ATC Wasnt All Fun, Just Mostly


In the late 1970s I began my checkered ATC career at Oakland Center, which I was disappointed to learn was not located at Oakland, California, or even at an airport but, instead, in not-so-nearby Fremont. The next letdown was the facility itself, which resembled a federal penitentiary, complete with barbed wire and security guards to make sure no one tried to break in. I spent two years breaking out.

Air traffic control (ATC) came in two flavors: Tower and Center. Space Force Cadets will likely have choices beyond imagination. Flight Service is not ATC, any more than drone pilots are real pilots (Click here to Harrumph!). Centers own the air we breathe and delegate fiefdoms to towers and approach control facilities. It’s like Amazon only lower-tech, although, when ATC is privatized Center Prime customers will receive their first five “radar contacts” free. Centers control thousands of aircraft per day and back in the leisure-suit days produced more cigarette smoke than all the high school boys’ rooms in New Jersey. When reporting on my first day I was issued a headset and two cartons of Marlboros.

But it wasn’t the unhealthy environment that soured me on the Centered life. It was the lack of windows. Except in the administrative rooms, there were none, so I transferred to the control tower at Reid-Hillview Airport (RHV) in San Jose, California, a half-dozen miles southeast of San Jose’s beefier municipal, now international, airport (SJC).

Both airports had parallel runways: 12/30 Right and Left (today 13/31 R&L). RHV’s runways were 3100-footers, while Muni’s were considerably longer to handle the jet traffic that periodically tried to line up on our stubby parallels, necessitating a shout across the hotline, “Hey, Muni, tell your Triple-Seven (Boeing 727) to go around; he’s about to eat a Funk!” That wasn’t an ATC invective but, instead, a 1940s two-seat airplane, and possibly the most uncomfortable airplane I’ve ever flown. Oddly, it never caught on. Maybe the unmarketable name said it all. Actually, it said more when a tongue-tied controller fumbled on frequency, eliciting confused pilot responses: “Say again, Tower? You want me to follow a what!? Well, same to you!”

Working air traffic in a VFR control tower created the illusion of control. The airplanes didn’t always go where we wanted, leaving us providing mere play-by-play: “… and looks as though Cessna 61Q is following a Bonanza on downwind … ah … or not …. Oh, I see the Bonanza’s making a three-sixty …. And, look! There’s a biplane just entered the pattern without calling. Hey, biplane, rock your wings if you can hear me …” Not that any of it mattered; they were going to land with or without government interference.

Working air traffic at RHV was a giggle. Imagine sitting in an air-conditioned skybox and being paid to watch airplanes. There was little IFR traffic but countless radio failures, making pilots and controllers experts at light-gun signals. You know, those red, white and green combos memorized for exams and then forgotten. There was one flight school that rented out 1940s Taylorcrafts with portable 90-channel radios capable of transmitting all the way from the FBO ramp to the tower … sometimes. When taxing out sans radio, aircraft would hold short of the parallel taxiway and wiggle their ailerons like a first-grader trying get teacher’s permission to go pee. We’d shoot a flashing green and hope the pilot went to the proper runway. When ready to depart the student would wiggle the controls, again, until tower shot a solid green, and, then, it was anyone’s guess what they’d do.

An eight-hour shift in the tower blew by like a day at Disneyland—fantasy that couldn’t last. The pay was good, but after a year I succumbed to the Siren’s call to a bigger paycheck in a tower with an approach control facility—Monterey Peninsula Airport (MRY), a subsidiary of Pebble Beach Golf and Yachting Club. Or, at least, that’s how it felt.

Having abandoned Funks, I walked five flights up to a glitzy world of Lears, Hawkers and a postcard ocean view over Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. MRY was awash in celebrities, which would’ve made for uncomfortable headlines if we’d run a pair of them together at 400 knots, so the FAA made certain the tower had radar service … on a budget. Approach consisted of two BRITE scopes wedged like a washer and dryer between the coffee pot and ground control inside the tower cab, making it a TRACAB, which sounds like an Uber rival. Your TRACAB is 4 minutes away ….

MRY was an enigma wrapped in an ARSA, the equivalent of modern-day Class C airspace. Traffic complexity was low. A few Army copters from neighboring Fort Ord helped liven the otherwise sedate run of jets and smaller GA pistons. Instrument approaches arrived from over the bay and usually landed straight-in, while departures mostly launched seaward to avoid the mountains to the east.

During the annual Monterey Jazz Festival, held in the fairgrounds beyond the runway’s end, the organizers persuaded us to turn departures early to avoid interrupting Etta James. In exchange, free tickets appeared in the tower’s mailbox. Shocking, I know, but it was the 1980s when ethics were still in the larval stage. Plus, they weren’t good seats.

MRY was great duty, but I transferred to Des Moines, Iowa (DSM), where air traffic became surprisingly complex, which was cool, but, somehow, much of the fun slipped out of the job. There were fewer celebrities or Funks, and we didn’t even glean comps to the Iowa State Fair. A windowless TRACON was located on the ground floor, but a couple days each week I’d work in the tower cab. Gone were the mountains and the allegory-draped Monterey Bay, but I still had windows and could look out on Iowa’s checkered landscape and watch my mistakes in real time. So, it wasn’t all bad.