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


On Politics, Passing Acquaintances And Change

George Wallace was running for the Democratic nomination. So was Jimmy Carter. Translation? Whenever I ventured into the break room, chances were that Billy would be sitting in there, expounding loudly and at length on his political views. Billy (no relation to Jimmy) was a professed redneck from somewhere in south Georgia. He railed against Jerry Ford and never missed an opportunity to extol the merits of voting a southern boy into the White House. It seemed we were in need of a change and Jimmy was just the guy to do it.

Billy raised a few valid points and had my interest for a while. In time though, his pontificating turned redundant, then it turned boring. His incessant partisan pounding finally became too annoying for me to take. I'd heard it all before. If I was lucky, Billy's time in the breakroom would end well ahead of mine so I could get a few minutes of peace. If not, I'd usually end up going back to work before my break was over. It's not that I had a problem with Jimmy Carter. He seemed like an honest enough fellow. Billy was my problem. He got so damned excited over this stuff. To me though, politics was about as exciting as . . . this?

Throw in a free side-order of Saltine crackers and I'm in!
Political parties and their politics just didn't garner much attention from me when I was controlling airplanes for a living. Pundits who believed they could make sense of it all or somehow tilt my opinions left or right only added more confusion to the daily bedlam of Big Time. To me, it was just an off-key and endlessly grating soundtrack for the ongoing dramas I faced at work. Most of us learned it was best to simply tune it out. The President himself couldn't generate much buzz unless he was handing out an extra day of holiday pay on the Friday after Thanksgiving ~ or maybe firing thousands of controllers. We were usually preoccupied with more immediate issues like, metaphorically speaking, how to separate the snowflakes in a blizzard.

Nixon was in the White House when I was hired but whatever happened in the Oval Office didn't faze most of us. Can I say it wasn't on our radar? Anyway, we were far more concerned over what was happening in our own front office. I don't recall whether it was oval, rectangular or square shaped but it was clearly in bad shape. That, plus there was always enough facility politics to keep the break room gossip going ad infinitum. So, who needed more of it? When it came to matters concerning our elected representatives, my personal feelings usually ranged somewhere between indifference and ambivalence. Politics was a distraction and, in my line of work, with my fugitive attention span, I couldn't handle any increase in distractions.

My attitude hasn't changed much over the years. I may slip up now and then but still try to avoid political stuff. It ain't easy. News periodicals, television and the Internet are already saturated with more cant, slant and commentary than there are degrees on a compass. It gives me vertigo, so why would I even think about generating more of it? I believe there's a reasonably convincing case that opinions actually are like assholes. Since everyone has their own, why would anyone want to hear mine?

I also realize that penning my own political views would require that I have some kind of partisan predilection. I don't. Maybe I can't. Here's the thing. There are too many problems with me. I was never responsible enough to call myself a conservative and besides; I couldn't possibly meet their moral threshold. Another sad set of truths are that I'm not smart enough to know what's best for everyone. That, plus my momma taught me never to call people names when I disagreed with them. All this and more combined to exclude me from ever practicing punditry. It's probably best for me to stick with writing about things I'm fairly familiar with.

NLA Factor
Class of '02
I don't think anyone's parochial pronouncements effect much change in other people's beliefs, no matter how well they're stated. I learned a long time ago (1981 to be exact) that I couldn't change anyone's mindset; no matter what I said or what I wrote. The fact is that no one could ever change my mind either; no matter what they said or wrote. Experiences are the true instruments of change. I write about my own experiences here; knowing they won't really change anyone else. They changed me though. What I don't know is just how much they changed me. Could I still be that goofy kid in my high school yearbook photo? That is a question I'm not qualified to answer. Ask the last girl I dated before graduation.

So now, like a recurring nightmare, I'm dealing with another Primary Election season and all the attending rhetoric. I guess I have an irreconcilable indifference to it all but my hat is off to anyone who can talk or write about it in a non-divisive way. Generally though, I think that kind of writing serves mainly as a pressure relief valve for the author. Getting a little pent up vitriol off the chest can make a writer feel much better. As for the reader ~maybe not so much. Personally, I'd rather write about Bonnie and Claire.

Bonnie transferred into Big Time a few years after me. I can't remember where she came from but it must have been a busy facility. Already well versed in the tower and TRACON arts, she soon proved to be a very capable controller. Smart, single and saucy, Bonnie could cause more excitement than a radar failure in a rainstorm. Take, for instance, the day she sauntered into work wearing a blue t-shirt, lettered in white with the word "Doable" across the front. Pete, our irascible, disheveled dictator of an Area Manager, took one look and threatened to send her home. Not for some puritanical predilection. Oh no. Pete was a ribald kind of guy who used expletives and four-letter words like a carpenter uses a hammer. They drove his point home loudly and quickly. Pete's objection over Bonnie's attire was more about the medium than the message. You see, current facility dress code prohibited t-shirts.

Bonnie ended up in one of the main terminal's gift shops where she found a twenty-dollar shirt sporting the airport's marketing logo. The "medium" aspect of his objections now mitigated, Pete let her go to work. As to the message on that notorious t-shirt? In time, a couple guys in the facility were rumored to have learned there can be truth in advertising.

I felt bad for Bonnie and the other singles at Big Time. Social life outside our circle of coworkers was difficult. With the rotating shifts, frequently changing days off, weekend and late night work, there wasn't much opportunity to meet people outside the profession. It was challenging enough for the married folks but especially hard for people like Bonnie. The outcome of it all was that we had little choice but to fraternized with our coworkers. It was a kind of social inbreeding; as unhealthy as it was unavoidable. In many ways, we were closer to our team members than we were with our immediate families. We saw each other at our best and our worst. We had to depend on each other to make the right moves at the right times. Where some people might, one day, have to trust a close relative to handle delicate or potentially dire situations, we had to trust the relative strangers in our control rooms. We also had to trust all the anonymous pilots who flew, unseen, through our sectors every day. It was a strange paradox that we trusted them all, but the moment we hung up our headsets for the day, we trusted no one.

I liked working with Bonnie. Before she transferred into Big Time, the only woman on our team was Claire. She was already a well seasoned journeyman when I hired on. Stylistically, Bonnie and Claire were at opposite poles in their approach to working traffic and the contrasts became more obvious as time passed. Claire was invariably conservative, conventional, practical and dispassionate. For example, something might abruptly reduce the airport acceptance rate, causing Final Sectors to need more miles-in-trail from the approach controllers. Suddenly, ten miles between arrivals wasn't sufficient. Now the planes needed to be 20 miles apart, slowed to 180 knots and tucked neatly onto a downwind leg. Doing so might require Claire to go into an immediate hold at her outer fixes while simultaneously issuing a series of extreme vectors to spread out the flights already on their way to the finals. This kind of play often lead to bedlam. While other controllers might have started bitching, Claire simply bent to the task, with no questions asked, for as long as needed. Quietly doing whatever had to be done, she was the embodiment of efficiency.

During my bewildering days as a developmental at Big Time, Claire's signature ended up on a lot of my training reports. Knowledgeable, unflappable and focused, she was the ideal training instructor. As I progressed further and further into the operation, I realized there were plenty of things to bitch about. Claire showed me how pointless that was, compared to just dealing with things and moving forward. Complaining burned energy, was an unnecessary distraction and nobody wanted to work with a whiner.

Then there was Bonnie, who managed her sector like a mad scientist. She invented a crazy, new idea every few minutes; often stabbing at an interphone button to coordinate her latest scheme with other affected sectors. A bit raucous but never reckless, creative energy seemed to seep from her headset and spread through the room like gas fumes. She was nearly as explosive.

While Claire ran a quiet, standard operation where things rarely went wrong, Bonnie's operation was characterized by her derring-do. She pushed relentlessly; pressing adjacent sectors for whatever was needed to make things work. In the throes of inspiration, she'd often fly out of her chair and dash across the TRACON to another sector. Once there, she'd grab the controller by his shoulder and point at some radar targets ~ describing her plan in rapid-fire detail. Then she'd rush back to her own scope to reel off a string of control instructions. Sometimes her plan didn't work but she nearly always had another one that was equally entertaining.

Some controllers were bothered by her boundless ingenuity and unrelenting aggressiveness. These were the guys who thought the word "minimums" was one of their performance standards. Bonnie was a "maximum" kind of gal. I kept up as best I could ~ often wishing I could wash those bursts of ambient energy down with a cold beer. If I could have tightened my headset like a vise, I still wouldn't have been able to squeeze as many ideas out of my skull each day as Bonnie could in an hour. Inspiration just seemed to fly off the top of her head. She was a natural.

As far as I was concerned, Bonnie and Claire combined many of the most highly valued characteristics of an air traffic controller. I was glad to be on their team; especially during those shifts when the trials and tribulations seemed more numerous than our standard methods of dealing with them. When Claire's safe, orderly and expeditious teamed up with Bonnie's creative, assertive and efficient ~ a lot of airplanes were going to be moved ~ no matter what. As you might expect ~ when a tough shift ended, Claire would head straight home, while Bonnie would follow most everyone else to the nearest bar.

Eventually 1981 rolled in and Bonnie came up with one more crazy idea. Unlike the ideas I admired her for, this one was completely reckless. I did my best to talk her out of it and I'm sure Claire did as well. Keep in mind what I said earlier about not being able to change anyone's mindset. Bonnie wasn't listening to conflicting views or unwelcome advice.  Experiences taught her that pushing hard and staying the course would eventually bring success. She was confident that this would be no exception.

Unfortunately, it was a major exception. In the blink of an eye, Bonnie was gone. I saw her a few times just after the strike but she eventually disappeared along with with everyone else on the picket lines. Sometimes mad scientists create monsters and sometimes those monsters destroy their creators.

Redneck Billy landed a job in the Regional Office sometime after the strike and I never heard from him again. When I finally left Big Time myself, I tried to keep up with Claire. You know how it is though. Life has room for just so many relationships and, like it or not, some are eventually supplanted by newer ones. When it comes to keeping friends, life reminds me of a holding pattern that can only keep so many airplanes. The most recent arrivals come in at the top while the oldest ones get pushed out of the bottom and move on.

The entire cast of characters from my Big Time days have moved on; myself included. I still remember every one of them though. Memories are the last remaining vestiges of our long-gone, moved on friendships and acquaintances. The characters may be missing but they've left behind a life long legacy of smiles on demand. I'll never forget Bonnie, Claire and so many others who enriched my life through the years. Redneck Billy even crosses my mind whenever a political message comes on the TV.

The experiences I had with them all, whether good or bad, definitely changed me. But really; how much have I changed? There is no way for me to know for sure. I'd have to rely on the cast from my past to help measure the differences between then and now. After all that has happened, could I still be the frazzled, unraveled controller everyone knew back at Big Time? Again ~ I'm not qualified to answer. It's funny and ironic that when someone tells me "You've changed" I don't really believe them. And when I tell someone "I've changed" they don't really believe me. I guess it's the difference between perceptions and doubts. One thing is certain; I still don't like politics.

© NLA Factor, 2012