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


Anonymous said...

Great story!
Good Lord it sounds so familiar... :)

No Longer a Factor said...

I appreciate your comment sir; especially on a holiday! From what you say about my post, I suspect you've been in a similar place. I hope your eventual outcome was at least as good as mine was.

All the best to you brother.