Quite Rightly

Returning to our regularly scheduled programming . . . . 

We hear a lot about the black boxes whenever an airplane meets with an untimely end. Like the inscrutable Oracle of Delphi, these things speak in utter gibberish but somehow bring clarity to those who are esoterically inclined. Knowledge bestowed by the black box often provides insight about what went wrong and why. It's a useful tool that offers great learning opportunities but it sometimes makes me wonder. What if I'd come with a black box? It could have revealed the "how" and "why" of every idiotic thing I've ever done in life. The big question is; would I have learned anything from it? I sure learned a lesson or two from the absence of a personal black box. For example; if an event is not recorded in some way, it's anyone's guess what really took place. I also learned that guessing never helps. 

I think it was sometime in March in the late Seventies and the day was starting off badly. I knew we'd have to stay 'on our toes' during this shift, never imagining we would end up on our ass instead. Clouds, just a couple of hundred feet above the treetops, rolled across the area; dumping what seemed to be an interminable rainfall on the city. Wind gusts jabbed at my old Ford Fairlane from the left and right as me and my two other carpool fools made our way down the Interstate toward Big Time.

We were still miles from the airport but I could already smell the noxious odor of a rotten day. There were no thunderstorms out there but I knew this would be a day marked by high winds, low ceilings, heavy rain and headaches. It was the kind of day when some guys I knew might climb out of bed, peek outside, pick up the phone and call in sick. One of our teammates did just that. No surprise there. It happened to be our carpool buddy Joe; who was chronically averse to a mixture of bad weather and air traffic control.

On days like this, one less controller was like having a missing molar. We could still take a bite out of the traffic but chewing it up like we usually did was difficult and even a bit painful. To begin with; we had a facility management who guarded their overtime budget like it was the family jewels. This meant there probably wouldn't be anyone called in to replace Joe. Most of our trainees were only tower qualified and nearly useless in the radar room. That left the journeymen controllers to spend the entire shift rotating endlessly through busiest radar sectors. Like a match head; we'd burn brightly at first but, as the shift ground on, we would eventually fade and fizzle. Essential tools like awareness, efficiency, judgment and patience would dissipate like the smoke from Bobby's cigar (you could still smoke 'em at work). In their absence, intolerance and irritability might seep in to fill the void and things could get a little sloppy. Delays would grow, tempers would rise and we'd start bitching about everything. All combined; it left us fighting the foul weather, both outside and inside the facility.

We were pretty sure our carpool buddy Joe wasn't physically ill. He was known for occasionally sparing himself the stress of a bad weather day. We referred to his particular malady as "Ceiling Sickness." Me and my riders did wonder what his official excuse was this time. I mean; if your going to take a mental health day, you should, at least, try to be a little creative when you call in. On becoming a Supervisor, I'd sometimes hear a truly epic excuse that I would buy like half price beer. Other times, the excuses were so prosaic that I'd sooner buy paper napkins made from recycled toilet tissue. Joe was never a very imaginative guy. We all figured he was home, watching daytime TV with his usual "headache" or "upset stomach." I wondered; why stay home and deal with such things by yourself when you can go to work and deal with them along with fifteen other guys?

I punched in the combination to our security door and we went to work. It turned out the airport had been below landing minimums for the last two hours, so 7:00 AM in the TRACON seemed more like 5:00 PM. Arrivals were spinning at the outer fixes, phones were ringing, strip bays overflowed and worried Supervisors paced around nervously behind the radar sectors. Today; everything in the air would be on instrument flight plans; including those planes trying to get into or out of the many uncontrolled airports scattered around the region. Normally, we have little awareness of what goes on at those small airfields situated in hidden valleys, behind hillsides and other areas that our radar's eye would never see. Air traffic usually comes and goes from those places under VFR conditions. We don't even know they're out there unless they call us for traffic advisories. IFR days are different. If the pilots needed to fly and had an instrument rating, they'd call us.

This morning they were phoning relentlessly, looking for IFR clearances. There were a couple of VFR towers in our area and they too had to call us to get clearances for their departures. All these calls came in at our TRACON Data position  On days like this, the two controllers working there would most likely be going through Hell. TRACON Data wasn't actually Hell but, after an hour or so, any noticeable differences seemed unimportant. It was like trying to determine the significant difference between slipping off a roof as opposed to being thrown off. The pain is the same.

Working the Data position on days like this always made me feel like I was being chased by a mob of angry clocks; waving their hands wildly and making me run like I was out of time. Everything was urgent and everyone impatient. I could barely keep up with the demands. The constant chaos could wear you down. Data was the most "physical" of all TRACON positions. It would be a couple hours spent tearing flight strips off the printers and running them to the radar sectors, answering phone calls from everywhere, coordinating IFR releases for satellite departures and, of course, complaining about everything.

Today's Flight Data staff included two trainees who were only certified in the tower and TRACON data. Unfamiliar with how the radar room actually functioned, they got by on a superficial knowledge and a narrowly defined set of duties. These were like the guys holding those revolving "Slow" or "Stop" sign you see guiding traffic at road construction sites. They knew nothing of highway engineering, heavy equipment operation or line painting.  Just "Slow" and "Stop." It's a simple job but the consequences for failure can be serious.

A fellow teammate named Min Yan sat at his radar sector. Min had been raised in the city's "China Town" section and was the only controller I ever knew who had a Masters Degree in music. Always cool and fully focused; Min worked his traffic with the consistency of a metronome. His operating initials were "MY"and he terminated every landline call with them. Not by properly stating "Mike Yankee" but with "Mellow Yellow" - a sobriquet we all referred to him as. Keep in mind; these were the days before the blight of political correctness infected the Federal Government. We could call an Asian guy Mellow Yellow without fear of being sanctioned. Whenever we did, Min would usually smile, nod his head in time with whatever song was currently playing inside it and reply "Quite rightly."

Today's Flight Data staff included Ed and George; two trainees who were excellent tower controllers but at TRACON data they were like fugitives on foreign soil - lost and running for their lives. Nearly under water but struggling in a most mettlesome manner to stay afloat, they rushed across the floor; stepping over headset wires and dodging Supervisors to deliver their strips. One of the strips was for Min. It was a satellite departure waiting for his IFR release from one of our small, uncontrolled satellite airports. George set it down next to Min, who was too busy handling a flurry of Big Time arrivals to even look at the departure's flight plan. Without taking his eye off the radar scope, he apparently muttered "Hold for release." Min couldn't let the guy go because he'd already cleared an arrival for the VOR Approach into that airport, terminated radar service and was now waiting for the pilot to cancel his IFR flight plan. What George heard among the cacophony of a busy TRACON was not recorded and therefore unverifiable.

As Min's arrival descended into that unseen void below our radar coverage; George returned to the Flight Data position, picked up the phone and did what he thought he heard Min instruct. He released the waiting departure. The first fix on that flight's route was a VOR that sat about ten miles from the airport. Unfortunately, this was the same VOR from which another flight was now commencing an approach. Both pilots were probably caught up in the clouds and heavy rain. Although our radar's eye could see neither; they were both well within radio reception. Then Min received a completely unexpected call from the departing flight, reporting; "We're out of two thousand for three."

From where I sat in the radar room, I could only see "Mellow Yellow" suddenly stand up at his sector; arms raised like an orchestra conductor. Now red-faced, he looked as though he was trying to swallow a sponge.  I couldn't hear what he was saying but clearly he was upset; which, until this moment, was something we'd never seen. He tried to call the arriving flight but it was too late.  The pilot had already switched his radio to the airport's Unicom frequency.

Only later did the rest of the team learn what had happened and that somehow, the two planes, on collision courses, had passed each other without suffering so much as a paint scrape.  It truly is, as they say, a very big sky.  We all figured the guy on the approach must have descended to his minimum descent altitude (MDA) as soon as he could (a good move in any case) and the departure must have climbed like a homesick angel to get out of the bad weather.  We'll never know for sure.

We'll also never know for sure exactly what was said between "MY" and George the Flight data guy. Their verbal exchange, critical as it was, had not been recorded. Nearly everything a controller says while working is recorded. Whether it's to another controller via landline or to pilots; it's all retrievable. But one thing that wasn't recorded back then was the open verbal exchanges between control room personnel. Normally, this was considered a good thing because much of what we said was either scurrilous, inflammatory or insensitive and could easily have gotten us fired. In this particular case though, would a recording have been as helpful as the little black box found among the ruins of a fallen airplane? Would it have provided a learning opportunity? I say "Quite rightly."

© NLA Factor, 2014



Isaac Newton warned us that "what goes up must come down." That got me thinking about my first Supervisor at Big Time. Jon must not have believed Sir Isaac. Most of us controllers wished Jon would go up and never come down. You know; like Voyager I or II. He went up alright but didn't keep going. He came down; suddenly and swiftly. It wasn't a soft landing either.

Air traffic controllers are a befuddled bunch. Most of us spend roughly half our career attempting to refute Sir Issac's law and the other half enforcing it. Planes go up and we like to see that they stay up there until it's time to come down. That's why we invented holding patterns. Then, when it is time to abide by Isaac's law; we try to ensure they come down gently and, hopefully, onto a runway. I've known airplanes to come down like Thor's hammer. When you see that happen, you keep the images filed under "Things I'll never forget."

Anyway, this piece isn't about the kind of gravity that makes planes come down. It's more about the gravity that brings down careers in air traffic control. We scratch and scrabble our way up through the training program, try to rise above average in our abilities as controllers and some of us even ascend into the murky realm of management. That's where Jon eventually went - but not before asserting his credentials for higher office on a young trainee or two. Then one day, unable to escape the gravity of bad decisions, he came down hard - didn't even bounce.

It was early 1975 and I was due for my first Performance Appraisal. Having been in the training program for a year and exceeding expectations (both my own and the facility's) along the way; I didn't anticipate any problems. Well under the Training Department's average times for position certification; I was already checked out through all tower positions and now training in the TRACON. I actually thought the appraisal would be a pretty good one. Jon called me into the supervisor's office one afternoon and began talking. His voice was downbeat and parental - like a father explaining to a child why he wouldn't be getting a new bicycle this year.

Jon had come to Big Time by way of the nearest enroute facility where he'd been a controller for years. He had never worked in the terminal world and, understandably, it showed. Unaccustomed to our equipment and tighter separation standards, his operating methods were rather restrained in the radar room and a total terror in the tower. Fortunately, as a supervisor, he didn't have to work much traffic. This reduced the volume of complaints from pilots to Rick; our Area Manager. Jon was a glad-hander though and could camouflage his incompetence with robust repartee or by repeating the harrowing tales of his days at the Center. We learned to never get him started at our after-work watering hole. Having consumed three or four beers, you couldn't get him to shut up about one of  the Alphabet Areas, Sector Whatever and all the planes he hustled into a couple of other busy terminals. The journeymen controllers politely pretended to listen but sometimes the smell of exaggeration could be overwhelming. Bored and unimpressed, they'd eventually just get up and leave.

Jon sat across from me, smiling. My rating was rolled up tightly in his fist. He sat tapping one end of it on the desk while explaining his philosophy about how a trainee's performance should be evaluated. Now, I had been at Big Time long enough to understand there were at least two ways a supervisor could approach a rating. One way was to let the appraisal accurately reflect the trainee's performance - good, bad or indifferent. Other supervisors subscribed to the idea that time on the job was more important than talent when it came to describing someone's performance. When Jon began talking about what nice work I was doing for my very first year at Big Time; I knew what side of the debate he came down on. Apparently I was moving in the right direction but neither up or down. Newton would have been puzzled. Jon finally unrolled the rating and placed it in front of me on the desk.

Perplexed, I listened to Jon and stared at each page as he thumbed his way through the document. It seemed to portray my performance as a middle ground somewhere between puss and porterhouse steak - not too bad but not so good either. He eventually summarized his monologue by saying that he expected I would do much better next year. Unfamiliar with the FAA's wily and weaseling ways, I was actually surprised and disappointed. No matter. I initialed where needed, put my signature next to Jon's then went home to think about it. After all, I was nothing but a damned trainee - an inferior subspecies of the Controller race. I couldn't possibly complain because it would sound too much like whining. Unwritten rule: Whine once and you're labeled a whiner forever. Even as a trainee I knew that much.

I came to work the next day; pretty much over the whole thing. My career would be a long one and there'd be lots more performance appraisals. When I came down from the tower for my lunch break; Rick called me over to his desk. I noticed he had my rating in front of him. Had Jon forgotten to document some glaring deficiency in my performance? I took a few deep breaths and sat down. Rick had read the rating and signed it. That's what a second line Supervisor does. He signed but not before discussing it with Jon. Apparently there was some disagreement between them over my actual performance but that Jon had refused to change the rating. He held that it needed to indicate some room for improvement or I'd never work any harder than I had been.

Rick didn't agree with the appraisal but told me that Jon would not make any changes. I remember being surprised that Rick, Jon's immediate Supervisor, couldn't compel him to make even the slightest alteration to make it fit me better. There was, however, an alternative. At the bottom of every performance appraisal form was a space where an Area Manager could make his or her own observations about the controller being rated. Rick took Jon's original copy and wrote a very nice paragraph or two about my performance; from his own perspective. He said it would actually carry more weight in the Regional Office than the views of a rookie Supervisor.

Old Idlewild Airport, now known as JFK.
Rick had grown up as a controller at Idlewild Tower, eventually transferring to an enroute facility during the "shrimp boat" days. He did time at the Regional Office, where he learned all the things not to do as a Manager. He also made a lot of powerful friends along the way. Everyone respected Rick. We all knew he was one of the original building blocks of our profession and that his management philosophy was grounded in fairness.

Of course, Rick's endorsement would end up deepening the chill that had already settled in between me and Jon. Assuming I had complained about the rating, he grew into an even more annoying pain in my ass. Several were the times I thought of hiring some worldwide head removal service to rid me of Jon; even hoping there'd be a discount if the head was empty. The rating matter also created a rift between Jon and Rick - but it would all be short-lived.

Jon's aim was always a bit high. Upward mobility could eventually make him a Facility Manager somewhere. It could also get him out of the 'deep end' at Big Time, where he was in over his head and floundering. A few months later, he was selected for a job in the Regional Office. I'm sure he got Rick's highest recommendations for the job. Another unwritten rule of the day: Anyone with career ambition had to do a year or so at the "R. O."  We all figured it took at least that long to lobotomize, brain-wash and reprogram any management candidate. In a few weeks; Jon was gone without fanfare. His memory gradually dissipated from the control rooms like a noxious odor.

Time passed. I earned my Facility Rating without Jon's bromidic guidance. One day we heard he had been selected to manage a fairly busy VFR tower in another part of the Region. Everyone shook their heads and silently wished the citizens of that tower all the best. Two years later, we got an update. Apparently Newton's Law had finally kicked in on Jon. He had been summarily removed from his Facility Manager position - something to do with falsified travel vouchers. I had to laugh.

One thing nearly everyone learned very early in their FAA career was to treat a travel voucher like it was your tax return. Several sets of eyes would review it, check receipts, do the math and maybe even approve it - as long as everything added up. Only an idiot would attempt to inflate expenses to obtain a bigger reimbursement. So, no one was surprised to learn that Jon had apparently done just that. He was quickly reassigned back to the R. O. where he'd remain, for years, under the watchful eye of the Division Manager. Too busy with my own career to care what happened next; I couldn't help but wonder how his performance appraisal looked that year. Like a mirror; it probably reflected his true performance rather than his years of service.

Mirrors and performance appraisals both have the ability to show us just how far we've come. Unfortunately, they can also reflect just how far we've gone. Jon had gone a little too far that year and it was entirely downward. Gravity had finally caught up with him.

Why would he do such a stupid thing? Who knows. Newton once said: “I can calculate the motion of heavenly bodies but not the madness of people.”  Having lived long with my own madness; I believe him.

© NLA Factor, 2014


Radar Love

Radio Detection And Ranging, known more affectionately as "Radar," appears to be going the way of dinosaurs and Dodos; replaced by a system of satellites that would deign to look down on the ever changing, challenging and, to me, charming world of aviation. Me and my radar always looked up to that world though. I guess we always will. 

Call it progress, like the days when low frequency radio ranges (LFR) were being replaced by a network of VHF omnidirectional ranges. Sure; the VORs were far more precise but still a long leap of faith for airmen. Or how about the first pilots to descend their planes into thick clouds and/or rain squalls while watching a couple little instruments on the console; ending up relieved and amazed, just 200 feet above the surface, with the runway in sight. They all must have experienced the trepidation of change; as I would over the advent of "NextGen." Fickle though it was, I did love my radar. We worked a lot of planes together, moved millions of people and even saved some lives. We kept each other company during those long, tail-end hours of every mid-shift; when my frequencies were silent and radar's eye saw nothing but empty sky. There were a few brief separations but, as we know, the lack of something we love and rely on serves to intensify our desire for it. I know this to be true and have the gray hairs to prove it. 

I remember the first radar PVD (plan view display) I ever laid my nineteen year old eyes on.  It was inside a Ground Controlled Approach (GCA) radar trailer at the Air Force's Air Traffic Control School. Up till then, I'd never even heard of radar. Learning how to work airplanes from inside a GCA , using a relatively tiny PVD was tough enough when I had no idea what I was looking at. Even so; I felt a stirring of love at first sight. There was an allure to the ceaseless sweep of energy around the scope, the itty-bitty blips it revealed and the glow of the compass rose. Even the little back-lighted knobs used to adjust the display were pure magic to me. They were warm to the touch; like a woman's nipple. Maybe it was just the heat from all those circuits and such behind the radar display but they made me hot.

Unlike the fixed radar antenna you might see spinning at your local airport; GCA units were designed to be moved - sometimes frequently. They have wheels; which means they can be rolled onto an airplane or across the landscape, to end up along the runway of some far away airport. Whether it's a war zone or just another time zone; GCA units make it possible for military controllers to take their old friend Radar along whenever they have to travel.

GCA trailers can also be installed semi-permanently on a large turntable and rotated whenever the wind dictates a change in landing direction. Whether rolled or spun, the unit must be re-aligned whenever it is moved. At my Base, radar reflectors, which looked similar to satellite dishes, were mounted at each end of the runway. Whenever the unit was turned around, the display had to be re-calibrated to align perfectly with the reflector. Chances are the GCA might have shifted a little during the turn but that reflector was always in the same place. They were permanent echos, at a known range and azimuth. Alignment could be tricky but if you didn't do it correctly; the next precision radar approach you conducted could end up heading for the base housing area or worse. The Airman's Club, with all its cold beer, was out there somewhere.

Arriving at Big Time Tower in the early Seventies, I had never seen an ASR-7 display. My first impression? It was huge; like looking at today's flat screen TVs compared to that little portable you once kept on the kitchen counter. And to deepen my love affair with radar; it had been adorned with some dazzling accessories like digital data-blocks that displayed, among other things, each aircraft's callsign, altitude and ground speed. Everything was all wired into a large antenna that spun continuously atop its tower between the runways. Altogether, it did a fine job of helping us guide our traffic into, out of and through Big Time's airspace. Well . . . most of the time anyway. As I said; radar could be fickle.

Those radar scopes needed a relatively dark room. Light, even a modest amount, would bleach out the display; making it nearly impossible to see what was happening. If you came into the TRACON and saw all the lights on; it was either very late at night, when the janitor did his cleaning, or the radar had failed. If the room was quiet, you could assume the former. Assume the latter if there was a lot of noise and commotion. No, the controllers wouldn't be the ones causing all the stir. It would be the shift management. One Supervisor might be talking to a departure sector at the center. "Do you see Lear five eight alfa, ten east of Big Time, leaving seven thousand?" The answer; "Yeah, he's radar. Climb him to twelve and switch him." Another Supe would be pumping one of the radar technicians for answers about what went wrong and how long it would take to fix. Above it all, the Area Manager would be terminating one discussion with the Regional Office and starting another with the Command Center. But how about the controllers? What happened during those first few minutes after the radar quit?

Along each side of the radar room; controllers would sit at their now opaque radar scopes, intensely focused on finding a way out of the Hell that comes with sudden blindness. Just moments before; departure controllers would have been sorting out airplanes that burst off the airport like a fountain display, vectoring them toward their route of flight and handing them off to the enroute facility.

Now the departures, stalled on ramps and taxiways, were stopped indefinitely. This was not the time to be in the tower working Ground Control. At times like this; you were liable to hear the dark side of a few otherwise affable and professional pilots who suddenly found themselves stranded; up a creek without a prognosis.

Approach controllers would have been tweaking their long lines of airplanes; merging, slowing and spacing whatever they had between the outer fixes and the outer marker. Most of their traffic would be in-trail and at the same altitude. Now, the flow of additional traffic from arrival fixes was stopped. Holding patterns were filling up. With a blind eye, approach controllers scrambled to gain some kind of "non-radar" separation between the planes already on vectors to the final approach course. That meant diverging courses, altitude changes for some or, if fortune smiled, visual separation. Anything to keep the planes apart.

Everyone was concentrating - trying to recall what the radar picture looked like in their sector just before it blinked out. At times like this; good flight strip management paid big dividends for controllers. It meant they could still tell who was following who, what altitudes the planes were cleared to, the last assigned speed restriction and maybe even the last assigned headings. Next to radio communications, our flight progress strips were the only other clue as to what was going on just before the radar died.

Some controllers were meticulous about their strip marking and could recover from radar loss fairly quickly. Some tried their best but would get so busy they'd forget to keep their strips updated. Like me; they relied heavily on their habits and past practices to fill in the blanks. For others; strips were merely a distraction that diverted their attention away from the traffic. They were the ones voted most likely to shake, sweat and swear when the radar stopped spinning. Even if the radar was running, problems could arise when it came time to relieve one of those guys. But if the radar was out? Inherit the sector and, for better or worse, you also inherit the outgoing controller's flight progress strips.

My first unexpected radar failure occurred while I was working an arrival sector, in the middle of a moderately flurry of inbounds. My display flickered a few times then, just as radar's eye swept past the 'seven o'clock' position, it went dark. Everyone in the room gasped and studied their strips; hoping it was simply a 'blink' rather than an extended outage. I had seven or eight planes on vectors at the time but there were more coming. Fear, hope and despair kicked in immediately but there was no time to deal with it. I gave my traffic the bad news, advised them that radar contact had been lost then called my adjacent center sector to break the news. They'd have to hold whatever was headed my way. I climbed or descended some of my planes to get a little altitude separation then reached above the console to grab a copy of Big Time's non-radar "cheat sheet." This included a set of maps showing non-radar (pilot navigation) routes from our outer fixes to the approach in use, timed approach procedures, some unpublished holding patterns where we could hide a few airplanes till the dust settled and other information we couldn't remember due to its infrequent need. Everyone on the frequency got a new clearance limit, along with some detailed holding instructions, while we sorted this thing out. I may also have pooped myself but, through the miracle of selective memory, I prefer to forget certain things.

I felt as blind as the radar. With those 'first time' jitters rattling my self-confidence; I began to recall some radar failure horror stories the old timers used to tell around the camp fire - just to frighten us new campers. There was the one about the DC-9 in a holding pattern somewhere, who's pilot took a descent clearance intended for another flight. The plane ended up spiraling down through three or four holding altitudes occupied by other aircraft - in instrument conditions the whole way. Nobody else in the pattern saw or said a thing. The controller only realized there was a problem when the DC-9 reported reaching the altitude intended for another aircraft. Unfortunately, that aircraft was not supposed to be a DC-9. The descent clearance was supposed to be for a DC-8; which was still holding 1000 feet above the altitude now occupied by a death-defying DC-9 driver. Apparently there's some truth to the "Big Sky Theory."

The other popular "scary story" involved a controller running timed approaches from a holding pattern at the outer marker. A light twin engine aircraft had been cleared for the approach and was now on the tower frequency. The next flight to be cleared was an air carrier. Somehow, as if by magic, the air carrier landed ahead of the light twin and without a scratch. I didn't know whether these stories were factual or simply ATC folklore but they haunted me just the same. Left groping for my traffic picture; I kept hoping the radar would come back for me. I loved my radar and was truly sorry for the times I'd cursed its infrequent foibles.

Radar returned in about 45 minutes but we controllers learned long ago to not jump right back into a 'business as usual' operation. Traffic was resumed tentatively; as though we expected radar's recrudescence to be temporary - a sucker play. Our confidence in the system had to be regained before we could get back into the furious radar operation we used to move so much traffic with.

Most controllers have been through an unexpected radar failure at least once in their career. Like sex; they probably remember that first time. But unlike sex; they hope it never happens again. It's just one of those things you do not want to repeat simply for a chance to improve your score.

"We've got a thing that's called radar love.
We've got a line in the sky, radar love."
Golden Earring - 1973
© NLA Factor, 2014