A Process

Yeah, I've been away for a while. Family issues and other stuff have kept me busy. Thanks for stopping by and I hope to be back more often.

I rarely ever talk to people about my career in air traffic control. Not sure why but I'm never at ease when discussing it. When the topic does come up, I don't know where to begin. Folks often want to know; "How did you do it?" Good question. How does a controller acquire and manage all the faculties needed to get the job done under such fluid and volatile conditions? Wish I knew for sure. I suppose it's simply a process. We've all been through plenty of them.

We learn the alphabet and that provides us the tools needed to spell words. We take those words and learn to assemble them into sentences. Soon, we're gathering sentences into paragraphs, then putting those paragraphs together into notes, letters, chapters and books that can have the power to move people. By mastering a series of small steps, controllers also eventually acquire the skills needed to move people. And moving people is what air traffic control is really about. With time and persistence, we could even develop a certain efficacy for the work. It took plenty of patience, which, I learned, is not necessarily a renewable resource.

I crawled, clumsy and concerned, through the primordial slime of my initial training; learning those small steps then putting them together to form a skill. Skills were what I needed to get into the game and I had to learn a lot of them. After that, I'd need to develop some confidence in my abilities. It was part of a process that didn't happen overnight. It would eventually happen though and it got me a career.

There were unforeseen consequences. Through the years of working air traffic, my patience eventually wore so thin that my temper began to show through. It was a slow process; like the nearly imperceptible way a candle burns down and out. One day there's plenty of wax. Then, sometime later, it's all gone. But growing impatient was simply a part of the job - a part they never mentioned in the brochures.

As it turned out; there was little time for patience. If a plan wasn't moving along fast enough to work; I had to take more aggressive steps or be ready to go with Plan B. Of course, Plan B was never as good and, on occasion, actually slowed things down. That made me even more impatient and that's the moment when bad decisions are born.

When that moment arrives, good judgment can simply dissociate itself from the decision process. What often comes next is a brain wreck.

The process of trying to correct a bad decision affecting the planes under my control ranged from hard to hopeless. It could also be risky. Making a correction often meant coming up with Plan C, which in no way resembled the original plan and usually relied on uncertain resources like other busy controllers or equally busy pilots. The unknowns associated with Plan C always made me anxious and, as the original situation continued to deteriorate, it made me even more impatient. Sometimes it made me mad at one of those "uncertain resources."  Sometimes it just made me mad at me. Losing my grip on a situation I was being paid to maintain tight control over could do that. For example . . .

Working the evening arrival rush was usually fun. There was always a carefully metered procession of airplanes streaming into the area and a bunch of controllers who were eager to get them onto a runway. My favorite seat at such times was the Final Control Sector. It was the narrow end of a funnel that started out around 100 miles wide and narrowed down to 150 feet at the runways. Wrestling a seemingly unending supply of arrivals into one or two long lines on final approach was deeply satisfying. All neatly spaced; those lines often extended into the next State. The tower wanted airplanes and I was there to make their wish come true; cramming as many of them into the airport as was legally possible. Final Control was a party where the adrenaline flowed like jet fuel in a holding pattern. The party could end suddenly though. All it took was one bad decision. I seemed to save the worst ones for a rainy day when they'd be most memorable. As luck would have it; Big Time Airport was having one.

Checking in for the evening shift, I was happy when the TRACON Supervisor told me to relieve Miriam on the Final Control sector. Although we weren't on the same team, Miriam was one of my favorite people. We went through the Academy in Oklahoma City around the same time but had been assigned to different facilities. She started off at a small airfield on the sunrise side of the country. I was dispatched directly to Big Time, where I trained in terror and struggled through every subsequent shift. I'll always remember Miriam for the frequent smiles that always flashed her Hollywood white teeth. Miriam and I shared a lot of good memories of our OKC adventures and I was excited when I heard she was coming.

Now divorced and single, Miriam was great fun to work with. Her operating initials were "MM" or "Mike Mike" in the controller's esoteric lexicon. But when ending any interphone conversation, she always stated it as "Money Market." One day, I had to ask her; "What's with the money market thing?" She flashed that brilliant smile and said; "Well you know...there are penalties for early withdrawal." I laughed then lied a little, telling her that, back in the wilder years, my criterion for a second date could be described as "No deposit, no return." She shook her head in mock disgust, muttering; "Still the asshole, I see." Of course.

Miriam had both tower and radar experience but in a much less demanding environment. Over the years, I saw several controllers take a similar career path; starting off in a low-density facility then eventually moving up to a more demanding environment. It was never easy. Their work habits had been fairly well established during those years of working at a slower pace. While knowing what to do, they would quickly fall behind at Big Time and run out of the time needed to do it. Most would eventually work their way up to the pace and efficiency needed to handle hours of heavy traffic. A few would not. There are some old habits that even Houdini couldn't break out of.

 At 4:00 PM the sector was already fairly busy but, as usual, about to be overrun. I plugged my headset in, watched and listened for a minute or so, got my briefing from Miriam then sat down. Traffic was relatively light and planes were moving along smoothly. Miriam still ran a rather guarded operation so there was a little more space between the arrivals than needed. A former supervisor of mine once advised; "Always work it like you're busy." I found that to be good advice and knew I needed to tighten things up. Otherwise, we'd soon be filling the holding patterns. Happy, for the moment, I settled in and started spitting out headings, speed restrictions and altitude assignments. On a day of low ceilings and limited visibility; I wasn't looking for trouble. Actually; no Tracon controller has to look for trouble because, with radar, it's so damned easy to find.

The arrival sectors were filling up. Traffic conditions weren't too crazy yet but soon would be. Most of the planes came to us, spaced according to the interval we'd specified so I was getting a nice flow from my teammates. All I needed to do was fill in a couple of the wider gaps on final and the rest would be routine.

I leaned in and began squeezing the arrival flows more tightly together, filling in those few gaps and hoping for the best. But when you're fighting with the sky for space . . . space for just one more airplane (and what radar controller hasn't?)... you will take more audacious steps to prevail.

There were about nine miles between a Northwest Airlines (NWA) B727 and the TWA B727 ahead. TWA was only three miles from the outer marker. That nine-mile gap was too tempting to pass up. I turned a DC9 off the downwind, figuring I could fit it in about four miles behind the TWA jet. Issuing a small speed reduction to NWA, I then told TWA to maintain his current speed to the outer marker. That should have kept that gap open but the DC9 was a few seconds late rolling into its turn. I cursed quietly and began drumming my fingers impatiently on the console. In similar situations, some guys I worked with would yell at their radar display like a fan watching televised sports. "Turn, goddamn it!"

Noticing that NWA was still indicating a ground speed of 190 KTS, I realized he hadn't slowed as instructed. My nine-mile gap had shrunk down to eight and still closing. I restated the speed restriction, hoping my plan would still work but it was a bit late. I had a hell of a mess brewing but hell was about to get a little hotter.

The DC9 was about ready for a turn onto final approach but probably too close to the trailing NWA flight. Realizing this was not going to work, I quickly formulated "plan B," which was to pull NWA out of line for re-sequencing. Doing so opened up a huge gap between the DC9 and another flight that had been about five miles behind the NWA. So, all I had done was to trade one large gap for another. Meanwhile; plenty more nicely spaced planes were headed my way and I needed to fit that NWA flight back in somehow. Mad at myself for making this mess, I finally sorted it all out but not before getting a few "What the hell?" looks from a few teammates and the TRACON Supervisor.

This and several other incidents during my years working in towers, radar rooms and even in FAA management (especially in management) brought me to where I am today.

Clearing the B-707 in position "for immediate takeoff, traffic three mile final!" Then waiting till the shadow of the plane I just had to send around passes over the 707 still sitting there.

I now sit at green traffic lights, drumming my fingers on the steering wheel while waiting for the car ahead to move.

Don't even mention stop signs. I mutter at the guy in front of me; Does the sign actually say "Stop and stay a while???"

I stand in the checkout line at the grocery store; shifting from foot to foot while the customer ahead counts out a stack of coupons for the register clerk. And on and on.

Patience is just another of the many processes we encounter in life. Like reading, writing and radar control; we learn it and, if we don't keep at it, we lose it. Losing patience is also a process but if it happens it'll happen quicker than you can spell the word "temper."

© NLA Factor, 2018


Dave Starr said...

Great story, and it hel[s point out a problem many of us who are nearer the end than the beginning have. ... I don't have all that much time left, so every day I have less and less time available for the non-essential BS.

Glad to see you back.

No Longer a Factor said...

Thanks, Dave! Good hearing from you as well. I actually have NO time available for the nonessential BS but it apparently has plenty of time for me! Keep fighting.

ac2usn said...

Welcome back. Stopped at a red light on the secondary road after rush hour rings a bell.


No Longer a Factor said...

AC2usn! So good hearing from you. I would have written sooner but for the "Florence" thing that has been a major distraction. Hoping all is well with you. I also hope to be paying more attention to my blog in the future. Take care!

AC2usn said...

Hope you and your extended family / friends are high and dry.


No Longer a Factor said...

Hey there, Brother! Good hearing from you and thanks for checking up on me. As to the "high and dry" part; all is well. Some of us are dry and some are high. Seems to be working out nicely for all.

ac2usn said...

High and dry with no wind damage from hurricane Michael?

No Longer a Factor said...

Nope. No wind damage at all. Several parts of the area were impacted by river flooding but we're on high ground. All good.