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


Kevin Gilmore said...

I worked in the dark room of a control center, hundreds of miles or more from the traffic I was working so I never personally witnessed the kind of image you describe here. The last one I worked of this magnitude was already determined before the plane ever entered my airspace: the flight of Payne Stewart and his crew.

That the entire aircraft and its crew had perished hours earlier was accepted. Still, it was odd having the aircraft flying through my airspace knowing that at any moment it would fall out of the sky. Fuel exhaustion pinned that time to within 10 minutes of when it finally did fall.

It's not something I ever dwell on; only when I read accounts such as this. If you don't mind, I'll link to a few of my more harrowing moments as a controller for you...


No Longer a Factor said...

Hey Kevin! Good hearing from you and, no, I don't mind your link a bit. In fact; your link took me to a pretty interesting read. I had completely forgotten about the Payne Stewart incident. By 1999, I was just about four years away from retirement and working in the field as a representative to our regional office. When I heard about the crash, I could only wonder how it could have happened. For you though, it must have been an eerie experience.

I never heard of such a thing like that happening; either before or after the Stewart tragedy - at least not in the world of civilian aviation. Hypoxia wasn't quite so uncommon in the military though; especially among the pilots of the old, Century series fighters. I controlled a bunch of them back in the 60s.

The crash at "Big Time" was too close and left practically nothing to the imagination. The account I gave in my blog entry wasn't as full as I would have liked but maybe that's a good sign. Maybe I am finally beginning to forget some of the more disturbing details of my career. Got my fingers crossed.

Talk later brother,

Kevin Gilmore said...

As an aside to the Payne Stewart crash: We had just moved into our new control room digs at Minneapolis Center the week of the crash. Just about everything was working as planned with the exception of a few glitches as would be expected. One of those glitches wouldn't be realized until they went to pull the tape of the United pilot who was giving me grief on frequency about a direct routing that I couldn't help her with. There would be no recording to pull because for whatever reason the equipment designated to record all of our transmissions wasn't operational. I believe a call was made to some uppity-ups at United and I would hope they conveyed our/my frustration with the pilot.

I thought you did a fine job of painting a picture of the crash incident as you always do when helping us to get inside your thoughts. You have a gift for this my friend and I hope you find the time to share more and more of your memories with us while they're still fresh enough to recall. We're not getting any younger you know!

No Longer a Factor said...

Kevin - Moving into a new facility is pretty traumatic, even if everything works perfectly. Fear of the unknown, I guess. Back in the 80s, when we were about to move out of our 1950's vintage tower and TRACON, we were all competing to come up with the winning worst case scenario. Some may well have been somewhat disappointed that the cut-over was nearly flawless. As I always made a point of getting to know the Airway Facilities technicians, I felt pretty confident in their ability to pull this thing off.

Your frustration over the United Captain's self-aggrandizing rudeness was a perfect example of why I wrote of airline pilots how we "occasionally wished we could shake them by their collars till the little gold wings fell off their uniforms" in my "Like It Or Not" post. In fairness though; I suppose we all have those unpredictable moments of the old "Its all about me." syndrome. Had some and, I'm sure, there'll be more to come.

Whether your management actually followed up with United Airlines or not depends. Whenever we controllers had problems with a particular flight; the level of followup depended on who was working the Watch Desk. We could tell the pilot to "Call the Watch Supervisor when you land." Sometimes we got feedback on those calls and sometimes we didn't. In your case, I'll bet the flight's cockpit voice recorder was erased before that plane arrived at its gate. And without your facility's tapes to back your story up? It never happened.

Thanks for the kind words at the end of your last comment. As one who posts to your blog frequently, you may, like me, have those days when the right words just don't come out. That's when I'll walk away for a day, week or even a month before going back to try finishing the piece. Sometimes it works and sometimes I end up settling for "good enough." It's like eating at a very bad restaurant. You know the food wasn't so good but still; you're not hungry anymore.