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