Claire Clarified

I wrote about Claire back in March of 2010.  Hmm . . . with my steadily shrinking attention span, it's hard to imagine myself nursing this blog along for all those years. Anyway, I wrote about her in a post titled: "The First Time." Claire was one of my most memorable characters from the Big Time days. Sharp, witty, self confident and knowledgeable; she became one of the most well respected controllers in the facility. She was also quite easy on the eye and happily married to a guy who flew jets for a living. Still; there were issues. 

Some facts, such as Claire's extraordinary skills, may stand out some people's memory. Others may remember Claire for the fact she was the best looking woman in the facility. Okay; so there were only two in a staff of nearly ninety controllers. After all, it was the Seventies; back when "diversity" was just another nine letter word. The whole concept was lost among a workforce made up largely of WWII, Korean and Vietnam War veterans. They were a staunch, stubborn and profane bunch. Those guys put their headsets on like crash helmets, bent rules with their bare hands, pushed limits, pulled off incredible maneuvers with their traffic and did whatever else it took to keep things moving. To many of them, women in the control room were just a misplaced novelty. Some would call them a distraction and some would go a bit further; stirring up a riptide of rumors.

Claire was training in the radar room when I first arrived at Big Time so, as a lowly tower trainee, I didn't see much of her. The guys downstairs, however, got to see a lot more of Claire; especially during our Summer season. Here's why.

The climate in Big Time's 'Truman era' tower and radar room was controlled by a series of ancient air ducts. Their insides were thick with the accumulated scum left by the recirculation of various body odors, cigarette and cigar smoke, aircraft engine exhaust and seasonal humidity. Our Summertime TRACON was a calescent environment, made even warmer by constant complaining and the ceaseless heat emanating from our cathode ray tubes. A tired air conditioning system strained and rattled in some distant utility room; pumping barely enough cool air into the TRACON to keep us all from bursting into flames. We wore anything we could get away with to beat the heat. Tee shirts were frowned on by our Assistant Chief. Funny thing though; he never complained about Claire's low-cut cotton blouses. Neither did the battle-worn boys who ruled the airspace around Big Time. Instead, some of them let their imaginations run away from reality

When it was hot, Clair might sign onto her shift wearing something low-cut and cool. As I said; she was easy on the eye and it seemed the more some guys saw of her, the "easier" she appeared to be. In time, rumors she was sleeping her way to her radar certification began spreading like an oil spill and would be nearly as hard to clean up. Now, to accuse Clair of such a thing would be akin to accusing her of under-inflating the balls at her local bowling alley - a ridiculous assertion but well within the parameters of believability to a few bowling pin-heads. What was being said about Claire was equally absurd and no less believable to some. These were the same fools who believed PATCO when, in 1981, the union told them "They can't fire all of us." In the language of bowling, what happened next is called a strike. You know; when they all fall down.

The malicious rumors eventually made their way to Clair's radar instructor then on to Claire. A bright girl and never one to duck controversy, she quickly figured out which of the tower's gossipmongers had started the rumor. When she did, there was a very loud and quite public confrontation in the break room at shift change. Till then, no one knew Claire could go off like a pipe bomb.

We never had to watch our language around her. Claire knew the four-letter lingo of the control room and could speak it as fluently as the rest of us. She spoke it a lot that day. It was a delicate situation though. Trainees generally knew better than to take on any of the journeyman controllers. Doing so could adversely affect the quality and quantity of training they'd receive and possibly even their reputation in the facility. I worried that Claire's protesting might come off sounding like petty bitching or whining, with a response like; "What's the matter? Can't take a joke?" She had some unexpected help though. A few of the more senior controllers, who didn't particularly like the guy who started this mess, quickly spoke in her defense.

By far, her biggest advocate was Claire's main radar instructor; Teddy. Teddy was the biggest, in more than one way. He bellowed and berated the guy; using the words "horse shit" to withering effect. Teddy, at about 300 pounds, was also physically huge, which, when he stood up and pointed a fat finger at his target, added fierce emphasis to his words.

There was plenty of denial of course but it came off sounding like our air conditioning system; weak and ineffectual. Righteously blamed and shamed; he stood up, left the breakroom and no one spoke of it again. Claire threw her headset into her locker, slammed the door and went home.

Fortunately, the source of this synthetic scandal was not on our team or there would undoubtedly have been many awkward moments in our future. You needed to trust your teammates and it was even better if you also liked them. As it was; we only saw this guy at shift change or if he worked an overtime shift with our team. I did see him fairly regularly on the picket lines during the mass hypnosis that was PATCO's 1981 job action. Rumor had it he became a "dot-com" millionaire a few years after being fired but you know how rumors can be. Like the one he started about Claire, they're often quite the opposite of reality. She clarified that one for several people, a long time ago - back in my Big Time days.

I never again worried about Clair's ability to defend herself. She easily held her ground in the testosterone rich environment she worked in. I was always concerned over Teddy though, and could never understand how, with all the extra weight, he managed to pass his annual flight physical. Big and getting bigger; I worried that he would one day grow too fat to fit into his own future. That would have been a sad passing. Teddy was truly one of the good guys. He transferred out of Big Time a year or so after the strike and I never heard of him again. I don't know what ever became of Claire either but I don't worry.

© NLA Factor, 2016


Persistence Of Memory, Part II

My eyes aren't as sharp as they once were. Maybe it's their way of telling me I've already seen too much. These days, my memory isn't so sharp either. That might be good news for someone who'd rather not recall certain things. Unfortunately, my worst memories are still as brilliant and annoying as a pair of oncoming high beams. To me, bad memories are like volcanoes. They may lay dormant for a while but, sooner or later, they'll erupt again; sending me running to find quieter thoughts. Regrettably, experience has proven I can never outrun the flow of sad, bad or completely mad memories. One of them caught up with me recently - most likely triggered by a news headline I saw somewhere. 
You've probably had a few of those 'jump up and click your heels' kind of mornings. It was one of those rare days at work. No bedlam, no bad weather and none of the usual workplace bullshit. The day could only have been better if it was raining hundred dollar bills, so I was actually happy when the boss sent me upstairs. I mounted the last few steps into the tower just as the local controller, my old Air Force buddy Rob, cleared a medium sized twin engine airplane for takeoff. I watched as the flight rolled onto our longest runway and surged off toward the blue sky ahead - all the while wondering where it was headed and wishing I could be along for the ride. The day was as fine for flying as it was for air traffic control.

Spring filled the air - along with the usual swarm of airplanes buzzing around Big Time like gnats. The airfield between paved surfaces had already begun turning a very seasonal chartreuse; easy on the eye and a welcome change from the achromatic tones of Winter. Yeah, on a day like this, a few hours in the tower were just what I needed.

Looking around, I took in all the normal activity on Big Time's bewildering maze of taxiways, ramps and airline gates. Tugs, baggage trains, catering trucks, maintenance vehicles and planes were all moving to the cadence of another busy day. There was some repaving in progress at the intersection of two key taxiways; requiring a tricky reroute to the departure runway. The project had been going on for weeks so most of us were pretty tired of bitching about it. Billy, on Ground Control, was chattering non-stop at his traffic. He had a funny habit of pointing at each airplane he called; claiming it helped him keep the picture. It seemed to work. Never a "still life with planes," Billy's traffic was always a moving picture show. Even though his voice kept that West Virginia mountain twang of his roots; the pilots understood, complied and rolled into lines like a precision drill team. One of the tower trainees started referring to him as "Skillbilly" - an appellation that caught on quickly. Billy was a masterful tower controller,

Another departing flight rolled onto the runway and held as the twin became airborne. I watched the wheels retract as it began climbing but my attention was mostly on Billy; who I had been sent upstairs to relieve. Several air carriers were pushing out of their gates as others were already forming lines and moving toward the taxiways. Billy was doing a lot of pointing. Our first departure rush of the day was beginning and I couldn't wait to get into it. Glancing at the flight plans and our list of the center's departure restrictions, I tried to figure out what Billy's plan was. Then I heard Rob mutter something that sounded like "Jeezus!"

Glancing left I saw the twin engine aircraft, now midfield and five hundred feet or so above the runway. Seemingly poised in space, its nose was pointing nearly straight up but beginning to lean leftward. From there, it tilted into a vertical dive, hit the ground with a thump we felt through the tower floor, then vanished in a flash of flames. A roiling mass of black smoke rose from the ground and spread across the blue sky like spilled ink. It looked as though a hole had opened up next to the runway and swallowed that airplane.

Several other aircraft were lined up on the parallel taxiway awaiting departure but none of them said a word on tower's frequency. I guess everyone was as awe-struck as we were. No doubt there was widespread horror among those passengers who were unfortunate enough to see what just happened.

There was a graveyard kind of silence in the tower cab. I began hearing sounds that were normally masked by the cacophony of control instructions, complaints and cursing; things like the tower's ventilation system and the low murmur of electrical equipment. Our supervisor never spoke either. He simply turned, picked up the emergency hotline and started talking quietly - undoubtedly restating the obvious. This was not the usual emergency notification like an inbound flight with an engine out, unsafe gear indication or on board medical emergency, This was a story that was actually beginning at the end.

I had only been in the tower for a few minutes. That's all the time it took for my memory to record an image that, in all the ensuing years, has not faded. As a radar controller; I'd been involved in a few aircraft accidents over time but each one took place many miles from Big Time Airport. I never had to actually see the aftermath. Those off-airport crashes were traumatic enough for the controllers involved but this one was especially grim. I tried to imagine the pilot's thoughts during those final few seconds of life. Frustration? Resignation? Was there any time for realization or regret? And how about the passengers? I still wonder. For me it was simply stubborn disbelief.

The intense fire was eventually extinguished and the smoke blew away. Once again it looked like Spring across the airfield - except for that large black spot next to the departure runway. In the days ahead; FAA would do its required reviews, interviews and reports. The NTSB would investigate and draw its conclusions. I never heard what they decided about a probable cause.

I do know one thing for sure. From that day on, whenever I went to the tower, a bad memory followed me up the stairs. It was as inevitable as your dropped coin that rolls under the vending machine. Good thing smart phones hadn't been invented yet or I'd still be dealing with the "You Tube" videos.

Bad things happen and sometimes you can protect yourself from them. Friends of mine recently had one of those "safe rooms" installed in their garage. Unfortunately, it'll only protect them from things like fires, hurricanes, home invasions and, with luck, cable news networks. I wish someone made a product that could lock out my bad memories. They don't always fade with time. Alcohol can blur them for a short while but, when they come back into focus, they seem even worse than before.

© NLA Factor, 2015


The Importance of Being Earnest

Oscar Wilde
No; this post is not about Oscar Wilde's hilarious "Trivial Comedy for Serious People." We all know the aviation industry is far from trivial. However, we folks at the ATC end of it can certainly attest to how comedic it can be at times - comedic, frustrating, intense and tragic. Above all though, it's damned rewarding and, as far as I'm concerned, the best job ever. (Only those known to run with scissors need apply) Yeah, you've gotta be a bit crazy too.

And speaking of things rewarding; have you followed the Society of Airway Pioneers link in my "Recommended Reading" list? Although each of those links will take you to interesting places; I'm pointing this one out because it'll take you inside the aviation industry like no other website does. If you are or ever were involved in air traffic control or any of the other qualifying aviation related professions listed below; you ought to sign up.  It's your Society.

From the Society's Website:
"Membership in the Society of Airway Pioneers is open to those individuals whose endeavors, current or past, include: development, installation, testing, maintenance,  operation, engineering, Flight Inspection, General Aviation/Air Carrier Airworthiness, Certification, Licensing, Training and Administration of any programs associated with the Federal Airways System which continuously provides safe and expeditious services to those utilizing the air transportation system.  It additionally includes current or previous flight crew members, dispatchers, or DOD Air Traffic Personnel."

Between The Society's Internet presence, their quarterly newsletter and annual magazine, I've gotten an extra large helping of great reading. I have also discovered many comrades and colleagues among their membership roster and noted the passing of several folks who strongly influenced my FAA career.

In this Blog, I have shared many of my memories; both funny and not so funny. For me, it's a cheap form of therapy. I'm sure you have your own stories as well. Are you willing to share them? If so; there's no better way to do it than by joining the Society of Airway Pioneers and telling those stories. Think of your writings as belated entries in your personal journal. You will enjoy recalling and writing about them. You'll probably even enjoy re-reading your own recollections as much as others will. Maybe even more. To quote Oscar Wilde himself; “I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.”  C'mon, admit it; you've had a sensational career.

When it comes to standing with your extended aviation family by joining and actively supporting the Society of Aviation Pioneers; the importance of being earnest cannot be overemphasized. Your Society needs you now. I urge you to log on, join up (or pay up) and remember; The Society of Airway Pioneers is not just history - it's your heritage.

My thoughts.

© NLA Factor, 2015


Rather Easy

When I came to that fork in the road, you know the place, where it's time to decide what to do with the rest of your life, it's a damned good thing I didn't stop to see if there were matching knives and spoons. I might have decided to become a professional pilot rather than a controller. Who knows? Maybe I would have had a few more laughs up there in the flight levels than I did on the ground working airplanes.

That brings me to this day's training video. There guys are good but when it came to irritating people; no one did it better than us controllers. Pilots, FAA management, other controllers and even the early rising idiots who'd call the tower to complain about jet noise - we pissed 'em all off. It was actually rather easy and even good for an occasional laugh. 

But these guys do have all the necessary skills . . . 

© NLA Factor, 2015


Like It Or Not

Thinking of revisiting the past? I can tell you this; it's nearly as impossible as the idea of returning to a place you've never been. I keep trying to do it though. I keep trying to travel my mind back to those halcyon days of headaches, havoc, heartbreak and even a little hostility. Or was it the days of  kinship, certitude and camaraderie among my fellow controllers? I'm not sure but, either way, it's like going the wrong way on an exit ramp. Going against the flow of time is an exercise in crazy. But if, like me, you insist on attempting the trip; you won't need any baggage. Baggage is what you carry into the future. The past is where you pick it up. 

Damn. Instead of trying to return; maybe I should have just stayed there. Sometimes, when I hear certain music from the past and the wine I'm drinking is working just right; I feel like I'm still there. I can still recall some of the communal minutia of our conversations: the controller's common likes and dislikes - especially the dislikes. To wit . . . 

Airline pilots. We idolized them, envied their salaries and occasionally wished we could shake them by their collars till the little gold wings fell off their uniforms. Perfectly groomed; they perambulated through the terminal building, leading their flock of flight attendants to a gleaming stretch eight, B-707 or maybe a waiting hotel limo. With neatly pressed uniforms, hat bent into the requisite "fifty mission crush" topping a shock of gray hair; their eyes seemed to reflect the cloudless blue flight levels they traveled in. Everyone called them "Captain" or "Sir." Many of those same people typically referred to us as jokers, jerks, assholes or, on a good day, troublemakers. They had no idea. We were all that and more.

We were air traffic controllers; government drones who's workday was spent in rancid radar rooms and smoke filled tower cabs. Immersed in the incessant murmur of control instructions, requests, rumors and occasional rage; we were rebellious, disrespectful, sartorially senseless, often unshaven and damned proud of it all. But ask a tower controller about the airline pilot who, on being instructed to taxi into position and be ready for an immediate departure ("Traffic three miles out."), turns his flying machine onto the runway like it was full of eggs balanced on beer bottles. Yep. Here comes the first go-around of the day. We often wondered if the slow taxi was a not-so-subtle way of screwing with a rival airline's bottom line. That go-around cost them money, worried their passengers and could even lead to missed connections. Usually though, it was the tower controller who'd eventually be called on the carpet for "exercising poor judgement."

There's also the guy driving his swift and sleek 727 who's been issued one or two speed reductions but clearly hasn't slowed up. Now he's gaining on preceding traffic. You tell him to reduce speed or face a few delaying vectors. One left three-sixty puts him back in line behind two flights that were originally following him. Later on, he calls the Watch Desk to complain about the inept and impertinent controller who caused him to miss his scheduled arrival time.

One of my personal favorites is the flight crew that never seem to be paying sufficient attention on arrival into a busy radar sector. After some frazzled controller has to call them at least twice for every instruction (a waste of everyone's time); the pilot is liable to hear a very blunt "Listen up Captain!" or something far worse. Since every other airman on the frequency (sometimes dozens) hears the admonishment, it can be an embarrassing blow to someone's overpaid ego. Odds are good the Watch Supervisor will soon be taking a call from the pilot. The controller involved will likely be "questioned and released."

Such things are infrequent and quickly forgotten - until the next time. That's when we recall all previous peeves and may get a little pissed off - especially if we're the ones being yelled at by a management who's job score is built mainly on points made with the airlines.

In fairness; I should add that controllers can come up with a thousand ways to anger an airman - sometimes deliberately. After all; we could cost them lots of money. Time spent on delaying vectors, in a holding pattern or parked on a taxiway could easily have cost their company more than my monthly salary. The worst they could do was get us a good ass chewing or possibly a letter of discipline in our official personnel file. For some choice examples, read any of my blog entries recounting the years before PATCO called for a strike. One genius I worked with actually responded to a pilot's query about when he would get out of the holding pattern with; "Maybe when you declare minimum fuel Captain." Sure, it had been a long, stressful shift and the guy had actually been given an "expect further clearance" (EFC) time when he entered holding. But . . . really?

On the flip side of all this; we also loved airline pilots. I couldn't possibly say how many times one of them helped me out when I really needed it. Take the plane I mentioned earlier that was instructed to taxi onto the runway and be ready for an immediate departure.
Pilots who were as interested as we were in keeping things moving efficiently could make a tight situation work. They looked out the cockpit window and could see the approaching airplane on final. They knew they had to be airborne before that plane touched down and they knew how to make that happen. Rather than lumber onto the runway as though every one of the tires were flat; they'd swing smartly into position, stand on the brakes and begin sliding the throttles forward - waiting for the green light. When cleared for an immediate takeoff; the pilot did things with the plane that would make any aircraft manufacturer proud.

ATC was always a joint effort between controllers and pilots. The controller can see what needs to happen but oftentimes it's the pilot who either makes the plan fly or fail. For example; the controller can see a usable gap in the long line of landing flights. Holes in the landing sequence are a waste of airspace. A skilled controller sees the chance to fit an airplane in there. To make it work though; immediate action on the flight crew's part is needed on any request for speed adjustments and heading changes. A few seconds of delay makes the chance go away.

The best controllers I worked with were, in a way, lazy controllers. They didn't want to be bothered with vectoring an arrival out to the end of the line if they could squeeze it into the middle somewhere. Pulling it off usually required some help from the higher ups.

Genetically, most controllers I knew were averse to Management. While some air traffic facilities were guided by a highly competent, fair and empathetic leadership; others were run by folks who were far too intoxicated by the power, influence and prestige of their position to listen when they should have. They dealt with the controller workforce in a consistently authoritarian manner, which only set the stage for more conflict. Bound by contract to negotiate with the bargaining unit (us controllers) only meant they had to work a little harder to win the day. Working in such a facility, we knew the hand holding all the Aces also held us jokers by the neck.

Other things we didn't like were bad weather, sudden or scheduled equipment outages, short staffing, disapproved leave requests, incompetent supervisors and many other things that even a sane person would find disagreeable. What we liked was the adrenalin rush we got from working heavy traffic when everything clicked. In fact; the exuberance we felt during and after such a shift was more than enough to keep us coming back for more - no matter how bad it got.

Speaking of that; I'll tell you another thing we liked. After an evening shift, good or bad, we liked going to a rundown roadhouse just outside the airport. Like Big Time itself, it was in the worst part of town, where just parking a car after dark was risky.

The barroom floor was sticky from years of spilled drinks, walls were infused with cigarette smoke and the men's room often smelled like vomit. In retrospect, I guess it was a lot like our TRACON.

On weekends, a couple of sad looking strippers went through the motions on a small stage, then worked the room for tips. Caught up in our carping and camaraderie, we paid little attention to their dancing but we tipped them well anyway. I liked the place because I could learn a lot by listening to  my teammates as they washed down the shift's successes and distresses with a cold beer. As a relatively inexperienced controller; it's where I learned many of the "do and don't do" aspects of the job.

Good or bad, like it or not, it was all part of my past. Everyone has their own way of dealing with a career in air traffic control, Some drank to excess, brought their job related problems home and eventually got divorced, Some became progressively more disgruntled until arriving at that emotional tipping point. They'd go on strike and be fired or maybe just retire. Some moved on to another facility; believing the grass would be greener in another place. There were those who bid on every staff job they saw; hoping to be promoted out of the controller position they now had difficulty dealing with.

Me? At one time or another, I tried it all. I know I can't go back and change a thing. Actually; I wouldn't want to. My path had some tricky curves that, like it or not, brought me to where I am now. I like that.

© NLA Factor, 2015