PH2006112901140PH2006112901140Keith BarracloughKeith BarracloughKeith Barraclough

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Sunday, December 3, 2006

I've been in love with aviation since age 7. My family went to pick up one of my uncles at JFK Airport. His flight was due at 9 p.m. Because of thunderstorms, it came at 8 a.m. There were huge windows there, perfect for kids. My parents took naps, but I kept watching the planes and the maintenance people in the lightning and heavy rain all night long. I don't remember being tired. Mom told a cousin, who bought me a model airplane, the Beech Bonanza. I was hooked.

When you find [a pilot] who's lost, you feel great, like a high. That's what we're there for. It's a rush. When I worked the en-route center in San Juan, people got lost over the ocean all the time -- mostly little airplanes. [The pilots] get real nervous, and you have to calm them down. We ask them the last thing they remember seeing or whether they see anything now: a water tower, a building, a ballpark. Or I ask them to climb a bit so we'll pick them up on radar. One night, a pilot told us he was low on gas and not sure what he was looking at. He wasn't coming up anywhere. After a while, he saw lights and thought it was St. Martin. Finally, we were able to pinpoint him -- 50 miles from St. Martin, alone at night -- but by then, he was out of gas. He said the engine had conked out, and he was going to try to land on water. Now, a Cessna will float if you land them right. But if not . . .

The U.S. Coast Guard went out and did an investigation. They never found the plane; they never found anything. You feel apprehension for the person, but you have to keep working the traffic. Being a pilot myself, I know what he was thinking -- really frightened. In the dark, you don't know how high the waves are, how close you are to the water. If you're hit by a wave the wrong way, it's over -- you're done. So I knew his odds. I couldn't do anything else for him. When you're a controller, that's part of the job.

Interview by Ellen Ryan

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