After years trying to convince pilots and controllers to adopt safer habits, AVweb's Don Brown is feeling beaten down and jaded. He's quite ready to retire. By chance, he recently attended two events that lifted his spirits and gave him a bit more faith in humanity and aviation, and he tells the tale in this month's 'Say Again?' column.
August 18, 2004
|About the Author ...
Don Brown worked his way through high school and college as a lineman at the Spartanburg (S.C.) Downtown Airport (SPA), graduating from the University of South Carolina (Spartanburg) in 1980. Hired by the FAA in November 1981, he graduated from the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City the following February 1982, and was certified as a Full Performance Level Controller in August 1984, at the Atlanta Air Route Traffic Control Center (ZTL). Don has spent his entire career at ZTL, earning numerous Letters of Appreciation and four Letters of Commendation, including an Outstanding Flight Assist, during his tenure. Don was also one of the initial founders of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, and was the very first general (non-officer) member. He was appointed the NATCA Facility Safety Representative for Atlanta Center in 1997 and has served in that position since. He also serves on NATCA's Southern Region Safety Committee. A full-time controller, you can find Don in front of a scope and on the frequency five days a week, just like every other controller at the Atlanta Center.
The rest of Don's "Say Again?" columns are available here.
A couple of recent events have compelled me to write this article. It's going to be a little different than my standard fare. You may need to shift into a different gear, so be forewarned.
As most of you are aware, I'm getting to be a short-timer. I've got just a little over two years left until I'm eligible to retire ... which I plan to do as soon as possible. The closer it gets (retirement, that is), the scarier it gets. But it's something I'm bound and determined to do. As you can imagine, it weighs heavily on my mind.
I spend a lot of time looking back. All the things I've done. All the people I've met. How much things have changed. How much I've changed. The old saying, "The more things change, the more the stay the same," becomes truer every day for me.
Speaking of Which ...
Which brings me to those two events I was telling you about. Back in May, folks at one of the local EAA chapters were kind enough to invite me to speak at their regular, monthly meeting. Now, before any of you get any bright ideas, I don't get to say "Yes" to many of these offers. I simply don't have much free time. Second, I'm not a very good public speaker. OK, OK, I'm a lousy public speaker. Despite these warnings and the hassle of working around my schedule, John (the local chapter VP) still invited me.
The first thing I did was to call my friend Gary and ask him to go with me. Gary is the NATCA Safety Representative for Area 3 at Atlanta Center. Yes, technically that means he works for me, but he's so good at his job that I just turn him loose. Gary is a pilot and he relates really well to the general aviation crowd. He does a lot of speaking engagements on his own.
The first thing Gary said was, "Let's fly up there." What? Me fly? Hmmm, let me think about this. Two hours in rush-hour traffic on a Friday afternoon or 30 minutes in the wild, blue yonder. After thinking on that for half a second I said "Yes."
On the Other Side
On the appointed day, I met Gary at Tara Field (4A7) and we hopped into his winged chariot (actually it's a C-182) for the short flight to Gwinnett Field (LZU.) The first thing I noticed is that Tara Field has grown. A lot. It's funny -- the airport is right across the highway from where I work every day, but I just never get over there. The second thing I noticed is that not much has changed. The airplanes (for the most part) are still the same old airplanes I remembered from my ramp rat days some, uh, 20+ years ago.
After the familiar seat-sliding, door-slamming, dial-twisting routine, we were off and running. Gary called up Atlanta Approach and we got our clearance to Gwinnett. "Radar contact, fly heading ..." And there we stayed. That was the first thing about the trip that surprised me. I know Approach Controllers live and die by radar vectors, but it still surprised me. It probably doesn't surprise any of you, but we stayed on a radar vector from the time we took off until we joined the localizer at Lawrenceville, about 50 miles later. Interesting. I can't remember the last time I had anybody on a vector for that long. It just goes to show you the different perspectives out there.
Anyway, we soon leveled off at 5,000 and I quickly grew tired of searching for traffic. It always amazes me I never see another airplane. While I busied myself with sitting on my hands and keeping my feet flat on the floor, Gary tinkered around with the GPS. We both (of course) are listening to the radio. It's interesting the mental gear-shifting that involves. I never could catch our callsign.
Approach didn't sound particularly busy. I would have loved to have been able to see the controller's scope at the same time so I would know if he was busy or not. You just never know. I did get to hear a couple of things that I have tried to point out in the past. One business jet checked on, inbound to Gwinnett. Despite a few vectors and altitude changes, that was the last time he used his callsign. A King Air tried to take a heading assignment of 180 and turn it into an altitude assignment of flight level 180. Fortunately the controller was paying attention and caught it instantly.
We landed, met our host and went across the street for dinner. I forgot to tell our host that we'd be paying for our own and John looked offended that I wouldn't let him pick up the bill when it came. Just another joy of being a Federal employee. I don't know if it is legal to let someone buy us dinner or not and I wasn't going to call a lawyer to find out for sure. I figure it's better to be safe than sorry.
Towards sunset I found myself on the ramp and just gazing around the flight line. I'd forgotten how much I enjoyed this time of day at an airport. Most of the flying is over and there's usually a cool breeze blowing in the quiet, softening light. It wasn't a particularly beautiful sunset but it was good enough to remind me of the ones that were. I really miss hanging out at the airport.
Q and A
When it came time for my presentation I stumbled through it as fast as I could so that we could get to the question and answer period. I like questions and answers just as much as I hate giving a speech. Don't ask me -- I haven't figured it out either.
Sure enough, the third question was airspace specific so I dragged Gary up on stage to answer it. That was the other reason I invited him along. He works the airspace on the northeast side of Atlanta, where Lawrenceville is located. He stayed up there with me for the rest of the time. Gary and I don't see eye to eye on every situation and I think it's good that pilots get that perspective.
We kept waiting for somebody to grab the hook and pull us off stage but no one did. Finally, near 11 p.m., the general consensus that it was getting late prevailed, and we started making our way towards the door. It took at least another 30 minutes to shake all the offered hands but we finally made it to the airplane for the flight back home. I had a great time. I know Gary did too. That's the other thing I miss about airports. Pilots are usually a great group to hang out with. These folks were no exception and I want to say thanks for having us. I hope they enjoyed it as much as we did.
In the Dark
On the trip back, Gary decided to go VFR. The tower had already closed, so once we got airborne he called Atlanta Approach again and requested VFR advisories back to Tara Field. Boy, what a difference a few hours make. The guy at Atlanta Approach was getting pounded. It sounded like he had all the airspace that Approach owns. I heard the PDK (Dekalb-Peachtree)traffic, north departures from ATL, the international arrivals from the Pacific to ATL and who knows what else.
Gary knows the frequencies that Atlanta Approach uses, so he dialed in two of them just so I could try to keep up. I'm thinking the controller probably just showed up for the midnight shift. I bet he didn't even have time to cinch up his saddle before the rodeo started. Been there, done that.
It took us about three tries to get through all the frequency congestion just to terminate flight following. We shot the GPS approach into the black hole around 4A7, buttoned up the airplane and drove home. It was a long day but a good day. It was nice to have one.
Flyin' and Drivin'
The second event of this story was just last week. I don't know if you can count a whole week as an event but that's my story and I'm sticking to it. This week was my summer "vacation." Last weekend, I drove the wife and kids up to Long Island and flew back on Monday to work the rest of the week. I waited until after the morning rush hour on the next Monday -- my first day of vacation -- and drove to ATL to fly back up to ISP (Long Island/Islip.)
I got in line with the rest of the herd going through security, emptied my pockets, took off my boots and hoofed it through the security chute. Moo. Has anyone else noticed the lack of business suits flying commercial? Gee, I wonder why. There might not have been any suits but the flight was full, just like every other flight this week.
The family and I made a quick drive back to Atlanta and I spent Wednesday resting up for the rest of the week. I was going to "the show," and I figured I'd better rest while I had the chance. By lunchtime on Thursday, I was back at ATL for the flight to MKE (Milwaukee, Wis.) After they sorted out the overbooking and changed a tire, we were off on another endurance test of sitting small. Just once, I'd love to get the guy that designed airline seating trapped in the center seat between me Bubba Joe.
Oh well. Baggage, rental car, map, wrong turn, two hours and there it was: Oshkosh. All I can say is "Wow!" I haven't seen that many tents since the rock festivals in the '70s. And airplanes. Acres and acres of airplanes. Does the whole world fly up there?
Evidently, yes, they do. It was my first time to Oshkosh. You just can't believe it until you see it. I drove to the hotel, checked in, and hooked up with my NATCA buddies. As soon as I met them in the lobby and saw the looks on their faces, I started getting "the magic." They sure had some silly smiles for a bunch of old war horses. They're all safety reps: Wes from MCO (Orlando), Scott from ZFW (Dallas/Fort Worth Center) and John from AFA (Fairbanks, Alaska.) We, along with some other folks, were going to staff the NATCA exhibit tent at Oshkosh. They've all been to Oshkosh before, so I'm the rookie. I arrived too late for the show that day so we had dinner and turned in early.
Next day started off overcast and we all met for breakfast before riding over to the airport. I expected the world's biggest traffic jam but in only a few minutes we were parked and walking into aviation's Disneyland. That was the first incident in what would become a reoccurring theme. The folks at the EAA have got it together. Everything was well laid out and ran smooth as silk. Despite thousands and thousands of people there wasn't even any trash on the ground. Not only is the EAA to be commended for doing such a fine job but it says a lot about the individuals that make up the crowd.
We made it to NATCA's tent and dropped off our stuff. I wasn't not on duty until 11 a.m., so I took the opportunity to roam around a little. I dropped by the AVweb booth to say hello and wandered around some more. It took about 10 minutes to figure out I'll never be able to see it all. I think I could come back for years and never see it all. I tried to describe it to my wife and the only thing I could come up with was a 10-ring circus. Everywhere I looked there was something going on. I strolled past the Beech exhibit, walked by the C-5, passed through the FAA's hangar, watched the F-15s wake up the late sleepers, and made it back to NATCA's tent.
That's when "old home week" started. The first guy to drop by was my friend Chuck from GFK (Grand Forks). He was wearing his "OSH Tower pink shirt" and a smile a mile wide. He was just the first of many "pink shirts" to drop in and say hello. Every single one of them had that sparkle in their eyes. You could just tell they were having the time of their lives doing what they love to do. Man, what a switch. It sure is nice hanging out with people that are happy at work.
Visitors From (Cyber)Space
Then it was you. All day long you guys kept dropping by. All of you kept thanking me for writing these articles, and that's the reason I wanted to write this particular article. I want to thank you.
I've searched for the right words all weekend but I just can't seem to find them. "Humble" and "proud" seem to contradict each other, but that's what I feel. You can't experience Oshkosh without being humbled by it all. The place is crawling with living legends. You can't help but be awed when you walk down the warbird flight line or watch them fly by. All the men who fought and died in them, all the people that lovingly maintain them still.
It's like when my friend Al dropped by to say hello. Al and I have known each other for years. He's got enough money to sit in the shade under the wing of his airplane and sip mint juleps while watching the show, if that was what he was inclined to do. Instead, he's got an orange vest on and is carrying a couple of signal wands. He's been out marshaling airplanes all day while working on his sunburn. And he's showing the next generation the ropes while he's at it.
On the way down to the warbird flight line, I walked through a few acres of experimentals. The ingenuity and imagination just blows me away. To tell the truth, some of this stuff just looked plain nutty. But then it hits you that they don't look any crazier than SpaceShipOne. I bet Burt Rutan has been called crazy more than once in his lifetime. Oh, and he was there too, by the way.
I don't know how to sum all this up. All I know is that I haven't felt this good about what I do in a long time and I wanted to say thanks before "the magic" wears off. I know I'll go back to work at ZTL Monday and all the problems I left behind for a few days will still be there. And probably many more.
But for today -- for this month's column -- I wanted to say thanks. I really am humbled to be in the company of so many who have contributed so much. I know that my contributions will never come close to the magnitude that is so evident at Oshkosh. But I'm proud to be a small part of it all and incredibly grateful that you've allowed me to have a career in such a great industry.
Facility Safety Representative
National Air Traffic Controllers Association