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