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.