Air Traffic – Signing Off

Being an air traffic controller is about being bossy. Being assertive (way more professional than bossy) BEFORE the pilots realize they could use help avoiding each other. Out of every 8 hour workday (around 6,325 of them) I spent behind a microphone, I figure there were 30 minutes that I truly needed to be there to help airplanes fly past each other without incident.  Most of the time is typical and routine.  “Cleared for takeoff”, “Cleared to land”, “Cleared Visual Approach, contact tower 118.2”, “Cleared direct Kansas City, contact Kansas City 120.2”.  That one time, though?  A misheard directive, an UNheard direction, two captains answering the same instruction – THEN is when a controller must listen, straighten, save the day, smooth over, confirm instructions, wish them well and send them on their way.


I should have reviewed the tape to find out whether the Lear jet pilot read back his hold short instructions that day when United departed runway 32, rotated early to avoid what the pilot thought was a ‘taxiing-too-quickly’ Learjet, and called Fort Worth HQ about the incident.  The controllers on duty saved the day – they saw it happening and firmly instructed the Lear jet to stop his taxi immediately.  Kept it from being worse than just an eye-opener.  I  remember the P-51 that didn’t have his gear down in Santa Maria, CA.  I told the Local Controller to tell him about his gear.  The pilot leveled off at about 50 feet, put the gear down, and landed about 400 feet farther down the runway.  That saved a WWII war bird from the junk pile.


People often talk about the many thousands of lives we have kept safe over a career of air traffic.  It rarely occurs to me while working how many people are on those airplanes that I am directing.  It is certainly more serious than a video game, but way less serious than what I imagine a doctor would feel in the ER.  There isn’t blood spurting everywhere that I have to personally stop with a clamp on the correct artery, for instance.  I do, however, remember the pit in my stomach from situations gone wrong.  The beginnings of the pit when the Cessna departed runway 19L to turn west and the T-38 off runway 19R was catching him. To the Cessna – “don’t climb anymore and level off on your current heading; A T-38 will pass above you from your right”. To the T-38 – “there is a Cessna off your left that will stay low so you can pass above him”.  It turned out fine, but they deserved a better plan from me.  Watching the Malibu at Oshkosh turn base to final and fall out of the sky sideways on his wing.  The fireball from the wing that broke off.  Not seeing any passengers get out of the airplane.  Later learning that they all got out, but that their faces were “full of profound fear and grief”.  Answering the phone the morning after Valentine’s Day a long time ago when the grown daughter of the C152 pilot called to find out if it was her dad on the plane. That plane had crashed the night before.  When America West said “that was close; I could see his smile”. And I had no idea what he was talking about.  Turns out a flight of two Citation tests had gotten separated, the second one saw the glint of an aircraft and turned towards it.  It wasn’t his wing man, it was a B737 on its way to Wichita.

[Author’s note added 2/17/16. to read more of my time at Oshkosh Airventure as a controller, click here: My Oshkosh Blog]

I believe that I was more often part of the solution than part of the problem.  More part of what WORKS in the federal government, rather than the type of government we all complain about.  I believe we all work towards that reality.  I believe the great majority of air traffic controllers take a fierce pride in providing “top shelf” control instructions in the safest airspace in the world.


I now have this single day of work left.  I already feel the true blessing that comes from completing a job.  I embrace the magnitude – the sheer atomic weight – of meeting, learning from, mentoring, working with, counting so many people as family in my 25 years and 7 months.   The roots of this mighty oak that is air traffic have taken hold in my bones.  And, though I will indeed make my last transmission tomorrow, I will never truly quit analyzing each airplane I see in order to discern its reason for flight.  My tribe will be in charge, and I will look skyward knowing that.


I leave you, you controllers still working, with these words:  Purpose your energy to the good of our customers.  Push yourself to a vigilant and conscientious awareness.  Stand and take notice – there will come a flight that doesn’t look right.  THAT is your opportunity to save a life.  It may only happen once.  It may be glaringly obvious – as in when an airplane actually declares an emergency because the flight crew KNOWS something is wrong.  It may sneak up on you; a student pilot wanders off its line and into the flight path of some other student pilot – and before you know it, they are at your attention’s mercy.  Be equal to the task – you must be.


I step aside in humility.  My heart is filled with grace and pride at the task, now faithfully completed.  Controllers: thank you in advance for continuing the work – I trust you.  Passengers: you may climb aboard your flight with peace – my people will guide you home.


44 thoughts on “Air Traffic – Signing Off

  1. This is as fantastic as you are. Well said and congrats on your retirement. 25 yrs and 7 mo of helping, caring and compassion for your fellow controllers and dedication to “the mission ” you should be proud of.


  2. Ken, it is with a heavy heart that I see you walk out of Wichita Approach for the last time. I know I speak for all of us who make our living in the air when I say thank you for your years of service making our lives easier and our jobs safer. We appreciate the kind words over the radio, the patience with our dumbassery, the ability to recognize conflict and steer us clear. I will always have confidence in your brothers and sisters there, but a little of that confidence is lost with your departure. God bless you and keep you in your retirement. May you find new and wonderful interests to fill your days. See you next weekend!


  3. Randy – you do me great honor with your words. Too bad we couldn’t talk through one more flight of yours. Stay well and hope your are airborne again soon.


  4. Ken, what a great departing essay on your fine career. I no longer fly, but I still remember fondly those times I overflew ICT on the way to somewhere and were able to talk to you as you kept me safe on my way. We probably broke some protocol talking about family, but didn’t seem to get in the way of you doing your job. Look forward to getting to spend more time with you in your retirement “mode”. You’ll love it.


  5. Great tribute to the profession! i shared this with my dad and brother, both retired air traffic controllers, and they enjoyed it. Congrats again Ken. 🙂


  6. Ken, It was great getting to know you and working with you at OSH.
    Enjoy retirement. I will be joining you in about 105 days.
    Randy Clark (MCI)


  7. Very nice sendoff for your peers. I had a lot of the same feelings when i retired from zau artcc almost 2 years ago. You think at the time you’re an important part, but you leave, and life goes on. Stay busy, take some classes, have fun. Congratulations.


  8. Very well said Ken. We have been so blessed to be a small part of a profession we truly love. “When you do what you love, you never work a day in your life”. Enjoy Retirement.

    Mark Schad
    ICT ATC 1987-1990


  9. From a controller in Australia at the beginning of his career, what fine words for our profession 🙂 I already love my job and do the best I can, but you have inspired me to be even better, to be the best I can be every time I plug in 🙂


  10. Anthony – thank you! For your thoughts and your great attitude. THAT is why air travel works so well; cuz we all care. Best wishes for your long and successful career.


  11. Thanks Ken for this inspiring description of our job.
    Thanks again for 25 years of keeping the skies safe!
    I’ll strive to uphold your legacy in far away skies of Italy.

    Enjoy your retirement!


  12. Best of luck. You will love retirement. Well written. I spent 35 years with FAA. My son is now a controller and loves it. I try to remind him how important the job is. I will show him your letter.


  13. Well said! Even though I didn’t work as long as you, I enjoed the work very much and the controllers I worked with. Enjoy your retirement!!


  14. Congratulations. You sound as though you have done yourself and your profession proudly. Is Steve Swanson still around there?


  15. Nicely done, Ken– you put into words many things I couldn’t when reflecting on my 25-year controller career. Almost all of my time was at ORD, but the best stories will always be those from the nine years I worked OSH. Oh, and that one time I got to work Sun n’ Fun as well– I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time when the exchange program started, so was the first controller from the OSH team to be awarded a guest slot on the SnF controller roster as well. Fun times.

    A word of advice: get involved with a regional fly-in or two in whatever area you retire– your experience will be invaluable there. You’ll find that folks from the local towers think “hey, we can work busy traffic, this fly-in will be a piece of cake, just do what we always do”– but they don’t know what they don’t know, and things can get ugly pretty damn fast. Volunteer to liaison between the fly-in folks and the FAA, show ’em how to design and implement OSH-type procedures for their events. It can be a delicate dance to get it done without stepping on too many FAA toes– but worth it when you see that last year’s near disastrous air traffic mish-mash has turned into this year’s aerial ballet.


  16. Thanks, Denny. I’m intrigued by your ideas about the fly-in liaison. I’ll check it out.


  17. Extremely well said, and when people tell me of their job being forgotten about, I point out what you guys do in a dark room 24-7. And may I add, I’ve ridden with a few pilots who focus on their fancy panel and leave the driving to you. You guys are Giant Heroes. Thank you for saving lives every day!


  18. Thank you, Chuck – I loved my years in the dark room. That’s funny about the pilots! Have a great day and thanks for reading.


  19. A friend of mine on Facebook shared your post with me. I would hope she saw a bit of me in what you wrote. I suspect so. A few years ago I had to give it up after 25 years due to that annual trip to the flight surgeon. Not a day goes by I don’t miss it though. Thought I’d share a little thing I wrote back in 2001 when I worked at little Bay Area airport in its heyday during the Silicon Valley boom. My “spiritual” thing as you called it in your OSH blog was the simple smell of fresh brewing coffee as the first rumbles of engines turning-up began to fill the air. Anyway, here’s my little blurb:

    Note: Although this was originally written for VFR tower control much of it applies to all the ATC options.

    After a particularly busy session one day a trainee asked me, “How do I do it, you make it look so easy?” This was my answer:

    Being a controller comes down to those Nike commercials you’ve seen on TV… “Just Do It.” Simply put, you have no choice. The aircraft will keep coming whether or not it’s convenient for you at the time. As such, you need to make a conscious effort to foster those skills that are required for the job. You must learn to multitask. Whether that be writing and talking simultaneously, listening to two or three things at the same time, scanning the runway while thinking of your next move(s), observing what the other controller’s doing and how it fits into your (or their) overall plan, etc. Develop good habits in your strip, pad and board marking, in your scan pattern (pad/board, runway[s], scope, sky), in your basic phraseology and standard procedures. Listen actively. If someone reads something back wrong it is your job to catch it. If another controller misses something and you see it or hear it, it is your job to correct it. Control your frequencies. Talk to whom “you” need to talk to when you need to talk to them. You don’t need to answer each call as they happen. Prioritize. Work from the runway out; without the runway you’ve got squat. Learn your cutoffs, and then learn your outs…your safety valves, so to speak.

    We all know that somewhat unjustified phrase “typical civil servant” and the negative connotation it brings forth in our minds. Never work from that angle while controlling. Never say to yourself, “Ah, its good enough, it’s all the same.” Working that way is nothing but laziness, pure and simple. And, it will generally bite you in the backside somewhere down the line. Never be an “Air Traffic Reactor.” You are an “Air Traffic Controller” – control – being the operative word. However, don’t over-control. Doing that is just as bad as not controlling enough. Always lay as much responsibility on the pilot as possible under the individual circumstance; take into account: wind, visibility, sky coverage, weather phenomena, speeds, aircraft performance, altitudes, pilot’s voice, etc. Think of these things as “tools”…because they are! Make your decisions and go with them, if they need changing along the line…do it, and do it then. ATC is a fluid game in practice, not highly rigid and inflexible. The decisions you make must always be the “best” for the overall picture. That is a learned skill that will come with time. As you gain experience, you will be able to see what needs to be done further out.

    Though you may quietly have fear within you initially (as a developmental and as a newly rated controller) that will subside in time. NEVER transmit that fear over the radio to the pilots…they can smell it from a hundred miles away. They will begin to question you and your airspace will go sideways in a hurry. Never get angry, if you do, you will become fixated on that particular pilot and your pattern will suffer. Don’t forget the phrase “Remain outside delta airspace and standby.” Use it only as a last resort however. Try and avoid using “360’s” as a way of building space as generally the problem will come right back at you in 359.5 degrees, try suggested headings, 270’s to base/final, pointing the aircraft to a landmark, or to a point, etc. Always try and keep things flowing toward the airport. Use mind trip switches, i.e.: “report 3 miles,” “report xxx.” And then make an effort to call them before they call you. Understand you cannot make a pilot see another aircraft. It is ludicrous to play the “I’m not gonna clear you until you report him in sight” game. Sequence him and clear him…period. Then make sure it works. After a while those things that used to spin you around will become second nature and you will know what to do…because you’ve seen it a hundred times before. Learn from your mistakes and make mental notes to not do “that” again. SIT-DOWN, don’t stand up unless you absolutely need to. If there’s no chair then stand in one place… do not pace. Pacing only makes you “feel” busier than you usually are…it also wears out the carpet. If you “feel” something’s not right, it probably isn’t. Listen to that little voice inside your head…it’s trying to tell you something. Develop those gut feelings, for example, a pilot tells you he has the guy he’s supposed to follow in sight and your gut tells you “He’s seeing the wrong guy,” you’re probably right.

    Know the 7110.65 and the AIM…know the exceptions. Know your local procedures and LOA’s cold. Know your approaches. Know your type aircraft and wake turbulence. Know your approach categories and how that fits in with the minimums. Learn and know those things that “seem” like just stuff that you memorize to pass the tests. Know the Departure Procedures and arrival routes/approaches for nearby airports and realize how those things affect “your” facility, and how your facility affects theirs. I strongly recommend getting a flight simulator (Microsoft) and “fly” them, fly the airways, know what headings get you from your airport to airport XYZ. Go flying as much as possible with local pilots. Not only does it build rapport but you’ll also learn volumes. Know your airspace from the pilot’s point of view. Observe from inside the cockpit what they are doing, and when. Understand their procedures and priorities. Know more than your fellow controllers; know more than the pilots. Know the minutiae. What does a Centurion and a Cardinal have in common…? (No wing struts, except for the original Centurion). What does a Cardinal and a Cherokee have in common? (Stabilator). What does a Cherokee and an Ercoupe have in common? (Designed by the same guy). Why is a Citabria called that…? (Spell it backwards…). And so on. Little tidbits like these may seem way beyond the pale, but these little extra bits of knowledge combined with a solid foundation are what make an average controller an excellent one. It’s your choice what type of controller you want to be. It’s in your hands…and so are the pilots and passengers. Good luck.

    Stacy Clark


  20. Stacy – that’s some good writing! Maybe you ought to consider a career in writing. Thanks for reading; I appreciate it. And thanks for your service, from a fellow controller. Keep enjoying retirement!


  21. Oops, forgot to mention in War & Peace above “Thanks for the great post” and do take the advise of those that recommend staying busy. That’s the key.

    Good luck.

    Liked by 1 person

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