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