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