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