alone in that lot, glaring at the useless tire in the same way we had glared at those AF techs earlier in the day. Then we started glaring at Carl. There was a difference though. Unlike our AF guys, this was a situation that Carl could have prevented from happening.  He muttered something about "the last straw," then started walking back to the tower. There, he was able to borrow one of the mid-shift guy's car keys. We grabbed the VW's spare tire, threw it into the trunk of a blue Ford sedan and sped away from the airport.

It was oppressively quiet in that Ford until we got to Carl's place. Climbing out of the car, I reminded the others it was my turn to drive tomorrow ~ making a mental note to check my spare tire.

Here's the epilogue. As a Supervisor dealing with an equipment problem, I'd sometimes have to go looking for the AF guys if they didn't answer their desk phone. The search eventually took me to one of the facility's equipment rooms. Along with radio and telephone switching equipment, they kept tools, spare parts and a lot of broken things in there. It looked like a shop that repaired pocket watches, refrigerators and old television sets by interchanging the parts. 

A wiring diagram for the Great Pyramid?
Of course there were also the ubiquitous stacks of technical manuals; one or two of which were usually opened to a page of schematics. To my brain, they might as well have been hieroglyphics. Either was equally undecipherable. I could neither walk like an Egyptian or talk like a technician but was glad to know someone actually understood the stuff. While us controllers got through the day largely on our quick wits and aggressive decision making ~ these guys had to study constantly, work unerringly and go off for weeks of additional training whenever new equipment came on line. And they did it to support us. You just had to love 'em.

I should add a few lines about how we in Air Traffic could place the AF staff squarely in the middle of our own internal issues. Anyone in air traffic supervision knew that all equipment required periodic checks and preventive maintenance (PM). If such checks were not performed within prescribed time intervals, the particular piece of equipment would lose its certification. That meant we couldn't use it again until it was re-certified. For example, a tech might arrive at the Watch Desk one morning and ask us to release an ILS system for three hours of PMs. It would be up to shift management to approve it or not.  Sometimes existing conditions (weather, traffic volume, etc.) made approval unwise or impossible. Sometimes though, a technician's request was denied solely because that Supervisor and/or that team felt they needed every security blanket they could keep in their clutches ~ thus foisting approval and associated impacts onto another team. I believe the popular euphemism might be "Kicking the can down the road?"

Eventually though, AF would have to take that system down or be in violation of maintenance timetables. They weren't about to let that happen. If a situation ever got to that point, Air Traffic would lose their right to refuse. Think of it this way. You miss that 36,000 mile service mentioned in your car's owner's manual, simply because you didn't feel like turning the car over to some mechanic for a day. The "Check Engine" light eventually comes on and your car immediately shuts down ~ no matter where you are or where you're going. Even worse; it won't start again until you get that servicing done. The rules made PMs a kind of technical time bomb that would eventually go off if not disarmed in time.

© NLA Factor, 2012