PH2006112901140PH2006112901140Keith BarracloughKeith BarracloughKeith Barraclough

First Person Singular

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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