Chagrin And Bear It


It was a Tuesday and, while stopped at a traffic light, I watched an average man step off the curb, unaware that Karma was about strike. The light was in his favor but entering the crosswalk he froze. “That average man has a problem,” my wife of 35 years, who understands men with problems, said. But she was wrong, and I knew why.

The crosser was embarrassed. About what, the other drivers waiting at the intersection and unable to look up from texting, will never know. But I suspected this man was having a flashback, because I’ve had them, too. Not the lysergic kind—that’s a whole different thing, I’m told, triggered by the whiff of a jasmine-scented candle atop a Jefferson Airplane album. This man—I’m positive—had been struck immobile by an unshakeable humiliation from his past. Perhaps, some indiscreet phrase uttered decades ago at a funeral was returning to haunt; or the time on Jeopardy when he confused Paraguay with Uruguay, now compromised his gross motor skills. Impossible to say, but when our defenses are down a rogue memory of something inconsequential can lock up the controls.

As with this ATC memory: In 1980 I was a trainee air traffic controller at Oakland Center, working a data position in a sector that included San Francisco (SFO). It was a Tuesday when an SFO tower controller called, asking me to input a flight plan he couldn’t access. He gave the callsign, whatever it was, I can’t remember 38 years later … OK, it was Citation 900GC. Tattooed on my bruised memory.

I disconnected, noticed that N900GC was in a suspense bay (a computer bin for inactive flight plans, not a Dewey Decimal[1] category) and thought, “Easy, I’ll forward him this flight plan.” And did, proudly so.


It was SFO on the line. “Hello?” I answered. Controllers don’t actually say, “Hello,” but, instead, state their control position, such as, “Tower,” “East (Radar)” or in my case, “Two-three,” for Sector 23. The same controller, sighing, explained that the flight plan in suspense wasn’t valid, so would I, please, input a new one? “Odd,” I thought. “Must’ve got clogged in the Univac Host computer.” So, I agreed and resent the same flight plan with the same result.


“Hello. Sector Twenty-three. How may I misdirect your call?” Same voice at the other end, only now with the you-idiot tone Oliver Hardy employed whenever Stan Laurel didn’t get it, “No, no, no, (Stanley), put in a whole new flight plan!” I pictured him making typing motions with chubby fingers. “The other one, the one you keep sending me, is no good, no es bueno.”

Imagine a split-screen display here. There’s me at my data position in the smoke-choked Oakland Center, experiencing a painfully slow, “Ohhhh, so you want me to put in a whole new flight plan…!”

Cut to split-screen, where my friend, Scott—an Oakland Center controller visiting SFO tower that day—was witnessing my data breakdown. “You know this moron?” the SFO dude asked Scott, who denied any relationship, although the following day had no trouble retelling the story to an attentive Center audience in snickering detail.

No harm. No airplanes crashed. But I’ve repressed that embarrassment until recently when I was teaching a student pilot how to file VFR flight plans with AFSS. The SFO incident bubbled through my sub-conscience like an oil globule, long trapped inside a sunken freighter, now making its filthy way toward the surface to befoul my lesson plan. Blindsided, I admitted that filing a VFR flight plan to fly across Iowa made little sense, because 1) you’re not going to crash; we don’t teach crashing, and 2) if you did crash, a farmer would find you before the CAP search party could don its camos.

I drag a ponderous weight of embarrassing ATC flubs that cling like the chain on Marley’s Ghost. I forged it link-by-link in my controller life. Consider this minor link from the time I said, “Radar contact,” to a TWA DC-9, then put it on a snappy vector while adding, “… when able, direct St. Louis.” To which the captain replied, “That’d be a good heading, if we were going to St. Louis, but we’re filed for Sioux Falls.” Captains can be so smug when right. And, yeah, TWA, so long ago. Still, embarrassing.

Or the time, when working tower as a newly certified controller, I launched a King Air followed by a Lear, without first turning the King Air. Inevitably, as the Lear ran up the King Air’s butt like a surface-to-air missile, the Lear pilot asked, “Now what?” Since the Lear pilot admitted he saw the King Air, I commanded, “Maintain visual separation.” Visual separation is the ATC magic bean. With it, 10 pounds of air traffic can be stuffed into a three-pound bag. Without separation the controller incurs a “deal.”

A deal is a big thing. It’s slang for when a controller loses approved separation and enters the nether world of shame and decertification. In a long career it’s rare for a controller not to have, or be peripherally involved in, a deal. Rarely are deals lethal, most are merely embarrassing, because fail-safes delay the controller from totally balling things up.

I can’t speak for other air traffic controllers, but I didn’t think about the souls on board those aircraft represented by radar slashes on the scope. To me, the objective was to move the targets without screwing up. The more experience I gained, the less I worried about failure. Any deviation, though, held the potential of professional disgrace, a potent motivator. Even if no one said anything about your poor vectoring technique or boneheaded sequence choices, you knew the whole radar room was thinking, “That was lame.”

Early in my ATC career I had my only deal, but it was a stinker. I was working alone at my scope in perfect harmony with the air traffic universe. On this ordinary day, a Tuesday, I had an IFR Cessna 182, in the clouds at 3000 feet MSL (2000 feet AGL) and on a radar vector to an ILS final approach course. The assigned heading, I estimated, would clear a pair of 2000-foot (3000 feet MSL) TV towers located south of the Skylane’s projected track. A seasoned controller would’ve known to keep the arrival at 4000 feet MSL (3000 AGL) until clearing the 2000-foot pikes. But I had a young man’s confidence in my vectoring skills. That bravado evaporated as I turned my attention to handle a Navy P-3 and missed the Cessna’s track drifting south, until the pilot noticed obstacle beacons flash past his windows and questioned the anatomical location of my headset.

No one died, but I’d had a big deal that had to be dealt with. I was removed from position, which is far worse than the manager asking for the ball. An investigation revealed what I already knew: I’d screwed up and damn near killed a pilot, making this the first time I considered the human cargo. The professional humiliation was crushing, but the ordeal honed a keen awareness of lurking calamity that accompanied me the rest of my career.

Years later, long after leaving ATC for teaching the Zen of tailwheeling on grass runways, whenever I spot an offending communications tower and feel the slimy tentacle of dormant memory wiggling into my head, I think, “How much C-4 explosives would it take to bring that sucker down?” And, then, like the average man momentarily frozen in the crosswalk from repressed personal chagrin, I dismiss those thoughts and carry on, knowing only I can hear that chain rattling in my wake.

[1] Named for Thomas E. Dewey, New York librarian who defeated Harry Truman in 1948