'CLARKSBURG TOWER, this is Charlie Brown Four-Zero, turning a left base for Runway Two-One . . . ."
"Negative, Charlie Brown Four-Zero, your instructions were to extend the downwind; I'll call your base; jet traffic four-mile final!"
The student pilot in Charlie Brown Four-Zero, flying a single-engine Piper, is now scared besides confused, as he has just been yelled at by an air traffic controller. His instructor undoubtedly told him that when all else fails, do your thing, and make sure everyone knows about it, so he continues the left turn, cutting off a Grumman G2 jet barreling down the final approach. My instructor sees trouble, grabs the mike out of my hand, and screams, "CHARLIE BROWN FOUR-ZERO, TURN RIGHT! I SAY AGAIN, TURN RIGHT!!"
The student pilot, voice trembling, sees a runway, continues the left turn directly in front of the oncoming jet, and announces, "Clarksburg tower, this is Charlie Brown Four-Zero. I'm going to land."
My instructor, in a panic, barks to the G2, "Grumman Three-Eight-November, go around, I say again, GO AROUND!!"
By this time I am on the other side of the tower, shaking. My stomach is in a knot. I'm not believing it. All I can see out the window are the lights of this jet filling the sky, with a faint trail of black smoke tracing the final approach for as far as I can see. I see the Piper in front of him, one-third the speed and what looks like a half-mile ahead. Nothing happens.
My instructor yells back, after what seems to be an interminable amount of time, with the gap closing, "GRUMMAN THREE-EIGHT-NOVEMBER, GO AROUND!"
I am about to see a midair collision. The G2 pilot does not hear us, and the Piper pilot will not move. I am trying to prepare myself for what is about to happen. An explosion. Smoke. Death. It is incomprehensible. My mind is paralyzed. The tower stops in silence, all eyes frozen. We can do nothing but wait . . . . What flashes in my mind at that instant is something along the line of "I didn't mean it. This job isn't so much fun after all. I think I've made a mistake."
In reality, the G2 pilot did hear us. Without time to respond, the crew was transformed into computer-beings, clicking off emergency procedures without thinking about them, executing now what every pilot trains for. With split-second timing they were coordinating power, landing gear setting, airspeed and flaps -- turning a very complicated machine set up to slow down and land into one entering max angle of climb as quickly as possible. While we were dazed in horror the two jet engines were slowly spooling up, adding the extra thrust necessary for an instant change to maximum everything. Ten seconds later, with absolutely no room to spare, the nose of the G2 finally began to pitch up, and we could see daylight between the two aircraft.
With a mighty roar the jet overflew the little Piper, missing it by 100 feet. The G2 pilot, finally having time to talk, blurted coldly, "What in the hell is he doing?!"
I was in the back of the control tower in a shambles. I had been with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for only three months, and this was my first time training on the "local control" position. My instructor, himself rather shaken, kept the situation pretty much to himself, but for me it was mind-shattering. Was I supposed to be able to do that?
Working for the FAA, I have since discovered, is another mind-shattering experience, and striking against them is even worse. Going on strike is a new thing for us air traffic controllers, so to be with 12,000 rookies pulling an illegal one on the first time out is putting a $35,000-a-year job on the roll of a dice, and not knowing exactly how the game is played. "We know we're right," we keep telling ourselves. "Things have got to be changed. They've got to break." But every day it's more of the same. The system is running fine, they tell us. The airlines will accept a cut-back schedule until the new trainees are checked out. I think back on my dreams of becoming an air traffic controller and wonder how in the hell I ever got into a mess like this.
I entered the FAA in June 1975, at that small tower in Bridgeport, W. Va., although my first love was Washington National Airport. It was at National that I had my first interview, and my first dreams of air traffic control. I already had a good job in Washington. I had just been put in charge of a new project that was going to prove the value of a revolutionary membership-gathering technique for a lobbying organization. Things were going well, until that interview.
When I walked into that radar room I felt like a little kid on a fire truck. It was seductively dark. There were radar tubes lining both walls, with green lines going around each one, and 10 million blips splattered all over the screens. There was a machine in the back of the room spitting out strips and guys were screaming and yelling. It was a dinky, dingy, funky, down-home place, and I fell in love with it at first glance.
I watched for a while, and I listened . . . . "Turn right heading three-four-zero, descend and maintain 3,000, traffic 10 o'clock, two miles, southbound, level 2,000, a DC9 . . . ." It went on and on. Everyone was talking at once, and those blips seemed to be dancing on the screens, somehow emerging out of a snowstorm to line up perfectly on the final. It was magic!
I was then allowed into the control tower itself, several floors above the radar room in the main terminal building. There were jets everywhere, and they seemed to be jumping off the runways so close that you could just reach out and swat one down. There was a guy in the corner, obviously the boss of this chaos, watching the planes, checking his tower radar scope, then ripping off orders as clearly and as concisely as anyone I've ever heard. With the confidence of the Marine DIs I had known, he directed those jets in an intricate pattern of arrivals and departures using three intersecting runways simultaneously, as if it were predestined. He, Mr. Air Traffic Controller, was their choreographer. There was never a doubt that he knew everything that was going on at all times, almost daring one of those things to drift out of line. Not one of them did.
When I left that place I was in amazement. "I gotta do this," I said out loud.
The FAA hired me about a mounth later, stating in a letter that I had to report to West Virginia in two weeks. Going to West Virginia was not exactly what I had in mind, but I was afraid to hold out for something else during a time of questionable airline economics. So I told my friends to save me a spot, as I would be back in Washington, at National, in a year. Then I went to West Virginia and discovered reality.
The first time I picked up that microphone I thought it was going to rip my lips off. With the memories of that National Controller in my mind I tried to talk but the words just didn't come out right. Some guy was on the line trying to get a clearance to somewhere, and although I knew what the book said about these things, all of a sudden there was this voice, and he wasn't asking for a clearance, he was demanding one!
I stared at the microphone, then picked it up, my instructor behind me chewing his pipe, grinning. Quivering, I depressed the button, and with utmost care and deliberation, read the clearance. The pilot, well aware that he had a rookie on the other end, tried as best he could to be nice about it, but it just didn't work. The sarcasm could no longer be contained, and it began to drip out of the speaker as he read back what I had told him. At that moment I thought that perhaps I wasn't quite ready for National yet. I looked back at my instructor for approval and he just shook his head.
Training me had to be a unique experience. I was the new breed, the college kid "off the street" (no prior air traffic control experience in the service.) They saw me as a '60s-style Vietnam protester in a den of veterans. I am the son of musicians and was reminded that musicians make lousy air traffic controllers. I was single. My very existence seemed to be in violation of the norms of the profession.
Despite all the drawbacks, my first instructor, John, took a liking to me. He seemed to think that I had the ability to talk, and that was half the game. I can recall John working with me and another guy, named Jerry, trying to pound some sense into our heads about sequencing traffic onto the final approach course. Jerry was senior to me, so while I was working on my qualification for ground control, at the same time getting introductory shots on "local" (the position responsible for the actual landings and take-offs), Jerry was looking for certification on local control. John pulled both of us aside one day, pulled out a handful of change from his pocket and threw the coins onto the floor. He placed a wooden pointer on the floor to act as a runway, and then started pointing. "This quarter is a Convair 580, that dime is a Beech 99, those two pennies are Cessnas, and the nickel is a Learjet. Call the sequence." I separated the coins with ease.
The next day, however, was different. Because of a promotion that allowed people to take airplane rides for a penny for each pound they weighed, it was the busiest day of the year in Clarksburg. This was live traffic, and lots of it, and this is where the gnashing of teeth would be. No more nickels and dimes on the floor. Now it was pilots swarming, impatiently waiting for some magic words out of that black box in the cockpit to tell them when they could finally land. Poor Jerry was tearing his hair out tring to keep that mess straight, and he just wasn't hacking it. It seemed like for every one that landed, three more would call.
Finally, John couldn't take it any longer. "Listen, goddamnit! It's not that hard," John told him. "I'm telling you it's not that tough! You're working too hard! I'll bet Elliott can do it! It you can't do it, I'll show you. I'm gonna get him in here and show you that even he can do it!"
When I heard John's words I cringed. "Oh, God, no, not me," I thought to myself. "Don't put me in there! C'mon, Jerry, hang in there, babe, don't do this to me!"
Jerry finally got yanked out, but mercifully I was spared. Rather than make an example of me, John decided to turn the job over to another experienced controller while talking things over with Jerry in the break room. For me, a reprieve, but I knew my day was coming.
After a couple of months, though, local control began to make some sense. I learned that controlling traffic was, to a large extent, a psych game, in which you came across strong and confident, then figured out what you're going to do. I discovered that pilots listen intently to the voice from the ground, subconsciously monitoring speech quality, rate, and degree of firmness to determine if this person sounds trustworthy. I discovered that the best voice is that of Walter Cronkite, who somehow gives the impression that everything is okay, that daddy is going to bring you down to safety and that if you just turn this way, slow down a little and get behind that guy ahead of you, we will all go home happy. And that's the way it is. You don't have to know too much, but just sound like you do. When I had my Walter Cronkite act down, I checked out on local control.
I tried to return to Washington National, but never made it. There were just too many radar-qualified controllers also looking for the glamor at National who aced me out. My next choice was 40 miles uptown, and in September 1978 I checked in at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. At least it had the name "Washington" in it.
At BWI I discovered that a good voice doesn't cut it, that you also have to know what you're talking about. There is just too much going on to fake it. All of a sudden I was dealing with sectors and computers, the screaming and yelling that first attracted me to this job, and the printer gurgling in the back of the room kicking out computer strips that represent airplanes. People were coming into the radar room the way I once did, looking over my shoulder and wondering how in blazes we did it. What they didn't realize is that I wasn't doing it, not yet. It was back to the bottom. A know-nothing trainee.
After months and months of training in the real world of radar, the big picture of air traffic control came into place. I discovered it to be like a big three-dimensional chessboard, the game played somewhat the same except for the fact that none of the pieces is ever allowed to be taken. The sky above the United States is divided into huge hunks of airspace, surface to 45,000 feet. The 20 en-route centers, the superfacilities that employ hundreds of controllers, "own" all the air. Since there is so much air per center, they are divided into sectors, each one claiming a littler piece of the pie, a radar set, a controller and a couple of assistants.
The centers, however, work so many airplanes at so many different airports that even sectorization cannot bring the workload down to a manageable level. For that reason, the Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) was invented. The TRACON "borrows" airspace from the centers in order to reduce the low-level workload, and every busy terminal in the country has one. Surrounding the Baltimore TRACON are approach controls at Washington, Dulles, Harrisburg, Philadelphia and Dover Air Force Base. Each one works independently, but specializes in the intricacies of the primary airport plus the surrounding "satellite" airports. The TRACONS give full attention to those aircraft in the actual landing or takeoff phase of flight, leaving to the centers the job of point-to-point, high-altitude separation.
With the three Washington airports so close to each other in air miles, and the amount of traffic crisscrossing from every direction -- Piper Cubs mixed with Boeing 747s on the same final, the Concorde blasting off into space looking for a direct clearance to the moon, commuter flights scattering to every small town in seven nearby states, military jets terrorizing small boats on the bay with their high-speed, low-level runs off Andrews and Martin State Airport, and the president stopping the world as he decides to putter up to Camp David in a helicopter -- it's no wonder that those who are incarcerated in that dungeon with those hypnotizing boob tubes droning on and on go stark, raving mad. Somehow it's got to be a personality match, and as I used to look around the radar room and see the crazed glaze in the eyes of that nut next to me, I realized I'd come to the right place.
The crazed nuts are now out on the street, and what scares me is that the sane ones are left behind working. A true sign of sanity is to get out of this business as quickly as possible, and the easiest way to do that is to go into management. Perhaps that's why PATCO has been screaming about how unsafe the system is. Another true sign of sanity is to not risk your job in an illegal strike, and one can see how few of those sane people are around. Being cautious, an obvious mark of the sane, just doesn't work in modern air traffic control, and the cautious, sane ones are now running everything. While that may sound good, it may be just the opposite.
What is truly unsafe, at this point, may not be the traffic (volume is down), but merely the tensions of working without breaks for so many hours on end. Supervisors got out of active control just for that reason -- they couldn't take the daily grind any more, and even the most energetic of the young ones, when worn down, begin to make honest mistakes.
While the controllers on strike have received most of the attention, the ones stuck inside have been subjected to an equal dose of strike tension. Not only have they been pumped up to beat PATCO, but they have also been pumped up to work six days a week, 10 hours a day. Not having the normal breaks will kill the old and exhaust the young. It can't go on much longer.
Every available resource in every tower in the country is now being used to run the traffic. In Baltimore, for instance, instead of having six radar scopes in operation, they are running with three. Office staff people are helping out with the clerical duties of running computer strips to the positions of operation, while most normal office functions have ceased. The full-performance-level controllers are overworked. Vacations have stopped. They're tired, and there's no end in sight. I can just see it now, as a busload of controllers from the military rolls up, and the facility chief says to one of the weary ones at the scope, "In addition to your regular duties, you must train the following eight people . . . ."
Training at an ATC facility is a time-consuming, emotional experience. A trainee, no matter where that person has controlled traffic before, walks into a new tower and just watches for a while. A trainer becomes the most important person alive, and not all controllers are good trainers. Walking into a new tower requires learning every piece of ground on that airport, every obstruction around it, every adjoining sector and every frequency. It all takes time. The best of the best, with all the prior experience in the world (and a full staff of trainers on hand), take seven to 12 months. In my case, being from a smaller tower like the ones recently closed, it took 20 months. That was average. Trainees with no experience take anywhere from two to five years to learn.
That's what the Canadian controllers are complaining about. Normally, a departure from the United States triggers the computer automatically, sending a "departure message" when the aircraft is about a half mile off the runway. Once the flight is activated, every controlling facility along the route of flight receives a computerized "progress strip" about 20 minutes before the flight is estimated to reach its boundary. When the flight is handed off between sectors in U.S. air space, where most computers are compatible, a "silent handoff" can be made, whereby the aircraft identification tag from one radar scope is flashed to another by making a simple computer entry. The receiving controller then acknowledges the handoff by making a computer entry on his scope, accepting the responsibility for the flight and at the same time flashing the computer tag back at the sender. When the sender sees his tag blinking on the scope, he knows that the control responsibility has been accepted, and the new frequency is issued. Neither controller says a word to the other in the process.
In some cases, like between U.S. and Canadian borders, the computers are not compatible. In these cases, the sending controller must call the receiving controller by use of a "hot line". The sender tells the receiver what the aircraft is, where it is and the altitude, and the receiver acknowledges by saying "radar contact."
The Canadians complained that the aircraft were not being handed off, that supervisors, either distracted or overwhelmed by aircraft, were letting some flights stray into Canadian airspace without permission. The receiving controller, seeing unidentified blips wandering into his area of jurisdiction, had to get conflicting traffic out of the way of the errant flight, then call the Americans to ask who in the hell it was, and why the airplane was allowed to deviate from standard procedure. Each of these errors is distracting to the Canadians, scary and potentially disastrous. In addition, whether or not at fault, the Canadian automatically assumes some responsibility for an accident should it occur in his airpace. This is why Canadians stopped handling American flights. IT wasn't out of sympathy for PATCO. It was for self preservation. The American supervisors just weren't used to handling the daily barrage on the borders, and some flights simply "got away."
Properly trained, the new people can do it. It will just take a lot of time, more than the government admits. In the meantime, the nuts are gone, the ones who are used to doing it every day. To train the thousands of people Drew Lewis is taking about, and have the job done in a year, is simply impossible. There is no machine in existence that can crank out human beings capable of solving even the simple problems, let alone the big ones, in such a short period of time.
When it comes to separating aircraft on a final approach, split-second timing becomes critical. The FAA standard of three miles, if violated, is a "systems error." Rarely do the airplanes collide, but obviously that standard was put into effect for a reason. In fact, the FAA treats a systems error as if the two actually hit, and the controller involved is often disciplined with possible loss of license. If that minimum separation is relaxed now, or overlooked due to controller shortages, or if trainees are certified before they demonstrate that they can apply these standards all the time, the system will not be as safe as it was before. There may be a "flirt factor," or the "big sky theory," which acknowledges the mathematical odds against two independent bodies actually meeting in space. But when one mixes inexperience with fatigue, the chances increase. The risk involved is just too great.
Even in the best of times, with full staffs, there were near-misses. They happened all the time, usually caused by an unexpected disruption in the closely coordinated sequence that resulted in less than "by-the-book" separation. When faced with these situations, the controllers don't allow themselves to be seized by gut-wrenching nausea. Instead they scramble like mad to regain order, then get sick later. It may be planned chaos, but the real experience is just knowing how to get the airplanes apart when they're getting too close. Passengers on board airliners never know how close it really was.
After six years in the FAA, and two facilities requiring about four years of training, I finally have "the big picture." At age 34 I know how the job works. What is terrifying, however, was the knowledge that I was peaking, and that's what put me on the street. Experience in air traffic control is like experience in boxing. Put the experience up against the up-and-comer with the speed and the punch and it's the experience that gets decked. How long could I go on? Would I have been one of the 85 percent of the controllers that "burned out" before reaching retirement age? The tension, the changing shifts and the airplanes that just kept coming and coming took their toll. I had to wake up and be as sharp as I was in 1975. I had to be just as eager. If not, I just might have missed that call that would have ended my career.
It was tough to go on. Our employer was not exactly sympathetic to our cause. (Former FAA administrator Langhorne Bond said that there's no more tension in air traffic control than there is in driving a bus.) The general public still has no idea what we do.
What happens now? Despite rosy administration reports, the economic impact has to be enormous. It has cost far more to break PATCO than it would have to settle, and the cost keeps mounting. Drew Lewis admitted that the FAA has not been a good employer, and that many of PATCO's grievances were legitimate. But politics aside, both controllers on the street and everyone left in the towers wants this to end. We have both proven to be tough competitors. We have both underestimated the other. We have beaten each other to death, and like parties of a domestic quarrel, we are left needing each other. I know, as one of those sincerely believing that what I struck for was right, that I need air traffic control. I think it's time to talk.