Speed Reduction

Any pilot who's flown into an airport where the arrivals are radar vectored to a final approach course would be familiar with the controller's use of speed control. It's ATC's tool of choice to keep one aircraft from overtaking another. Oh I know it's a hassle. You've got to start messing with power settings, flaps, the trim tabs and who knows what else. Sure; slowing up is a drag (unworthy pun) but if you don't, there could be a loss of required spacing between your trusty craft and the plane ahead. For the controller involved, that would mean paperwork, long reports and possibly a little remedial training. There's also that annoying wake turbulence thing. It could end up spilling the coffee all over your pre-landing checklist. So you slow. Either that or you could get a vector or two for spacing. Maybe a simple "S" turn will do. If not, the controller might ask you to sky-write another letter; the letter "O" - better known as a left or right "three-sixty." Stick, rudder and roll Cap'n.

I've also been thinking about another kind of speed reduction that's common among controllers . . .

I began my career the way a cork ejects from a Champagne bottle; loud, messy, full of effervescence and fast. None of it lasted though. I learned that being loud isn't as effective as quiet determination. I found that air traffic control is about order (we try) and that "messy" is unacceptable. The youthful effervescence that thrust me into this career went flat over time. But how about the "fast" part? What happened to that?

At some point along the road to retirement, I began noticing how the FAA and ATC had their way of incrementally reducing my speed. Advancing age, accompanied by normal occupational wear and tear can do it. One too many bad days while working heavy traffic surely slowed me some but there would be more speed reductions ahead. The most significant one hit me when an overwhelming majority of the controller workforce left for a strike in 1981. It was energizing at first but eventually the 'drag' from all those 'flaps' that took place before, during and after "Poli's Charge" reduced me to near stall speed. Then came the years of "S" turning through different management positions and running in circles for the various egomaniacal potentates in our Regional Office. The day finally arrived when my on-the-job enthusiasm, having frequently accused me of arrant neglect, finally packed its bags and left. I never saw it again until I retired.

The first noticeable speed reduction came in the early Eighties, while I was still out in the traffic pattern somewhere; hoping to eventually land in a management position. That's when I was selected for a specialist job in the facility's Training Department. It might have put me closer to my goal but getting into staff work definitely reduced my speed in the control rooms. No surprise there. Working airplanes became secondary to writing lesson plans, teaching and testing trainees, going to meetings and doing other things that seemed important at the time. Whenever I tried keeping current in the operation, I could tell I was getting rusty in the radar room and a bit tentative in the tower. I was slowing up.

It can be a humbling and sometimes embarrassing experience. When I was working traffic full time with my team, we'd often become impatient when a staff guy came into the operation for an hour or two of proficiency time. They didn't do this stuff every day, so their controller reflexes began to suffer. They'd start lagging behind the tempo of things and could eventually become more of an impediment than an asset. Now I was suddenly that guy. I had other things on my mind, which made it difficult to fully immerse myself in the currents that ran through the control room. Spending time working airplanes was putting me behind on my desk work deadlines but I had to do it. Those appearances in the control room were vital to maintaining some small modicum of credibility but they weren't enough to keep me proficient. This is the curse of any controller who takes a staff job.

I checked in with the Area Manager one afternoon; hoping to get a little radar time. He said I could relieve the Final controller. Great! Final was always one of my favorite positions. With lots of vectoring, altitude play and speed control in a relatively small sector; Final represented the pinnacle of the radar controller's art. It was a sector where you had two masters; the approach controllers (we'll count them as one) who expected you to keep taking their handoffs, no matter what. To that, add the Local controller in the tower who, based on weather, runway configurations and departure load, could dictate the arrival interval you provided. This was stated in terms of required miles in trail between landing flights. In theory, the specified arrival interval would provide the tower with enough space to get departures out between landings. Final was fast paced, challenging and almost like flying a dozen airplanes at once. But there was a small problem that day.

I should have checked the work schedule before leaving my desk because the team on duty included a guy named Richard. He was one controller I never liked much because of his frequent complaining. He was a good controller but there was a heavy price to pay for working with him. You had to listen to his bitching about everything and everyone; especially the staff people. As a loyal PATCO acolyte; Richard was naturally averse to anyone who, like me had "sold out" to management. He rarely had a good thing to say about anyone else either. Richard thrived on his sarcasm and mistrust. This was a guy who'd complain if he found a whole cashew nut in the can labeled "Halves and Pieces." Fortunately, Richard was never on my team - but he was on this team.

Crossing the TRACON, I saw that Eddie was signed on at the Final Sector. I plugged in my headset and we went through the position relief checklist. Visibility was good. The tower must not have had many departures to go because Eddie was jamming visual approaches in with his ILS traffic; handing the tower about three miles and decreasing between landing planes. The approach controllers were happy, which made the Center sectors that fed our arrival fixes happy. Big Time's mid-afternoon rush was running well. It looked like fun and I couldn't wait to get into the picture. I relieved Eddie and was quickly absorbed into the rhythm of turning, descending, slowing and clearing airplanes for the approach. I'd soon learn that Richard was working Local Control.

Traffic was still running pretty much as Eddie had left it. Approach controllers still had plenty of airplanes left and they kept them coming. When arrival demand is this high; the Final controller has to work fast. I took the planes, turned and tucked them onto the final as tightly as I dared; keeping pressure on the landing runway and hoping the tower wouldn't complain. So far, so good.

Along came one of those bad-ass Boeing 727s I loved so much. I took the handoff as it descended onto the tail end of my left downwind leg. The line of planes on final stretched out to the far limits of the sector, while more were filling up the right downwind. There was a turboprop commuter about a mile from the threshold, with a DC-9 about six miles behind and closing. My 727 had reported the field in sight and was just about abeam the landing runway. I saw an opportunity, took a few seconds to consider my plan, then went for it. Six miles was a nice sized gap that I could fill with that "three holer" (a term of endearment for the B-727, with its three engines on the tail) and I was going for it.

I gave the Boeing a turn to base leg, cleared 'em for the visual approach and asked that he keep it in tight. After exchanging traffic information between the 727 and the DC-9 (now approaching the outer marker), I switched him to the tower frequency. The DC-9 was maintaining visual separation but I kept it on my frequency for a moment - just in case. My Boeing rolled into a tight turn, lowered his landing gear and went into a free-fall toward the runway. Here was a pilot who clearly understood the controller's definition of a "short approach." Unfortunately, the DC-9 seemed to be closing the gap more quickly than I had anticipated. I asked the pilot if he could reduce speed any further. That's when I heard Richard's voice in my headset. All he said was; "It's not gonna work." He was right. By now, the 727 was rolling out on a one mile final and the DC-9 was closing the gap. There wouldn't be enough time for the three-holer to get to a taxiway before the 'nine' touched down. I had to get him out of there.

Think of your most treasured expletives. Chances are good I uttered them to myself at that moment. Oh, and if you don't have a treasured expletive, I can send you a starter kit.

Issuing a climb clearance to the 'nine,' I turned him back toward the downwind.  The approach guys, now not so happy, went about the challenge of making extra room in their already nicely spaced traffic patterns. There were still several other planes in my sector looking forward to landing, which meant I didn't have time to dwell on how poor my judgement had been in trying to make that 'three holer' fit where it couldn't. Another jet I had vectored onto the localizer just moments before was approaching the outer marker. I issued an approach clearance and sent him over to the tower frequency.

Courtesy of my former associate Richard . . .
I knew what had gone wrong. It was an error in judgment befitting any first-year radar trainee - but it was me. Those "few seconds" I wasted trying to decide whether to go for the gap or not was what cost the DC-9 another trip around the traffic pattern and more work for the arrival controllers.

With two airplanes heading toward each other, even though slightly offset (one on final and one on the downwind), you have to consider the rate of closure. My DC-9 was traveling at a ground speed of about 150 knots, while the B-727 was moving at 190 knots. That means they were closing on each other at a rate of about 340 knots. There was no time to deliberate - even for a "few seconds." I needed to see that gap coming, trust my judgment and go for it. Either that or decide just as quickly that it wouldn't work. My staff time was starting to show. I was beginning to slow and air traffic control is no place for that kind of speed reduction.

Knowing Richard's unvarying contempt for staff specialists; I was surprised that he didn't break my balls the next time we saw each other in the locker room. I guess he'd already achieved maximum mileage out of the incident with the other controllers in the tower that day. As for me; the reduction in speed of my analysis and decision making skills gave me pause to think. Such problems could lead me to "paperwork, long reports and and possibly a trip to the front office for a little remedial training." Like a prodigal son, I was thinking I'd better get back home; home to working airplanes for a living. Conveniently, PATCO would soon show me the way.

Unlike the movies; real life happy endings can be a long time coming. It took a while but this story eventually ended well. At one point, I was finally able to resume normal speed. That point was what I fondly refer to as "retirement." All previously imposed restrictions were canceled when I left the FAA. Now I can finally push my throttle fully forward and, for the first time in over 25 years, feel the wind in my hair. 

There are at least two pieces of good news for me in all that. I still have plenty of thrust left and I still have my hair. Life is good!

© NLA Factor, 2013


The Persistence Of Memory

Those who've been following this Blog understand it's mostly about memories. In the beginning, I was afraid I'd forget the many things that happened before I could capture them in print. You know, before too much time passed. I now understand those memories are persistent, palpable and perpetual. They're always here with me. I can even feel them. Salvador Dali illustrated it pretty well in his masterpiece "The Persistence of Memory." With apologies to Salvador, I flew an airplane into his painting because, to me, the memories of air traffic have a persistence all their own.

Time, on the other hand, is of no real significance. It comes and goes; preceding each passing second and concurrently vanishing; leaving us with a "now" that is just too short to measure. Thankfully, it does leave those persistent memories of ours behind; scattered across the panorama of our lives.   

As to my life, it seems I spent most of it diligently winding clocks and watches, setting alarms or trying to correct the time if it was running fast or slow. According to the clock; I usually ended up being too early or too late anyway. It took a while but I finally figured out that I shouldn't even bother trying to set, sway, speed or slow the hands of time. The Universe calibrated my clock, then synchronized it to my life - and life isn't measured by hours and minutes. It's measured by events and those events always happen precisely when they're supposed to; which could be described as "right on time." I may never have believed my entire life happened on schedule - but it did. Take the early Seventies for example . . .

Life was moving at the speed of continental drift since my departure from military service. My application for an ATC position, eagerly and optimistically submitted, had apparently vanished into some minor FAA functionary's file drawer. I found an odd assortment of menial jobs to keep me busy. If you're interested, they're described somewhere in the back end of this blog. The work kept me afloat financially but my spirit was being swamped by waves of anxiety. I knew it was crazy but whenever my travels took me past the local airport, I'd glare at the control tower,  mutter a few expletives and shake my head. Frustration brought me to a point where I was seriously considering the idea of going back into the Air Force - just so I could work airplanes again. Looking back on life, I have to love that and every other mistake I almost made.

Living high on the extravagances that a minimum wage income allows, I moved into an affordable efficiency apartment on the north side of town. Although the classified ad called it an "efficiency," I referred to it as the "deficiency." There were so many deficiencies that I lost count half way through the list of health violations. Small, slightly smelly and unnecessarily outdated; it was the kind of apartment where police might one day discover 200 cats and a desiccated corpse. It was affordable though - as long as I stuck to my diet of deviled ham and bananas. I worked onward but could never quite reach my future.

Years passed. In the long run, the FAA did make me a job offer. Ironically, I had to think twice about accepting. By then, I'd worked myself into a pretty well paying and enjoyable job. I even had a better apartment! Going with the Feds would mean an initial (and substantial) decrease in pay. There was also a requisite relocation in the deal. The move would put me in an expensive metropolitan area that I couldn't possibly afford on a GS-7's salary. The offer was a "take it or leave it" deal though. I had one week to respond. That wasn't much time but it didn't really matter. My decision was preordained, so naturally I had to accept. There was simply no choice because, by the end of my Air Force career, air traffic control had become a vital organ that I couldn't live for long without.

I remember the subsequent months being a blur. The only time that mattered was my training time. Then, in nothing but an eight month instant, I found myself checked out through all tower positions and working on my radar certifications. Two years from that first foot in the door, I was fully certified at Big Time. Now that wasn't so hard, was it? Looking back, I'd say no. But back then? Looking ahead was intimidating.

It wasn't long before my first round of mids as a journeyman was scheduled. Trainees were always sent to the tower on mid shifts. But now, as a full performance controller, I could pull TRACON duty. Driving in to work, I knew what I would find when I got there. After all, I'd been home all evening, watching the lightning and listening to the din of heavy rain on the roof. I knew the crew on duty was dealing with a mess and that there'd be plenty left for me and my teammates to clean up when we arrived.

Mids, for me, usually began with a touch of circadian sleep disorder. Failing in my attempt to nap that afternoon, I would arrive at work a little out of sorts, off-balance and unshaven. By 10:45, traffic would normally be light and most of the radar sectors combined at two or three positions. Not tonight though. Walking into the TRACON I saw a Supervisor tearing strips off the printer and running them to the sectors. There were five still open and all were busy. Three of the evening shift guys would be held over for a couple hours to help us put a lid on the madness.

My mid shift teammate relieved both departure sectors and combined them into one. I was told to relieve the Final controller and let her go home. Airplanes that had been delayed at their departure points, some of them thousands of miles from Big Time, were only now beginning to show up at our arrival fixes. It was exciting. The approach controllers talked non-stop and their lines of planes stretched more than 40 miles from the airport. Radar vectors were flying in every direction. At least the bad weather had moved out and the field was VFR for the first time since that morning. After a brief consultation with the tower, I tried cutting some downwind traffic in tight on visual approaches. The first two worked nicely so I told the approach guys to start tightening up the arrival sequence. Everything was going well. The departure backlog was gone by 1:00 AM. Our holdovers from the evening shift left at 2:00 but the persistence of air traffic continued till after 3:00. The mid-shift Supervisor sat silently at his desk; counting strips, calculating the delays and catching up on log entries. In the ensuing years, there would be many more such mid shifts.

In sharp contrast with the FAA; I remember mid shifts in the Air Force being abnormally quiet. Still in the early stages of learning how impossible it was for me to sleep during the day; I'd lumber up the tower steps with my mid shift teammate, moving like a reanimated cadaver. Where I was stationed; most of the military air traffic was down for the night before 11:00 PM, so we'd be greeted by a bored looking NCOIC (Non-Commissioned Officer In Charge) who'd dutifully mutter his way through a review of the tower's daily log. I would dutifully nod with feigned interest in what he was saying. He and his evening shift crew would then rush down the steps as though the fire alarm had just sounded. In a moment, my partner Vince and I would be left in the complete silence of an empty tower cab, overlooking an empty runway. It was on such a night that a most incredible thing happened. My memory of it hangs on like the melted clock on Dali's tree limb.

By 3:00 AM, each of us had pretty well covered what we knew of the latest Squadron gossip and were settling into our chairs, feet up on the console, for a little quiet time (sleep). A light appeared across the airfield, just above the the horizon. It was moving slowly in a northerly direction; almost parallel to the runway and definitely inside our Control Zone. Certain it was a plane without a working transmitter; we simultaneously hailed it on both UHF and VHF emergency frequencies while signaling "Cleared to land" with the tower's light gun. As the craft continued north, we could see there were actually several lights glimmering; like the windows of an airliner's fuselage. But unlike the lights of an aircraft, these were indistinct; almost ethereal. They glowed like pale blue neon.

Curious about any sound this thing might be making, Vince dashed down the first flight of steps and out onto the catwalk. I called the radar unit. Did they see a target just Northeast of the field and moving North? I expected a wise-ass comment about flying saucers in the traffic pattern and I wasn't disappointed. Of course, the radar guys saw nothing on their scopes. After listening to the requisite dose of sarcasm and good-natured ridicule; I was told to leave them the hell alone and go back to sleep. Vince returned to report the night outside was as quiet as a crypt. None of the jet or propeller noise we were used to hearing. Nothing. The strange lights soon vanished over the northern horizon.

Me and Vince had an odd feeling about what had just happened. I picked up a phone and dialed the Watch Desk at our local Center. I was afraid that telling this story to anyone else was a mistake but decided it was worth the risk for a chance to have it corroborated.  The Supervisor, clearly much older and vastly more experienced than me, listened to my story. I could tell he was writing things down and figured he was making notes for a future discussion with our Squadron Commander. I'd be in trouble for sure. But no. He said my description of the object, its low altitude, slow speed and direction of flight matched reports some of his controllers had received from pilots flying across the region. Several people claimed to have spotted it but no one ever saw a radar image.

I remember watching the sunrise that morning, making a fresh pot of coffee for the day shift crew and talking to Vince about what we should do. The Air Force had a reporting program in place at the time. Named "Project Blue Book," it was a way of officially documenting what may have been a UFO sighting. Vince and I concluded there would be no report and no further mention of the incident to anyone; especially the incoming day shift guys. Along with the wry ribbing, we'd likely be labeled as lunatics by the Squadron brass; thus hobbling our chances of ever seeing another promotion. It was decided that what we saw that night must surely have been a weather balloon or another of those spontaneous outbreaks of swamp gas. We just left the tower, lingered over breakfast then moved on to the first open bar we could find. By the third round of beers, we were ready to admit what we'd really seen - but only to each other.

Another mid shift sticks in my memory - one clear and very cold night in the 1970s. A Center controller's urgent sounding voice came across the handoff line. "Hey Big Time, you talking to that guy twenty east of MALYN squawking 4543 at eleven thousand?" It was nearly 5:00 AM and for the last hour or so I'd only been talking to myself.  I saw the target he referred to though, so I pushed the handoff line button and responded. The center controller said he'd been working the plane, a Piper Navajo, for the last 45 minutes but had recently lost radio contact. It was also way off it's planned route, now about 70 miles off course and headed toward some very unfriendly terrain. After checking with the other sectors, it was clear the pilot wasn't talking to anyone at the Center. The controller was now calling all towers and approach controls along the aircraft's flight path. It seemed no one was talking to the Navajo, which was still holding its last assigned altitude of eleven thousand feet. The situation would change but as we know; change isn't always a good thing.

I called the tower and, between us, we transmitted on every frequency we had. No joy. The plane flew on and soon left my radar coverage. It wasn't till nearly 7:00 AM that the Center sector called and told me the plane eventually began losing altitude then vanished from his radar screen. Wreckage was never found and we were left with our theories about what happened. The most plausible one was that the pilot had dozed off - his plane eventually running out of fuel. With luck, he died in his sleep. This incident lodged itself in my memory like a fishhook and became a shot of adrenalin whenever I felt myself getting sleepy on mid-shifts or long drives.

I have so many many memories; some good and others, well, not so good. They don't go away though. They accumulate over a long career and, like my old record collection, become disorganized and eventually take up a lot of space. I've put some of them away in storage but still retrieve them now and then for my own enjoyment. In a way, memories are a lot like my old records. They can both be played over and over again. Someone or something just needs to push the right buttons. Case in point; I recently discovered one of my old teammates from the Big Time days, on a social media site. That pushed some long unused buttons and the memories started playing immediately. Like me; this guy was brutally insane in those days. We shared secrets and experienced many control room tantrums, terrors and temptations together. The memories of them persist, even after all this time.

Time passes. I don't even care where it goes. It takes nothing of mine when it leaves but it leaves me with plenty. Those persistent memories; they stay like my skin color. I don't know exactly where each one is at the moment but, like my old Big Time buddy, I'll eventually find them again. 

© NLA Factor, 2013


Viewing Life Through A Skylight

I recently drove to a little town, several state lines away from home, for a distant cousin's wedding. Apparently I just wasn't clever enough to figure a way out of it. So, after seven or eight hours on the road, I was unpacking the car in a part of the country I hadn't seen in decades. Returning to that area and surveying the familiar southern countryside was somehow comforting. It still seemed to fit me as well as my old Air Force fatigue jacket. 

And speaking of fatigue - I was exhausted from driving all day. The road left me smelling a little like fast food fryer grease and a lot like a high school locker room. I opened the door to my hotel room, dropped the bags on a chair then stretched out across the bed; putting myself to sleep by recalling some of the many memories made nearby - over 45 years ago. They were still fresh as snowflakes and nearly as numerous. Early the next morning, one of them joined me for coffee.

I was sitting on a bench outside the hotel lobby, chatting with another guest, when a sudden, thunderous blast literally stopped our conversation mid-sentence. It was a familiar sound to me, almost like what you'd get by putting a couple bowling balls in the dryer to tumble a while. I listened; smiling inside at something I had not heard in decades. Back then, I wouldn't have paid much attention to it but on this warm, sunny morning, it was like hearing a song that was number one on the charts when I enlisted. It was a blast from my past.

Looking up when I heard an airplane was a reflex acquired through the years but there was nothing to see beyond a hazy morning sky. Still, the unmistakable sound persisted. My fellow early riser looked puzzled. Not me though. I recognized the sound as that of a jet fighter's afterburners - ripping through the serene morning air and echoing off every building between me and the airport. I could even feel the bench vibrating.

I wondered what the rest of this small, southern town though of the noise. There was no military base here - only a civil airport that hosted a dozen or so commercial flights each day. Still, a fighter jet had clearly come calling.

The noise evoked memories of the first time I watched a flight of F-100 "Super Sabers" taking off. It was at an Air Force Base about 75 miles from here. Flame from their after burners was immediately visible. Then, about a second later, the sound reached us in the tower and rattled the windows. It was deafening - even from behind all that glass. The jets rolled forward, slowly at first but rapidly gaining speed as those Pratt & Whitney engines inhaled the cool morning air and exhaled pure fire and thrust. Pilots referred to F-100s by their nickname; "Huns." The planes were also known, less fondly, as "lead sleds." This term was a wry reference to their engine-out glide ratio which, according to them, was slightly better than an anvil, dropped from 28,000 feet. 
In those days there was very little wear on my Air Force uniform and just one stripe on the sleeves. I'd only had the uniform since checking into basic training a few months earlier. Now, fresh out of tech school, I was beginning my career as an Air Force air traffic controller. It was incredible! Assigned to the tower, I worked with several other new recruits and a few senior enlisted men. Some of them had already been to Vietnam at least once. Their professional wisdom, wardship and war stories quickly made me realize this was no ordinary career field I'd gotten into. It was a career that would catapult me across several decades and land me here in this sultry southern town.

As I climbed the tower steps toward my first day in an Air Force air traffic control facility, my pulse rate climbed along with me. It wasn't so much from the exercise but from the increasing weight of insecurity and anxiety over what awaited me. There were three airmen working the control positions and one sergeant watching everything from the center of the cab. His name was Dunton and he seemed to have an angry expression on his face. I soon learned that was the way he always looked. It was rumored to be the after-effect of something that happened while he was stationed at Da Nang but Dunton never talked about it.

I scanned my new world. Below me, the ramp was crowded with jet fighters, transient cargo planes and a handful of helicopters. There were several planes in the traffic pattern and a couple more waiting to go. The atmosphere was nothing like I expected. Tech school left me believing controllers heard one voice at a time and made their uninterrupted response. The reality I had just climbed into was a cacophony of overlapping voices. Everyone worked with hand-held microphones rather than headsets. Each control position had its own speakers; one for each frequency they used. Even calls from the radar unit blared from speakers mounted in the consoles.

Across the airfield, an F-4's left wing dipped slightly just before touching down. It rolled about two thousand feet down the runway then lifted off again. Two of the 'Huns' began taxiing into takeoff position as another pilot called the tower from somewhere in the traffic pattern, I had no idea what was going on but, like other 'first time' experiences, it was memorable. Everyone in the cab was looking in different directions and talking. I stood in the back and took it all in. It seemed no one knew I was there; not even the angry looking sergeant. I was 'there' though and would be there for nearly 35 years.

I recognized Jimmy; one of the guys from my barracks. He was working the Ground Control position. Jimmy turned, gave me a smile of recognition and was about to say something when a flight of four on the ramp called ready to taxi. He turned and looked at me, held his mic out and said; "Do you want to give 'em taxi instructions?" I stared at his outstretched hand like it was a rattlesnake. Talk to a real airplane? I could already feel the rush of panic setting in. This was not tech school and these were not other students posing as pilots. They were real pilots seated in real airplanes and they were waiting for instructions. My throat was closing up. Talk? I couldn't even swallow. In an instant, everything they'd taught me back at Keesler was gone. I took the microphone, along with a very deep breath, and stammered through my first transmission. Dunton looked down at the floor and slowly shook his head. Jimmy grinned as the four jets began moving off the ramp in tandem.   

Moments later, I learned another lesson about ATC that no one ever mentioned in Tech School. Controllers will witness things they may never be able to forget. 

Standing to my left, the Local controller was responding to a call from a flight of F-100s. The tone and tempo of his voice changed abruptly. Moments earlier, they had checked in on a long 'initial' (explained below). They appeared as specks in the sky, some 10 miles from the runway and were instructed to "Report break." A few seconds later I heard one of them exclaim that his engine had just flamed out. Far too low to attempt an air start, the flight leader told his wing man to eject. The reply was that he thought he could glide his plane straight to the runway. "Negative! Eject, eject!" The flight leader's voice smacked of urgency. Both jets were clearly visible now. One was much lower than the other and was descending fairly rapidly. Every eye in the tower was fixed on it. I had no idea what would happen next but noticed Sergeant Dunton lunge toward a red phone on the console. He looked like he'd just bitten his tongue. I saw the plane's cockpit canopy tumble off into the sky, followed by an ejection seat. By the time its parachute deployed, the F-100 had disappeared below a distant treeline. No smoke, no fire; just a plume of dust about two miles from the runway. Above it all, a parachute settled slowly toward the ground; its cargo swinging gracefully below. Everything happened within a minute. 

An HH-43 Huskie helicopter, callsign "Pedro One," was soon airborne and heading toward the crash scene. I listened as the flight leader directed "Pedro" to the spot where his wing man had come down. Maybe 15 minutes later, the 'copter called for clearance to the base hospital. I watched it dart across the airfield; knowing they had the luckless pilot on board. It wasn't until the following day that we learned he'd died from injuries incurred during the ejection. 

Learning I had seen the last moments of this guy's life had a profound effect on me. I couldn't erase the voice that said he could make it to the runway. I couldn't forget the sight of his parachute against the powder blue sky. I was a kid in a grownup's world and had never been exposed to sudden tragedy. There would be more in the ensuing years but the first one made an indelible mark on my memory.

Looking around, I realized I'd spent 18 years knowing nothing of what was going on in the world around me. Even worse was that, at 19, I still didn't. It was as though I'd been viewing life through a small skylight - a sliver of reality where things moved across my narrow field of vision on their way to unseen and completely unimagined horizons. Who knows? An airplane might even have flown by. If so, I'm sure it was going somewhere. But me? I'd been going nowhere. My life, to date, had been self-centered, cloistered and meaningless. So much was happening in the world that I might never have experienced. That was changing though. 

Lost in the good old daze, I hadn't even noticed the guy I'd been talking to was gone. So was the sound of those afterburners; just as 'gone' as those long gone, guileless days of my life. 

"Three-Sixty Overhead" approaches are mainly used by the military. The aircraft makes its "initial ' approach to the runway, at least five miles out, remaining at traffic pattern altitude until over the threshold. At that point, the plane "breaks" left or right, beginning a 360 degree descending turn toward the runway. 

  © NLA Factor, 2013


To Square One And Back

High school left me with very little education and a whole lot of bad memories. When the time came, I hurried through my graduation ceremony then ran off to find the most menial and low paying job a substandard grade average might qualify me for. I got lucky! The job I landed not only met my servility standards and apparent desire for a pitiable pay scale; it was also pretty disgusting work. So this was it; square one of my working life. 

Something happened though. After a few months I began to realize that "disgusting" wasn't as satisfying as it's reputed to be. Quite the opposite. Thus, the arrival of my Pre-induction Notice from the Draft Board actually came as a welcome relief. With my usual low expectations in tow, I traipsed off in search of the nearest Air Force Recruiter.

Volunteer day at Barber's College? Nope.
A few months later, on a sweltering Spring afternoon, I stepped off a bus at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. I couldn't know at the time but Basic Training would be the prelude to my rebirth from callow youth to air traffic controller.

Within the first 24 hours, we were required to memorize our eight-digit service number. If you don't know; this is the military's "personal identification number." It gets stamped into every GI's dog tags, so that anyone could figure out who we were - just in case we were unable to say. But memorizing numbers was no easy task for a guy who'd eventually have to quickly memorize a traffic pattern sized dose of tactical callsigns and aircraft  registration numbers.

Everybody got the haircut. Then, after the issuing of uniforms, we all began sweating our way through the ensuing weeks of verbal abuse, physical training, close order drill, shooting at things and other stuff contrived to make us appear almost military. But we were still just kids; only now with guns and no hair.

Somewhere along the way, we were all asked to pick from a list of jobs we'd like to spend the next four years doing. I wondered which one required the least amount of skill - like, for example, shaving the heads of basic trainees. I studied the list methodically, as though I actually understood what I was looking at, while never really correlating my eventual choice with a post-military career or its earning  potential. As I saw it, being asked to choose a job was like asking me to choose which color of bus I'd like to drive over a cliff. It simply didn't matter. I just knew the end result would be the same - a long fall onto the rocks. Bewildered, I finally settled on ATC, although I had no inkling as to what the job entailed. It didn't sound too disgusting though. In fact, it sounded interesting.

After selecting the career we hoped to get and after working through a series of aptitude tests and interviews; someone would make a decision on our fate. There were no guarantees. Assignments were based mainly on the needs of the Air Force.

Basic training plodded along. Then, in the final few days before leaving Lackland, our big moment came. All graduating Airmen were marched into an auditorium, where a sergeant stood holding a clipboard full of papers. As names were called, someone in the crowd would yell "Here!" and the sergeant barked out their next duty assignment. His papers were arranged alphabetically, so I had time to appreciate the queasiness in my stomach. I watched him flip through them, one by one, never looking up. Finally, in his very military, staccato voice; "Factor! Air Traffic Control - Keesler Air Force Base, Biloxi, Mississippi!"

The sense of elation I felt at that moment was misguided and premature. There'd be trouble ahead, and plenty of it. Nonetheless, here I was; about to begin my Air Traffic Control technical training. Here I was; about to land on square one again.

Biloxi in those days was a sad looking town; worn away by years of Gulf hurricanes and off duty GIs. Not originally from the deep South, I didn't know what to make of it. I was now in a place where black folks stepped off the sidewalk to let me pass - neither of us ever making eye contact. It was a place where nearly every bar in town was on the Base's list of off-limits establishments. Everyone carried that list because off-limits establishments were the only bright spots in a Biloxi night. The beaches were the only bright spots during daylight hours; when you could appreciate how dreary the town looked. Littered with broken glass and the aluminum pull tabs from countless beer cans, you either wore flip-flops on your feet or you wore bandages. The only other places to be were in the barracks or attending class. But that was no fun.

When I arrived in Biloxi, our involvement in the Vietnam War was on the upswing. The Air Force needed lots of air traffic controllers. In response, Keesler ran the ATC school in three shifts. Mine was the 6:00 PM till midnight shift. At the appointed time, my class would meet up in front of our barracks and march across the airfield to a converted hanger that housed the classrooms. There were several courses; each one lasting about a week and acquainting us with certain aspects of the job. As I recall, the first block was titled "Weather." From there, we went through instructional blocks on aircraft recognition and flight characteristics, Federal Air Regulations, Airport Traffic Control, Mobile radar units (known as GCA Units) and Approach Control. I may have forgotten some but it's been a lot of years since then.
GCA Units at ATC School, Keesler AFB
One day, sometime around my fourth week of class, the trouble caught up with me. I was called into the lead instructor's office. My grades were a perfect reflection of my off duty activities, which never included studying. That's because one of my barracks buddies had a car and that car was our means of touring the off-limits bars after class. We had to be careful though. Bed check occurred around 1:30 AM. So, after some guy with a flashlight came around and peeked into our rooms, we all tiptoed out of the barracks, met up at the car and headed for town. I should have noticed my ATC career disappearing in the rear view mirror of that big Chevy Impala but was always too caught up in the excitement of what might happen next.

The lead instructor was a chubby, red faced Tech Sergeant who didn't look much older than I was. He could turn a phrase though; describing a sad mental picture of my future. It was a bleak picture that included failure and peremptory reassignment to one of the Air Force's more servile and, very likely, disgusting jobs. There, I'd serve out the remainder of my enlistment with no hope of promotion. In other words; back to square one again.

I had indeed driven the bus over a cliff. Or maybe I was the second steer in line at a slaughterhouse and suddenly realized I was about to become dead meat. I gulped, groveled and grew penitent. I pleaded and promised. For an 18 year old kid with low self-esteem, very little sense of responsibility and no vision for the future, the threat of a long fall from a short career was just what I needed. Staring, once again, into the face of failure was a strong motivator. I went back to my barracks and began studying for the next test; knowing I wouldn't be seeing much more of my drinking buddies and even less of those buxom Biloxi barflies. I wouldn't be seeing much more of those nauseating, daily hangovers either.

Graduation from ATC school brought more anxiety.Where to next? Vietnam? I wondered; would they send a controller with no actual ATC experience to Vietnam? Then I realized that most of the people over there, the ones pulling triggers and dropping bombs, had no prior experience either.

Marched into another auditorium with another hard-assed sergeant holding a clipboard, I was about to get an answer. Wherever I ended up; I would arrive there as a new kid, with only a superficial understanding of what air traffic control was all about. I knew I'd be working in a real control tower though, with a crew of real controllers. Everyone would watch me carefully, train me candidly and eventually evaluate my fitness for the work. On the day I picked ATC off the Air Force jobs list, I had no idea what I was getting into - but things were a little different now. Now, at least I was smart enough to know how little I knew. I had also passed the ATC course; a fact that boosted my self-confidence level from zero-sum up to some. This would be another beginning for me; another step back to square one and another step in my long adventure.

I've since made a lot of trips to square one and back. By now, I know the way without some guy with a clipboard shouting orders. Just don't ask me for directions. Eventually, we all find our own way.

© NLA Factor, 2013


Things You Should Never Say While In Training

My lingering impressions of On-the-job training are that it was stressful for everyone involved and a kill shot to the ego for some. Apparently though; it isn't always that way. Take a look at the training session below. The instructor maintains a professional demeanor, remains admirably calm under pressure, and is clearly a master of his trade. 

Also; check out the way his student conducts himself. Sure, he falls a bit short on taking the initiative. As we know; doing something, even if it's wrong, can occasionally be preferable to doing nothing at all. To his credit though, he seems to know what he wants and is eager to start at the bottom to reach his goal. He also takes direction well, has a strong desire to learn and shows complete confidence in his mentor.  I wish a few of the air traffic control developmentals I worked with had this kid's attitude. 

And before I forget; kudos to the customer who remains patient throughout the ordeal. In our business, I've heard too many pilots become snippy and obnoxious when they realize controller training is being conducted. It's as though they forgot all the mistakes they made between their first solo flight and the day they earned their Air Transport Pilot Certificate (ATP). 

Anyway, in this installment of "What The Air Traffic Controller Saw" I'm going to examine some common problems instructors and their students encounter while in the throes of on-the-job training. With all its pranks and pratfalls, stalls and setbacks, awkward moments and accomplishments ~ OJT is still the only way to learn and fully understand air traffic control. 

If you are currently or soon to be involved in receiving it; read on because I'm talking to you! But first, enjoy this short video. I'll catch you on the other side.

No matter how long we're on the job, we never stop learning. But in the early years of your career there is so much to learn and such a limited time to learn it. Although OJT instructors are there to help you succeed; you have to be up for and open to the process. You've already been through a lot of classroom training, taken dozens of tests and committed more things to memory than a thumb drive. You did well in the 'learn at your leisure' halls of academe. Now it's time to step into the 'learn at the speed of flight' environment of OJT; where simply keeping up isn't good enough. You'll need to stay well ahead and that, as Tommy said, can be "quite complicated."

Your instructor already knows that developmentals are as varied as the planes they're learning to handle. You could be brilliant ~ an ATC natural. You may also be overconfident, apprehensive, argumentative, inept, indolent, unprepared and occasionally even unfit. Instructors must be able to anticipate and be tolerant of these and other traits you may bring to the position - but only to a point. It takes a lot to short-circuit a good instructor but believe me; if you are heard to utter statements such as those below, you may see some sparks.

"I was just about to do that!" Maybe you were. Part of any instructor's skill set should be the ability to let a developmental begin setting up an inefficient or potentially urgent situation. The challenge for instructors is to withhold direction or intervention until it is nearly too late to take corrective measures. In other words; give you enough time to resolve the situation on your own. If you take no action to fix things before they absolutely have to be fixed; then it's hard to believe you were "just about to."

Giving you the benefit of the doubt, lets assume you actually were "just about to" take action. If the instructor had to intervene beforehand; then you were too late and should have acted sooner. Don't complain about it. You'll be talking to yourself.

Keep in mind that doing things when they need to be done is one of the keys to success as a controller. Whether it's initiating a handoff, assigning a new heading or altitude change, clearing one flight for takeoff or instructing another to "Line up and wait" ~ such things may have to be done at precisely the right moment. Teaching you how to recognize that moment is part of what an instructor does. Your challenge is to 'be there' when the time comes to issue that instruction. Even a small distraction or misplaced priority can result in you being too late. That's when your instructor may have to do it ~ even if you were "just about to."

"It would have worked." Really? There will be times when, in the course of a developing situation, the trainee will attempt corrective action. Taking the initiative is good but if the action could potentially exacerbate a shoddy situation; the instructor may intervene and issue different instructions. When that happens, it does little good for you to claim your plan "would have worked." Remember; instructors have undoubtedly seen the same or similar situations, dozens ~ maybe hundreds of times in their years and have experienced the various outcomes. Give them credit for their experience, take the knowledge they're sharing and make it your own.

"You expect too much of me!" There is occasional truth in that statement. For whatever reason, some OJT instructors may have unrealistically high expectations regarding your current skill level. It is also possible they simply expect you to be doing better for the amount of time you've spent so far in OJT. Another likely possibility is that you don't expect enough of yourself.

Setting your goals lower than your capabilities might make them much easier to achieve ~ but the air traffic control system requires that you give it everything you are capable of. You might actually be doing well but should always try to do better. While sitting comfortably at a control position, remember; you are not the one who relies on ATC to keep you on schedule, separated from other airplanes and safe. However, pilots and their passengers do. You owe them the best effort you are capable of.

Instructors may not know the upper limits of their own ability (does anyone?) but they can sure tell when someone else isn't meeting the minimum criteria. Raise your own standards and expectations. Push yourself harder. Insert yourself into the traffic picture, assert yourself with the pilots and maybe you'll avert those expectation blues.

"I don't know." Ouch! Either saying or demonstrating that you "don't know" means a lot to your instructor and none of it is good. Not knowing implies you may have come to the OJT session unprepared. Now is not the proper time to be groping around your memory for such things as sector frequencies, landline numbers, letter of agreement specifics and such. Those things, along with your facility's Standard Operating Procedures, FAA Order 7110.65 (the original "Fifty Shades of Grey"), appropriate Facility Orders, etc. should be second nature by now. Instructors want to use the training session to show you how to put all the pertinent knowledge together and safely manage the position. They don't want to waste their time and yours by going over things you should already know.

Among the group of developmentals I began my training with; 'not knowing' often resulted in the instructor pulling our headset jack out (with malice) and sending us slinking away toward the break room. The price we paid on the forthcoming training report might have been high but the instructor's verbal barrage of expletives were always free. In time, we came to understand it was simply tough love.

Bring to each OJT session all the supporting knowledge you'll need, so that you can spend that time learning how to manage the airplanes.

"This traffic is too light for my ability. You're wasting my training time." These are words your Supervisor and instructor might consider if you are running out of training time. Keep in mind the unpredictable mature of our business though. You could learn important lessons; even in the lightest of traffic conditions.

You can also use those periods of light traffic to refine the skills you'll rely on when traffic is heavy. Don't allow the pace of  a slow period slow your working pace. If you always work the position as though it was busy; you'll keep your skills sharp and not have to change tempo when traffic picks up.

"You're teaching your own technique!" This statement is often followed by a reference to how some other instructor wanted it done and claims of confusion over which way is the best. Do you know how many recipes there are for meat loaf? Probably thousands and every chef will tell you theirs is the best. Truth is; there can also be several workable ways to solve a control problem. That being the case, your instructor may feel most comfortable with one way in particular.

There were several techniques I used regularly throughout my controller years. I thought they were the best tools for the job. Then one day I'd see or hear one of my peers handle the same situation another way. It was a solution I never thought of. It was an epiphany! I passed it on to everyone I trained but never sold it as the only way or even the best way to get the job done.  I knew better than that.

There's no doubt that OJT can be at least as frustrating as an attempt to perform brain surgery with boxing gloves. Everyone you work with went through it and succeeded. Now you have your own opportunity. Take it, and while you're at it, take ownership of your failures as graciously as you would your successes.

Never ever argue with your instructors during an OJT session. You may disagree and you may even be right but they are the ones responsible for the position. Save it for the debrief.

Focus. Try as hard as you can. Your instructors will appreciate your efforts, see your seriousness and sense your sincerity. When they do; you'll be surprised at how far they'll go to help you succeed.

Have fun working at the positions you're certified on. Keep trying to improve your game! You may be surprised at the level of skill you are capable of.

One other thing. Understand that, as you make your way through the OJT process, you are laying the groundwork for how you will be perceived throughout your career, both there and elsewhere. Whether good or bad; controllers can never outrun their reputations. The extended ATC family is a relatively small one. I can guarantee that if you transfer to another facility, your reputation will get there first.

Okay. As a reward for making it through this entire post; here's another training session for you to observe. Once again we have an eager student paired with a calm and competent instructor who does her best to put him at ease. Notice how she checks her student's level of preparedness before beginning the actual training. Visual aids are always a good means to that end.

I predict this guy will one day have Tommy as his First Officer. 


© NLA Factor, 2013


How To Raise Hair On A Controller

Learning to trust others takes time and can be difficult. I don't understand all the dynamics of how trust happens but I'm sure it's one of life's building blocks. I also know that trust is a requisite resource that controllers must be able to draw from if they're going to succeed. They need to develop a trusting relationship with coworkers pretty quickly because there are too many obstacles in the business that cannot be overcome individually. It's never long before you need help from someone you can count on.  

Apparently, learning to trust one's self is an even lengthier and more complicated process. In some cases, it might take a lifetime. It is, however, an essential tool of the controller's trade. Call it self confidence if you like but I'll tell you this. If you can figure out where it's being dished up and are planning on becoming a controller; you'd better go back for a second helping. Thinking about all this reminded me of a particular evening shift I worked long ago . . . 

I never knew a fat FAA Supervisor. Watching our TRACON Supe that evening, you'd understand why. He was a man in perpetual motion, burning his calories and shoe leather at a steady rate. He'd spent the last 90 minutes or more pacing back and forth behind the Arrival Sectors, leaning over shoulders to point at specific targets on their radar displays then rushing off to consult with the guy working Final Control. Periodically, he'd sprint up to the Area Manager's desk to report on our arrival delay status. It was only about two hours into our shift and several team members were already exhausted. I don't know . . . maybe they were worn out when they signed in for this, our third evening shift. One of the two main arrival runways had been closed for weeks due to a re-paving project. All the landing planes were being funneled onto one runway instead of the usual two or three. They say good things don't come easy. In these conditions, neither do the airplanes.
The day shift crew looked worn out when we got here. Holding patterns began filling up around noon and some mildly IFR weather meant the small, propeller-driven planes that normally landed on a shorter VFR runway had to share the same instrument approach the big guys were using. It gets tricky. Put a DC-10 behind a Cessna Skymaster (we called the "suck and blow Cessna" because of its front and back propellers) on the ILS and you'll need to start off with about ten miles of spacing if you hope to maintain legal separation till it touches down. You have to make it work. Tell the Cessna they're being followed by a DC-10. Ask them to keep their speed up as much as feasible. Ask them to land long so as to reach the first exit taxiway quickly. Then ask the jet to reduce to, ohh, maybe stall speed? Well, something close to it anyway. Rinse and repeat over the course of eight hours and its easy to see why the morning crew was beat. Now it was our turn.

When my carpool buddies and me walked into the TRACON, somebody told me to relieve Departure Control. That was a good way to ease into what would probably be a crazy eight hours or so. There weren't a lot of planes waiting to go because many of our future departures were still hung up in holding patterns. I watched the approach sectors. Because of mounting arrival delays, the tower supervisor had given Final Control carte blanche to run traffic as tight as he could.

The early part of the shift was going as well as any of us could expect for prevailing conditions. I turned another departure over to the Center, sat back in my chair and admired the Final controller's artistry. He was jamming planes into the airport like a madman. Miles away, other flights were slipping out the bottom of their holding patterns and banking toward the downwind leg. Everyone else in the stack was dropped down a thousand feet and the Center would clear another one into the top of the pattern. You could have set the whole thing to music.

I was relieved from Departure Control after a couple of hours and went off to the break room for coffee. On return to the radar room, Pete told me to relieve Tommy on the East Arrival Sector. It looked like I'd finally have to do some work.

It was getting dark outside. I imagined the airfield lighting was being turned on and the tower crew would see all the orange "Caution" lights blinking along the closed runway. Big Time's East Arrival fix was always pretty active. There were several planes on vectors toward the Final Sector and the holding pattern was stacked and spinning. Tommy had it all under his thumb but, as usual, was working without a handoff man. There were handoff positions next to all the radar sectors but rarely enough controllers around to staff them. A good handoff controller could monitor the radar sector, mark strips and handle most of the coordination between sectors and other facilities. This relieved the radar controller from a lot of workload and potentially dangerous distractions. I listened carefully to the position relief briefing; scanning the flight strips to see who was holding at what altitude. Everything matched what Tommy was saying to me, so I settled in and started working the sector.

Everything looked good. Final had taken the first two handoffs and in a moment, I would flash the next flight at him. I had laddered all the planes in my holding pattern down a thousand feet and was just waiting for the floor Supervisor to tell me how many more I could run toward Final. The number would be based on how many flights the other Arrival Sectors had off their holding fixes, how many planes the Final controller was already working and how the spacing on final was looking. The Supe would figure it all out. Working traffic during these extended holding periods wasn't really so tough as long as everyone stayed on top of things. After a while, you kinda fell into the rhythm of it. This evening; it was all good!

Actually, it was more like cruising down the Interstate, car radio howling rock and roll music, and never noticing that huge pothole up ahead until you found yourself standing along the roadside, staring at a broken axle.

I had cleared a foreign air carrier (Lets call it "Air Anywhere.") to the next lower altitude in the holding pattern and was waiting for the pilot to report reaching that altitude. While waiting, I revised a few other flight's 'Expect Further Clearance' times, issued a couple vectors, a speed reduction, then switched a plane over to the Final controller. I watched the other arrival sectors to see how many planes they had off their holding fixes. Air Anywhere reported reaching his assigned altitude so I started another plane down to the altitude he'd just vacated. A short time later, Air Anywhere transmits. "Uhh, Big Time, you have another flight holding at our altitude?" Well uhh . . . not as a rule.

My mind raced. This was one of those "heart in the throat" moments. I tried to wash it down by re-checking my strip marking on the flights still holding. Strips looked good. I turned on the alphanumeric data blocks associated with the holding flights. These were often turned off during extensive holding scenarios because all the overlapping data was impossible to read. I asked the next lower flight to "verify level at" whatever altitude they had been cleared to. All the while, I was considering what to do next. If there were two flights at one altitude, I couldn't very well climb or descend one of them. They were sandwiched in by other planes holding above and below. Perhaps I could assign an exit vector to Air Anywhere to get him the hell out of the pattern? All this happened within five seconds after his last transmission.

I keyed my radio. "No sir." It was all there was to say but I could hardly hear the sound of my own voice for the pounding in my eardrums. His reply - "We see landing lights coming toward us." Yes, the flight holding directly above him was indeed turning inbound, about ten miles away - just as Air Anywhere turned outbound. Dark skies, a few clouds, an optical illusion and, next thing you know, a coronary occlusion! I told the guy he was looking at opposite direction traffic a thousand feet higher. "Okay Big Time" he replied.

I really should have gotten over this as quickly as it happened but I couldn't. It rattled me. Thank goodness there were too many other things to do at the moment, leaving no time to brood over this. But later, in the break room, while pretending to read a magazine, I began thinking about the level of trust I had in myself. I thought it was pretty high. My strip marking was nearly always up to date and I made sure I got a pilot readback of any new altitude assignment. Still, I had to concede this holding pattern thing hit me with some serious, albeit momentary, self-doubt. For an instant, I was actually ready to believe I had two planes holding at the same altitude! I'll tell you - that's a hair raising experience for any controller!

© NLA Factor, 2013


A Slow Recovery

In the years following the PATCO strike, FAA hired some interesting people to help us out with recovery efforts. Some were great! Others - not so much.

© NLA Factor, 2013


Going Home ~ The Best Way

Once upon a time, way back before Mount Vesuvius buried Pompeii, Pliny the Elder wrote that "Home is where the heart is."  More recently, Thomas Wolfe qualified old Pliny's wisdom when he wrote "You Can't Go Home Again." True enough ~ especially if you lived in Pompeii. What I get from these two guys is that you can't always follow your heart; even if it's heading home.

"Sunrise" By Steven Kenny - 2005
Many of us have that special dream every now and then. It's a colorful, hopeful dream and it leaves us believing, even just briefly, that we are capable of accomplishing something impossible, or at least highly improbable. Perhaps we dream of a return to something that still shines brightly in some seldom visited corner of our memory. In that dream we soar across time - toward a day long past. Maybe it existed years or even decades ago. Maybe it never really existed at all. Dreams, like recollections, can be inventive, you know ~ and very kind to the past. In time though, most dreams become like badly spliced scraps of faded film footage; void of color or continuity. They gradually decay into monochromatic images that eventually vanish completely. But not always.

I've been having one of those improbable dreams since my retirement.  They're becoming less frequent and more confusing as years pass but the basic theme is always the same. In the dream I'm back at Big Time, standing in the TRACON. It looks much the same as when I left and I also see many familiar faces. They look exactly as they did when I last saw them so many years ago. That's the comforting part. I stand and watch the controllers working. There are so many damned airplanes. I think to myself how much busier it's become since I worked there. Then I realize I'm there to enter training and get re-certified. Knowing there's no way I can do it, I'm overcome with dread. Thankfully, that's when I wake up. It's craziness, I know, but it won't go away. I guess the memories of a long, adventurous career, with its schemes and scares, schisms and scandals, scuffles and scars, are still too vivid to forget. They keep calling me back.

 By the mid-eighties, half burned out by the strike recovery, I had already taken a couple of small steps away from full-time air traffic control. There were the unhurried years working in Big Time's Training Department followed, in time, by fast moving years spent as a First Line Supervisor. In each case, the work was challenging, satisfying and good for the career. But one of the best things about those jobs was being able to go back. I could return to the tower or radar room with my headset in hand. There, I'd still be able to go home to a world that few others could ever imagine. I needed to keep at least one foot in that world. It was the foundation of my career aspirations, the essence of my identity and it was home.
Then along came the infernal Area Manager (AM) years. I was still physically 'home' in the control rooms but it was like eavesdropping on family members from another room.  It was as though a door had closed. Gone was the requirement to stay current on control positions. The luxury of only having to concentrate on the fast moving madness of air traffic was gone too. As an 'AM' my workday was fragmented into dozens of vastly different tasks punctuated by an occasional exigency in the front office. At first, I tried to keep current on a few radar sectors so I could at least relieve the Supervisors for meal breaks, etc. Other demands eventually rendered those altruistic aspirations impossible. In time, my workday evolved into a sausage mix of tasks that, by day's end, I couldn't even identify. I often thought of Pete; the battle hardened Area Manager of my early controller years. He always made it look easy and, in a way, it was. That's because Pete was among the few people remaining in this profession who's roots were connected to another time.

Prior to the '81 strike, the FAA seemed a more close-knit organization. Back in the late Fifties, Pete had actually worked airplanes with the guy who, by the mid Seventies, had become our Facility Chief. Pete knew most of the people he talked to or yelled at on the phones. The Chief knew nearly everyone he had to deal with in the Regional Office. They'd all entered service during the Eisenhower Administration, worked the first jet airliners, drank together and kept each other's secrets. Some had even joined the fledgling PATCO before entering into Management. Their value system was chiseled in stone, their work ethic exhausting and their sense of loyalty to one another was as unquestionable as gravity.
"Talkin' bout my generation."  - The Who
Those of us lucky enough to be recruited in the early Seventies were strongly influenced by those guys. At Big Time, they started retiring three or four years before the strike; most of them exhausted, disillusioned and ready to leave home. They'd already endured earlier job actions. Now they could see another one brewing and didn't want to deal with it. I couldn't blame them. Some stayed on though and were still around in the Summer of '81. A few of them were loyal PATCO janizaries who were actually eligible to retire within months of the strike. In spite of the pleading by some of their former friends in upper Management, they went out; betting their retirement benefits and the future of their families on a successful job action. They lost everything except the camaraderie of their fellow strikers. The few 'old timers' who remained hung on for a couple more years but it was easy to see they were losing their edge.

Many controllers hired after the strike had little patience for their professional predecessors ~ or me for that matter. They were a solipsistic mix of inexperience, impatience and intolerance. They thought they knew it all and had their college degrees to prove it. The older guys couldn't relate to them. With unmistakable annoyance, they trained their younger protégés under a more liberal and less effective succession of mandates. These were set forth in an endless blizzard of Directives the FAA hoped would change their autocratic image. Far from fooled; the old guys kept an eye on their calendars ~hoping they could reach retirement without having a "deal" (controller-speak for an operational error).

Within a couple years after the strike, they were gone. In their place were the so called 'strike baby' controllers hired after 1981. Gone also were the mid-level managers like Pete. They were replaced by guys like me who were caught between eras. What we knew about the business we had harvested from those who were all but forgotten fossils ~ pressed in the strata of aviation history. Far too young to retire, I had to adapt. The home I had once known now resembled a foreclosure. Much of its contents, the familiar things I had grown up with and my professional 'family' had been removed. It was beginning to look like Thomas Wolfe was right.

I needed a plan. This wasn't the time to become one of those guys who held court in the break room, boring everyone with tales of the old days. For that, I'd wait till the next century and maybe start a Blog. But for now; these were new days and new challenges ahead. It was time to adapt and try reinventing myself. This wasn't going to be easy. By the late Eighties, FAA's Management, diluted by inexperience, was beginning to reveal its lack of depth. No wonder. The majority of our collective history had retired; including many highly skilled Managers. Many others had been fired. Who was left to ascend into Management jobs? The answer was guys like me, along with some fast track strike babies.

I made my way through a series of Staff Officer jobs; managing the Plans and Procedures, Quality Assurance and Training Departments. Although challenging, none of it was like working a busy, IFR evening shift in the radar room. The younger specialists working for me did much of the heavy lifting while I attended meetings, which were lined up on my calendar like planes in the departure queue.  The problem was; you couldn't stop the meetings. Other facilities, the union, the Regional Office, airline representatives, airport management officials, General Aviation advocates ~ everybody needed their meetings as urgently as I needed aspirin afterward. My immediate Supervisors, the Asst. Manager, seemed addicted to these things. She insisted on regularly scheduled meetings; regardless of whether there was anything to discuss or not. You'd have thought she had nothing better to do. Meetings might have been a security blanket for her but for me; they stole much of the time needed to get real work done.

Meanwhile, back home in the tower and TRACON, all seemed normal. Controllers continued pushing planes in and out of the airport, griping about Management and gossiping about each other. Shifts were still being swapped, holding patterns were still filling up, people were hollering into handoff lines and everybody was sweating. It was all as it should be. But whenever I went into those control rooms I felt like a visitor in my own home. My heart was still there but I didn't fit anymore. Matters were made worse by the fact that I was growing bored and frustrated with my own job.

The endless meetings were enough to get me there. Even worse was the gnawing notion that I couldn't trust most of the Management people I worked with. Without that on-the-job interdependence controllers rely on to make things work; Management relied on their simple pecking order and subtle intimidation to get things done their way. Tasks were completed because someone higher up asked for it. Any resistance or refusal usually had unsavory consequences. Posturing was preeminent and professional differences were seen as subversive. I couldn't stand it much longer. Home didn't feel like home anymore and the interests of my Management peers didn't coincide with my own. It was time to leave. There was a song that went . . .

"This old airports' got me down
it's no earthly good to me."
 - Gordon Lightfoot

I took a position working for our Regional Office; where I bided my time till retirement. Surprisingly, the work was a lot of fun. I made new friends, met some memorable people and had many interesting experiences. While there, I never missed my old facility. I didn't miss the controllers or the airplanes either - not until I retired. That's when I realized my 'heart' was still somewhere else and it was controlling traffic. In time, I started having those colorful, hopeful, impractical and impossible dreams of going home again. I still have them now and then but always wake up smiling. I smile because, in those dreams, my heart goes home but I stay right where I am. The way I understand Pliny and Wolfe, it's best that way.

Here's a short epilogue. I have no lingering regrets over my career decisions and I won't whine about them. Durrell once wrote that we create our misfortunes and they bear our fingerprints.  Wise words. Besides, there are a lot of positive lessons to be learned from negative experiences. Whether it's taking a job you really weren't cut out for or breaking a second floor window with the lawn mower; you learn something useful. I've also come to realize that absence really does make the heart grow fonder. The further I get from my controller years, the more fun it is to look back ~ even on the worst of times. And those folks in Management that I once might have enjoyed strangling with a length of barbed wire? If I met any of them today, I'm sure we'd speak of nothing but the good times. To do anything else would be pointless. 

© NLA Factor, 2013


A Good Shift

It was the drug of choice for most controllers and could actually make us pretty high. It induced an undiluted euphoria and served as an effective antidote for it's ugly antipode. I'll call this drug "the normal day." It was one of those seldom seen shifts when little to nothing went wrong. Everything seemed to click into place like the tumblers inside a combination lock. Kind of like the "Seinfeld" show, it was a shift about nothing ~ nothing broke, nothing happened we would regret or be chided for and there was nothing to complain about. There was nothing to it. Sweet nothing. Those were the shifts that reminded us why we loved being air traffic controllers. 

It was just past shift change and I was already busy on Local Control. My first choice would have been a TRACON assignment but Pete sent me upstairs. He said I "needed some tower time." Since most of my shifts were spent working radar, I suppose I was a little rusty. As it turned out, I was glad to be in the tower.  It was one of those 'Ray-Ban' kind of afternoons when you could see forever. A steady wind kept the city smog at bay and Big Time International seemed to glitter under the setting sun. The last song I heard on the car radio was still spinning in my head as I scanned the airport, one runway at a time ~ trying to keep up with everything that was happening at once. Airplanes, like cars lined up at an Interstate toll booth, moved incrementally along the parallel taxiways; hoping to get out of town on time. It was the afternoon rush and there were a lot of planes waiting to go. I'm sure the pilots queued up in line gazed envyingly out their cockpit windows whenever a departure rolled by, lifted off and vanished with a receding rumble.

The guys in the radar room were doing a hell of a job, jamming the localizers with airplanes. Jets were whistling down the glide slopes, squeaking onto runways, slowing up and ducking into the high-speed turnoffs. My farewell transmission of "Ground point nine." was always cheerfully responded to. I was doing what every busy tower controller does; making cold calculations, bold predictions and decisive moves ~ squeezing departures out between landings as fast as I could without pissing off the Departure Sectors. It was all part of the grand spectacle of an unencumbered airport running at peak performance. Well ~ almost peak. One of the main arrival runways had been closed for rubber removal on the thresholds. Not a big issue today. Weather was good enough that doing the 'mixed use' runway thing wasn't worth whining about. Tower and TRACON Supervisors, who usually tried to match the strongest controllers with the most challenging positions, were standing back to enjoy the show. They knew the show would only be as good as the actors in it.

Winds had been forecast to change direction sometime before 6:00 PM. That's exactly what happened but it happened a bit more abruptly than anticipated. In just a few minutes, the wind direction moved about 130 degrees clockwise. A few pilots started complaining of tailwinds on final, making the decision to turn the operation around appear unavoidable. Although timing couldn't have been worse, the odds of something happening to screw up a perfect day couldn't have been better. You learn to expect it. Pessimism isn't just part of the controller's genetic make-up; it's also a built in safety feature. Problems should never come as a complete surprise.

Winds don't often change direction so quickly. They usually worked their way around a few degrees at a time; giving us a chance to see a trend and take action before there was an unavoidable crisis. Changing runways right now was going to be ugly. I figured Pete was already on the phone to the center's weather unit - looking for a fresh wind forecast. Pete was always way ahead of the game. The TRACON Supervisor would be making calls to every tower we had a line to - asking what their surface winds were doing. Nobody wanted to cause delay and dismay based on a short lived quirk. From what we heard, it appeared a cool front was moving in sooner than expected. Pete made his decision to turn the ship around.

Changing the landing direction and moving all the active traffic  from here to there can become an epic exercise in patience. Planes waiting to go, eight to ten deep at the runways and more taxiing out of the ramp areas, would have to be moved or redirected to the other end of the airport. The trick was to make sure the original departure sequence didn't change ~ or at least not change too much. Whoever was number one to go now would expect to be number one after the turn-around or there'd be some bitching. Down in the TRACON, approach controllers had dozens of flights on vectors to final approaches that would soon turn into departure corridors. They'd all have to be delayed somehow.

The tower Supervisor got a call from his TRACON counterpart. "How many yah got to go?" was the question. After a quick look around, the reply was; "Looks like about twenty or so." Negotiations began immediately over which aircraft in the pattern would be the last to land and who would be the last to take off. The rest would have to be taken for a tour of the area while the Ground Control guy went nuts trying to move all his traffic to the other end of the airport. It was a little past sunset and dusk was settling in.

Billy K. was a decent Ground Controller, as long as everything clicked along normally. Like me, he spent most of his time in the radar room, so working tower positions during peak traffic was more than a little challenging. But Billy ~ on Ground after dark, during a peak hour? That was like firing a gun on the ski slopes. All it took was a small shock wave, like maybe a pilot turning onto the wrong taxiway, and Billy would soon be buried in an avalanche of confusion. In the time it took him to straighten one problem out, there'd be another mess somewhere else. Worse was the fact the airport was changing from an array of discernible airplanes, taxiways and runways into a huge black hole adorned with dark silhouettes and colored lights ~ some moving and some not. Billy looked tense. Nobody was landing or taking off right now, so I did what I could to help him out.

Tampa, our Supe of the day, knew what was coming and took quick preemptive action. He called the TRACON and, within minutes, we saw Eddie bounding up the tower steps. Good news for the flying public. "Relieve Billy on Ground." was all Tampa said ~ but with an undertone of urgency.  There were lines of planes taxiing down the runways toward the new departure lineup. A few arrivals, the last to land with a tailwind, were stopped at intersections to let the departures roll by. Seemingly forgotten flights sat on their ramps, waiting for taxi instructions. Potential conflicts in traffic flows were brewing all over the place and the Ground Control frequency squealed with the sounds of frustration.  Billy K. gave Eddie the position relief briefing like a burglar listening to police sirens. As soon as he was done, he made a hasty exit from the tower.

Eddie was probably the best tower controller I ever saw. Chattering away non-stop, pointing at planes, waving his hands and bouncing up and down on his tiptoes, he marshaled the traffic with aggressive efficiency. Still; Billy had left him with a mess on Ground and sorting it out would take some doing. Eddie didn't mind. He had the finesse to fix this. Although bold and confident, he maintained a delicate touch. Watching Eddie, I imagined he could have written his name on a soap bubble; even dotting the I's. He also knew how to keep the traffic picture at night ~ a tricky exercise in planning, shuffling departure strips around and getting the eyes on the ground (a.k.a. the pilots) involved.  Soon after Eddie took control, the departures were repositioned to the new runway configuration with a minimum of complaining from the cockpits.

I glanced up at the tower's BRITE radar display. It appeared the Approach controllers had pretty much reorganized their arrival flows. The sky was full of airplanes and a few were close to turning toward the airport. In the back of the tower cab, Tampa spoke quietly to the TRACON Supervisor. Yes, there was a new ATIS. Yes, the approach lights and ILS systems had been switched around, etc. The conversation over, he said simply; "Release the departures." The entire turn-around had taken less than 20 minutes. There were a few reportable delays but nothing out of the ordinary. Soon the airport was again running at a full gait. For the remainder of our shift, all we had to do was keep the 'planes in - planes out' pressure on our runways. There must have been a meal break in there somewhere but during times like this, eating was the last thing on my mind. Tampa pulled his usual sandwich and banana out of the brown bag he carried whenever he came to the tower.
The remainder of our shift was high volume happiness. 'Strings of pearls' ~ long lines of landing lights strung out across the night sky, moved in an endless pageant toward the airport. The ground shaking grumble of jets taking off was barely audible from the tower cab but we could see their lights racing along the runways then vanishing against the city backdrop.

An hour after shift change, me and my carpool buddies joined a few other crew members who were already leaning on the bar at our favorite watering hole. Eddie wasn't there but Billy K. was. Unlike the hours after a bad shift, when we'd each be citing the calamities, casting blame around and wishing we'd taken sick leave ~ tonight there was hardly a word spoken about the past eight hours. There simply wasn't much to say about nothing, so we drank beer, told jokes and surveyed the place for any flight attendants who might have stopped in on their way to one of the nearby hotels. What the hell. After such a shift; anything seemed possible.

Carpool Carl, our driver, said something to Billy K. as we left the bar for home. Billy was assigned to the Final Control sector that afternoon after leaving the tower. There, he dealt with an impatient backlog of arrivals that had been spinning in holding patterns or riding out delay vectors while the runway change took place. The TRACON Supervisor knew Billy was a guy who could always meet or beat our hourly arrival rate, no matter what.

Billy ran the Final Sector like Eddie ran Ground. It was instinctive. He attributed his skills to the year spent in a mobile radar unit (GCA), recovering fighters at one of South Vietnam's busiest air bases. In that time, he provided radar approaches to thousands of jets returning from missions in monsoon weather conditions. Many of them were down to "Minimum" or "Emergency" fuel status, which meant he had just one chance to get these guys onto the runway. Every vector had to be on target. Sloppy or unnecessary turns caused delays that could mean losing an airplane and possibly it's crew to fuel exhaustion. Billy had developed a good vectoring eye and perfect timing long before entering the FAA. Carl slapped him on the back and said; "Nice job with the finals, man!" We all shook his shoulder gently as we passed behind. Billy smiled but I don't think he ever looked up from his beer.

Nobody mentioned the tangle he had created earlier in the shift while working Ground. That's because a functional team of controllers compensates for their member's weaknesses and capitalizes on their strengths. Criticizing controller deficiencies was someone else's job and they usually did it well. We always passed out the praise when warranted though. It was a rare occasion when someone else did that.

The next afternoon, as our crew checked in for the evening shift, we all stopped at a small bulletin board outside the TRACON. Early each morning, the previous day's airport traffic count was posted there and everyone wanted to know how we did. Although not a record setter, the arrival and departure numbers were high, while reportable delays were low. There was nothing else to say. It had been a good shift!

© NLA Factor, 2013