Remembering ATC's Secret Weapon
When I swore the air traffic controller employment oath, I shed my civilian identity and for the rest of my FAA career was known by my operating initials. Controllers never said “Goodbye” to end a call to another controller. Instead, like a secret cult, we gave our initials. In my case, IE. Unfortunately, PB was taken, and FU was off-limits, but through a random act of administrative kindness both I and E were available, so I was henceforth, IE, as in, “Wake up, IE, it’s time for your break.” If I’d died on duty, my acrylic headstone at the FAA Cemetery in Oklahoma City would’ve read: Here lies IE, 1979-1997, a fully successful HRU (Human Resource Unit) … and the cost of the funeral deducted from my severance pay.
Despite the effort to homogenize the workforce and make us “One FAA,” controller personalities emerged with the tenacity of weeds in the runway cracks. Likely some upper management hack gleaned an award for ginning up that slogan following the 1981 PATCO strike. “One FAA” was administrative brilliance. Six letters that easily fit on a baseball cap while imparting zero substance but distracted from the real issues that led to the suicidal walkout. I trust the “One FAA” slogan is gone now but can only hope that controller initials are still used, mainly because I can’t recall names. But I do recall KK, the quintessential air traffic controller from another era.
He was six foot tall, thin and sported a flat-top buzzcut. When I met him in 1984 at the Des Moines, Iowa, TRACON (Terminal Radar Approach Control) he’d been a controller longer than some of the workforce had existed. In short-sleeve dress shirt and skinny dark tie he stood out like a Mercury 7 astronaut among the jeans and puffy hair that made the rest of the controllers resemble the boys from Animal House. There wouldn’t be any women in DSM’s full performance level (FPL) controller frat house until years later. Secretaries, sure, but there was something that kept women from reaching “journeyman” status there.
Despite the sharp-elbowed initials, KK—aka Kilo-Kilo or K-man—was friendly and possibly the most devoted air traffic controller ever. Don’t worry, this isn’t his obit. KK was a dyed-in-the-gabardine air traffic controller who never strove to be a supervisor, but he certainly frustrated a few, because he knew far more about ATC than most of them. He was devoted to the art and science of working traffic. When on a break—and we rarely worked more than five hours per day—he wouldn’t slump in front of the breakroom TV. Instead, he’d grab a 7110.65 (the ATC manual, known as the “Point Sixty-Five,” or “Seventy-one Ten” and never by its full name: “FAA Order 7110.65 Book of Unfathomable Complexity and Confusion”), which he’d already memorized, and he’d sit in a training room to re-re-read the Talmudic minutiae of what makes ATC work. More correctly, prevents it from not working.
I never saw him make a mistake, while I made plenty. When the rest of us were going down the tubes trying to cram arrivals dodging thunderstorms onto the ILS, our voices reaching higher and higher octaves of anxiety, KK would sit in non-caffeinated serenity, vectoring to the final approach course with textbook spacing and a confident tone that parted the towering CUs. His was the Charlton Heston voice you wanted to hear when all around your cockpit was flashing hell and St. Elmo’s Fire. And over the dozen years we worked together, he taught me not only much about ATC but also about flying.
There’s a long-standing argument about whether controllers who are pilots are better than non-pilot controllers. I was both pilot and controller and can say with absolute certainty: Maybe but probably not. They’re two related but distinct skills … like dentistry and water-boarding. KK wasn’t a pilot, but he thought like one and never hesitated to ask me for the flyer’s perspective. And despite his devotion to the regs, he understood the pulse of flight, the beat of breaking up a flight of A-7 fighters, cruising at 300 knots for individual ILS approaches with minimal spacing … no, exact spacing, exactly what was needed for a given scenario. He put himself in the cockpit, asking, “What does the pilot want … expect?” And delivered.
When KK ended his career at the maximum allowable age his initials should’ve been retired to the FAA’s ATC Hall Of Fame along with his pressed shirt and tie, because they’d never fit anyone else. I doubt if controllers today know of him, but everyone in aviation should. And, while I worked beside him for years, I never approached his excellence and devotion to ATC. What crumbs I gleaned I passed along to both my ATC and my flying students. Grumble all ye might about the FARs and FAA dicta, knowing them and working their unseen angles not only makes for a better pilot or controller but often irritates the tar out of FAA upper management, and that’s always worth the effort.
--IE (retired but still griping)