This is the last article I get to write as an air traffic controller. I retire from the FAA on December 1. No longer a controller. No longer a Federal employee. No longer a safety rep for NATCA. While I’ll admit to a certain sense of melancholy, it is far outweighed by my sense of relief and excitement. Relief that I managed to escape this profession relatively unscathed and excitement for what the future may hold.If I’m honest (and I try to be), I have to admit to being a pessimist. I usually expect something to go wrong (and it usually does). But looking back on my career, I find my pessimistic-self pleasantly disappointed. I’ve been very, very lucky. Not much has gone wrong for me personally and a lot of things have gone right. Instead of dancing all around this issue, let me get right down to it and simply say this: Thank you.
I sincerely mean it: Thank you. Controllers are public servants and you are the public. You have provided me with a good income and good benefits during this career. In the end, I’ve lived The American Dream right down to the house, two cars, two kids and even the dog. It’s been a good career and I am truly grateful. Thank you.I hope you think it has been a fair bargain. I’ve tried to do my best. I haven’t always succeeded and sometimes what I think is best doesn’t agree with what others think is best. I have always tried to keep the public’s interest first and foremost. It hasn’t always been fun and it has never been easy. Of course, controllers aren’t the kind of people that really enjoy anything that is easy.
A Look at the Past
In that this is the end of my career, I thought I’d drag you back through the highlights (and the lowlights) with me. I’ve always liked the saying, “It’s hard to know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been.” So much has changed. So much has remained the same.You still can’t talk about ATC, even 25 years later, without talking about PATCO. Little did I know that I was witnessing history when PATCO went on strike August 3, 1981. I was 22 years old and knew virtually nothing about organized labor. I just knew I’d graduated from college and there weren’t many jobs to be found. When the FAA called me with a job offer some four months later, I jumped at it.Two and a half years later I was sitting in front of a radar scope by myself. That sounds scary, even today. Of course, I was too young and stupid to be scared — at least scared for the right reasons, anyway. It wasn’t the youth, inexperience or rushed training that scared me. I was just scared of messing up. I meant it when I said I was lucky. For more than one reason.
What Kind of Control?
A recently hired controller at Atlanta Center (ZTL) wouldn’t recognize the airspace layout from back then. Charlotte Approach (CLT) only “owned” up to 10,000 feet instead of up to 14,000 like they do now. Greer Approach (GSP) only owned up to 6,000 (or maybe 8,000.) It was a real jigsaw puzzle. After the PATCO strike in 1981, the Approach Controls started expanding their horizontal airspace to the limits of their radar. After they had done that, they started moving up, altitude-wise. Pretty soon, 10,000 feet and below became the norm for Approach Control … at least in my neck of the woods, anyway.I don’t remember anyone saying so at the time, but all these airspace changes were to take airplanes off of the Center controllers. If you remember, the FAA put out some heavy-duty restrictions to deal with the PATCO strike. General aviation (of course) bore the brunt of the restrictions. So many GA aircraft started flying to pick up the slack for the curtailed airline service that the FAA established the General Aviation Reservation (GAR) plan. It lasted from October 1981 through the last day of 1983.I only mention it to show how our perspective changes. Can you imagine if someone came up with the radical idea that Approach Controls go back to just controlling approaches? And En Route Centers took back all the en route aircraft, say at 7,000 and above? I don’t think anyone would make that recommendation now (I certainly wouldn’t), but that is how this all started. There have been significant airspace changes in my career and I’m sure they’ll continue.
I learned a long time ago not to trust my memory when it comes to dates. Some people have a real knack for remembering dates. I don’t. In order to put a date to my memories I’ve relied on the FAA’s Historical Chronology 1926-1996 (2 MB Adobe PDF file).In that this is my trip down memory lane, I get to stick to the events that I remember and the ones that interest me. I encourage you to take your own trip through this book. For instance, you might be more interested in the fact that the first aircraft to navigate the Atlantic, relying entirely on GPS, took place in 1983. Me, I’m more interested in the facility consolidation plan, the development of NEXRAD and the creation of the first Airport Radar Service Area (ARSA) in that same year. It really is an interesting read, one to trigger all sorts of memories. You might want to give it a whirl sometime.1984 was the year I checked out. I became a certified controller — called a Full Performance Level (FPL) controller back in those days — fully rated on all the positions in my Area. It was also a blur. The FAA was still recovering from the strike in 1981. All I really remember were six-day weeks and a lot of 10-hour days. 1985 wasn’t much better, but to give you some historical context, it was the year that Captain John Testrake found himself in the spotlight when TWA847 was hijacked to Beirut. The event played out for two weeks on TV. A Delta L-1011 crashed in windshear at DFW and a Japan Airlines 747 crashed after a ruptured bulkhead rendered it uncontrollable. It wasn’t a good year for aviation. Or controllers.
During these years, the new controller workforce was becoming more and more disillusioned with the FAA. There were several attempts to organize air traffic controllers into a new union but they were all sputtering along. Several events came together to revitalize the effort. One of them was the mid-air collision of a Falcon 50 and a Piper Archer at Teterboro, N.J., (TEB) in 1985.The resulting press and Congressional interest started the proverbial snowball rolling downhill. I won’t bother you with all the details, but for those who are really interested, you can read about them in NATCA’s history: Against the Wind. If your local library doesn’t have it, I’m afraid you’ll have to buy it. Or you can just read an excerpt. If you do get your hands on a copy, be sure to look for my name in the Author’s Note just inside the cover. (And no, I don’t get a commission.)That brings us to 1986. I spent most of ’86 and ’87 scared. We were operating so close to the edge you could just feel it. The FAA recorded 589 Near Mid-Air Collisions (NMACs) in 1984. That rose to 758 in 1985 and then 840 in 1986. The trend peaked in 1987 with 1,058 NMACs before dropping back down to 710 in 1988. Just because the trend peaked didn’t mean we were out of the woods. You may remember my telling you about my involvement in a NMAC in 1988 in my article “Maiden and Me.”What I didn’t tell you was that the NMAC occurred just about where I told the Secretary of Transportation and the FAA Administrator it was most likely to occur — a week earlier in a meeting with NATCA. It’s hard to call that kind of guess “lucky” when you consider how many people almost got killed. I’ll just call it an educated guess.
My poor wife. She was pregnant with our first child and her crazy husband was running around poking his finger in the eyes of the powers-that-be. She never doubted me and never asked me to pull back. There’s another true saying: “Behind every successful man is a woman.”That NMAC and the resulting investigation did more to enhance my reputation (and seal my fate) than any other event. What was odd about it is that it enhanced my reputation with the FAA more so than with NATCA. Looking back on it I guess that was because NATCA was such a young organization and we lacked a good communication system. This was during the very beginning of the Internet revolution. The vast majority of our work was still done on the telephone. In any event, the FAA treated me differently from that point on. I wouldn’t call it respect — although a couple of supervisors did cheer silently — it was more like wariness.You might find that odd — that some supervisors cheer us on — but it has always been that way. Many supervisors relate to controllers much better than they do to upper management. After all, they’re just one step away from us on the food chain and they see the problems we face everyday. Besides, they were once controllers and a rising tide does lift all boats.In 1988 NATCA elected its first Executive Board and my friend Lee Riley wound up representing the Southern Region. I did a lot of work for him and between that and having two kids, the years started flying by. As every parent knows, one year they’re crawling around on the floor and in the blink of an eye, they’re on their way to college. NATCA — seemingly — grew up just as quickly.
Automation and Deregulation
In 1989 the airlines began installing TCAS and the FAA began installing AWOS. It was also the year Captain Al Hayes managed to get his crippled DC-10 to the airport in Sioux City, Iowa — United 232. DUATs came along in 1990 and Frank Lorenzo got kicked out of Eastern. In 1991 Eastern stopped flying and some of us really started wondering if deregulation was worth the cost. Pan Am quit flying by the end of the year, too.In 1992 the FAA could no longer ignore the fact that the Advanced Automation System was in deep trouble. Ditto for anybody following a Boeing 757 too closely. In 1993 David Hinson became the FAA Administrator and ordered a review of the Advanced Automation System. We also lost another aircraft to wake turbulence behind a Boeing 757.We didn’t realize it at the time but 1994 was a big year, especially for ATC. GPS and NEXRAD both came online. The FAA also contracted out 25 VFR Control Towers. Vice President Al Gore floated the idea of an Air Traffic Services Corporation — privatized ATC.And, almost mercifully, Administrator Hinson all but killed off the Advanced Automation System. I remember the day that IBM sold the program to Loral. Their stock actually went up. IBM got rid of a multibillion dollar government program and their stock went up. What a disaster.The FAA also requested that the Radio and Technical Commission take a look at the concept of “Free Flight.” Oh boy. Let me move on before I get started with that one. The FAA opened the Air Traffic Control System Command Center (a.k.a., Central Flow Control) in Herdon, Va. Like I said, 1994 was a big year in ATC.
Behind the Scenes
In 1995 the FAA finished consolidating the FSSs. I guess that was the year I said good bye to my friends at the HKY FSS (Hickory, N.C.) This is where having a bad memory irritates me. I could swear they closed up later than that but I can’t remember the year. Anyway, there’s quite a story behind getting the facility closed. I’ll have to tell you about it one day — after I retire.The Voice Switching and Control System (VSCS) was first fielded in 1995. It wasn’t real exciting and most of the aviation community couldn’t care less. It was a big deal for us, though. It replaced the old system of mechanical switches for the telephones with a computer touch screen. And to give credit where credit is due, the FAA brought it online without any major hitches.On the flip side, the FAA was still struggling to replace the last of the old IBM 9020E mainframe computers that were the backbone of the National Airspace System. The first IBM 9020 had been installed in Cleveland Center in 1967. Hopefully the next generation of controllers will never know the wear and tear our nerves suffered with these machines. When I first hired on you expected the computer to “flop” on a regular basis. It was mostly software issues. The software matured and stabilized over the years. Unfortunately the machines didn’t. They became so fragile that working on them was more likely to break them than fix them.1996 was another bad year. A ValueJet DC-9 crashed in the Everglades and TWA800 blew up off Long Island. Boeing took over McDonnell Douglas. The third deadliest aviation disaster in history occurred near New Delhi, India, when a Boeing 747 collided in mid-air with an IL-76.
Back in Safety
In 1997, with the NATCA political season over, I took on the job as Facility Safety Representative at the Atlanta Center local. I’d finally found a position in NATCA that I liked and I never looked back. Although I’d always kept my heart in the safety business, I was busy working on a lot of different things with NATCA. I was sorting through some old papers as I was cleaning out my locker and found a list of committee volunteers from the earliest days of the local. I was surprised to find my name on the safety committee. I didn’t remember it. I remember helping organize NATCA, helping to write the local constitution, running campaigns, taking pictures and a dozen other odd jobs that needed to be done. But I don’t remember volunteering for the safety committee.Anyway, it was a time of big changes. Again, I don’t remember the exact dates but at ZTL we had recently installed VSCS (Voice Switching and Control System), installed the Display System Replacement (DSR — the new radar scopes) and moved into the new control room. As I mentioned already, VSCS was a good system right from the start. I can’t say I was wild about DSR but at least it was relatively new. It was a part of the failed Advanced Automation System that the FAA had managed to salvage — hence the “relatively” qualifier. The new control room was so cramped it was ridiculous, but in that it didn’t have asbestos hanging over our heads (like the old one), we didn’t complain too much.1998 was a banner year for controllers. We negotiated a new contract and it included a pay raise. A real pay raise. After watching inflation nibble away at my paycheck for about 15 years, it was nice to get one. A lot of people accused Jane Garvey — then the FAA Administrator — of giving away the store. We, of course, didn’t see it that way. It’s too early to know but I believe history will be kind to Ms. Garvey. She was the first Administrator appointed to a five-year term and her tenure was the first time that I didn’t feel controllers were in a war with all of FAA management. It was nice while it lasted.
Not So Long
In 2001 I started writing for AVweb and the rest, as they say, is history. Without a doubt, writing for you folks has been the most rewarding experience of my career. I have learned so much in researching these articles and answering your questions. And the emails I get from all of you really are the highlights of my month.So I’ll say so long for now, but not good bye. I’ll see you next month and we’ll start a new journey. Thanks again for all your support in this career. I look forward to starting a new one.Have a safe flight.
National Air Traffic Controllers Association
Want to read more from air traffic controller Don Brown? Check out the rest of his columns.