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