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