Caught Between the Doors of Perception


Recent prog charts resembled a Picasso fantasy as bulging lines of barbed cold fronts swept across the contiguous United States, riding curvaceous isobars, compressed like muscles ready to unleash the Weather Channel’s doomsday chorus to the latest Bomb Cyclone:

“O’ Weather Bomb, O’ Weather Bomb

How lowly are thy millibars….”

Those who’d fly or work an ATC overnight shift would experience cancellations and delays from deteriorating conditions. But warm inside my home with emergency generator on standby, I was thankful not to be driving through arctic misery, as I frequently had in my distant life at Des Moines (technically) International Airport’s tower/TRACON. But weeks earlier, on a mild autumn day, I’d retraced that journey.

A quarter-century ago I’d last walked through the front doors as a controller, but now returned as a tourist. Back then it was routine for flight instructors to bring students inside to meet the voices at the other end of the airwaves.  These invaluable experiences were terminated with extreme prejudice on September 11, 2001. Now that visitor restrictions have loosened, I went to see what, if anything, had changed. I imagine if I visited an Army base where I’d been stationed, I’d experience a similar twinge of fuzzy nostalgia followed by relief that I’m no longer there, despite recurring dreams in which I am.

Our tour began in the approach/departure control radar room, which looked about the same—dim and cluttered, with tiny lights and screens along arced metal walls. The layout was familiar but with updated displays and better chairs. I liked what I saw, especially how ADS-B presented on radar scopes. One-handed keyboards, like what I’d used, were still at each radar position and I spotted the tubes down which flight progress strips dropped in plastic holders whenever tower (local), seventy flights above, launched a departure.

It took me awhile to notice, but gone was the tobacco stink once ubiquitous in ATC facilities, permeating controllers’ skin, lungs and clothes. Gone too were the old teletype-style printers clacking out reams of one-by-eight-inch flight progress strips that form the non-radar air traffic picture. Newer printers emit strips with understated indifference, but I was pleased to see the 1970s paper flight progress strips still in use.

They make convenient bookmarks when an insomniac pilot interrupts your reading—or writing*—on the overnight shift to request multiple instrument approaches. And it was the phantom pain of a long-ago mid-shift that reached from the crypt as I recalled an event that had scarred me decades earlier.

First, a little admin background. Any ATC facility open 24/7 requires semi-alert staff from midnight until dawn. The mid-shift was the fifth and last one of my week. My fourth watch would’ve begun earlier that morning, and after getting off duty at 2:30 PM, I returned thoroughly caffeinated but completely unrested at 11:30 PM.

On this winter mid, I could expect to work alone in the tower cab with approach/departure, tower, clearance delivery and ground control combined. Tiring, but a doable solo run until morning relief arrived. Working a few freight dog rushes, with the best pilots in the system, made late night ATC almost preferable to daytime gigs, mainly because management wasn’t there. Problem is, you really shouldn’t call in sick, because getting late-night replacements was tough, so once you passed through the front doors, leaving the perceived real world behind, you were on yer own. And, with Rod Serling narration, it was that passage that took me into another dimension.

There were and still are two metal-framed glass doors at the tower’s entrance. At 11:15, after passing through the outer one, I kept my left hand on the horizontal cross-piece to pull it shut behind me, because it tended to stick open. Without stopping, I continued toward the security keypad to input the super-secret numeric code (usually a local comm or VOR frequency) to unlock the second door. A phone hangs beside the pad to call inside in case the code had changed since the previous shift.

I held my late-night lunch (minestrone soup in Tupperware) with my right hand while my left pulled the outer door shut. While stretching a right hand finger toward the keypad, something violently yanked me backward. Tupperware (or generic equivalent) smacked the wall and ruptured as I flopped to the floor as pain jammed my left hand.

Post-incident investigation would reveal that my wedding ring had caught on the door’s horizontal bar as I pulled it behind me without slowing my forward momentum (170 pounds x 4 knots). As the door latched, my left hand should have flowed smoothly off the bar, but the ring snagged and chiseled into my finger. The incident report noted: “…controller blood and minestrone soup splattered walls and doors like Sony Corleone without exact change at a tollbooth.”

After swearing, I phoned the upstairs controller awaiting relief, telling him to expect a little overtime. My ring was embedded in the swelling flesh, and I headed to the ER, driving one-handed as I dangled my throbbing left hand out the window in the frigid air to numb the pain. Shifting gears proved challenging, and although the finger was saved the ring was not.

Weeks later, upon OSHA determination of probable cause, I was debriefed. Not kidding. Investigators concluded that the gravity of the incident warranted “remedial training (on) the proper operation of workplace equipment.” With a thinly suppressed smirk, my trainer demonstrated how to properly open and close each door. Then, after demonstrating that I’d been thoroughly retrained, I was certified to resume duty via the tower doors without supervision.

To this day I distrust the doors, don’t wear jewelry and watch prog charts for budding winter cyclone bombs. Still, I bear the scar on the ring finger as a permanent reminder of the horror … the horror … from sacrifices I’ve made to ATC. 

*Full disclosure: I wrote the first draft of my first novel on midnight shifts and, no, the FAA doesn’t get any royalties.

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  1. Paul reading your story caused me to unconsciously look at the top of my right hand where a curving scar is still quite visible. I acquired the scar courtesy of the nose baggage door of a Piper Seneca in 1991, plus or minus a year.

    The cut was bleeding quite profusely so I rushed into our office to get some first aid. The good news is George (name changed to protect the guilty) rushed to help, the bad news was George was a mechanic and figured doctoring like fixing airplanes usually only required a rag and some speed tape. With a clean-ish rag wrapped around my hand and securely fastened with shiny silver speed tape I was good to go.

    My passengers looked at me rather dubiously but their desire to get to their destination out weighed their trepidation. Things were not too bad until half way through the flight when the blood started oozing out of the edge of the rag. I used the oil rag from under the seat to keep things under control and got to my destination without embarrassing myself.

    The passengers were happy to unload their own bags as they could see they were going to get bloody finger prints on them otherwise, and I set off for home base. By the time I got back the wound had pretty much clotted so it wasn’t too bad however the line crew were not impressed at cleaning all the bloody finger prints off the airplane.

    Why didn’t you get it properly bandaged at ER one of them said. Because I would have missed 2 hours of Multi PIC, I replied. OH he said, good call !

  2. Injured left hand, picture of right hand. But I won’t say anything. I believe Neil Armstrong suffered the same sort of injury in 1978, catching his ring finger on a piece of farm equipment, but he lost the tip of his ring finger. Resourceful fellow that he was, Armstrong searched for and found his fingertip and drove himself to a hospital. Surgeons at Louisville (KY) Jewish Hospital performed a bit of miracle microsurgery and reattached the lost bit. Armstrong presumably returned to finish the work on his farm and eventually regained almost full use of his finger.

  3. Another place not to wear a ring is when you’re doing the “alert hangar toss”. The high-speed tilt-opening doors on the Air Force’s alert hangars were good for a cool looking ride if you grabbed one of the inside crossmembers and rode it out & up, releasing at just the right moment. We’ll leave it at that.

  4. A hand surgeon by trade, I highly recommend the silicone rings for anyone working around mechanical equipment. They will break before any major damage occurs.

    • And they don’t conduct electricity. A friend shorted out a car battery with his wedding ring, damned near burned his finger off!

  5. When I was a lad fresh out of college, a colleague was taking a shortcut to his car that involved vaulting the parking lot’s 5′ chain-link fencing. He did this every workday, so was quite adept at placing one hand on the crossbar and simply vaulting over. One day, a projecting wire of the fence cloth jammed itself between his wedding band and his finger and literally ripped his finger off, leaving it attached by tendon and skin. The surgeons were able to re-attach it but could not make it functional.

    I was never one for wearing jewelry, but was proud of my college ring and fully expected a wedding band to join it eventually. I stopped wearing all jewelry that day, and now in my seventies have had many, many close calls with aircraft, shop tools, and other threats of modern life, with only surface scarring. My wife knew of this when we were dating and was fine with it. To this day, I do not wear anything attached to my body that is not safety-related.

    • Me too, Chip. I’m still in love with my bride after 50 years, but my wedding ring has spent most of that time on top of my cheat of drawers. I’ve always worked on cars, airplanes, and anything else that needed fixing; and so I never got used to wearing rings. I am old school though and still wear a Timex on my left wrist. A little story about those Timex’s. I was flying one night in a Hawker bizjet and my co-captain was trying to set the time (from the FMS) on his expensive Rolex that a Sheik had given him when he was flying in the middle east. He was holding his wrist down near the panel so that the glow of the instruments would illuminate the face of his watch. I told him if he would buy a $40 Timex with Indiglo like mine he could see the face of the watch in the dimly lighted cockpit.

  6. Paying my way thru flight training and college as a mechanic, I was using individual 14”-long feeler-gauges to adjust rocker-arms on a car… While holding the feeler gauge in my left hand I would press the remote-starter switch with my right to rotate the engine to the next valve position to be adjusted. I absent-mindedly laid my left hand (clasping the feelers) down onto the batter….and the long feeler bridged across the open battery terminals…. and immediately became incandescent.
    My left palm still shows evidence of that event 52 years later.

  7. Two thoughts. First: I most certainly remember these visits at KAGC (Allegheny County, Pittsburgh, PA) “Back then it was routine for flight instructors to bring students inside to meet the voices at the other end of the airwaves. These invaluable experiences…” The folks behind the counter provided friendly, insightful information (in my case probably lifesaving) before my flights. Second thought: Had not thought about the ring issue for years. When I had a need to wear a ring I always seemed to get it caught on something, causing bleeding and pain. Thank you for reminding me of those moments! (Not.)

  8. IN A&P school, they showed us all some very “effective” photos of what happens when your ring stops moving with you at the same speed you are travelling…

  9. Wedding ring incident is why the Air Force told us to remove all rings, including wedding rings, while on duty (plus, we worked around a lot of high voltage equipment that would make gouging a nerf experience)