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