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