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