You Dreamers Can Never Leave


When Langston Hughes invited, “Bring me all of your dreams, you dreamers,” it’s doubtful the poet’s 1932 audience carried EAA cards. The sentiment, though, applies nicely to GA. The early 1930s was a dismal time with aviation struggling against reason to keep the Roaring Twenties aloft. But persistent dreaming and a massive injection of deficit funding brought us to where we are today: a tad bewildered but still dreaming. And, occasionally those dreams get, well … weird, including my nocturnal ATC flashbacks.

I haven’t said “Cleared to land” with any authority since I left the FAA two decades ago. I’ve kept my CTO (Control Tower Operator) certificate for that moment when the approach frequency is interrupted by a panicky management voice pleading, “The controller had the fish for dinner and is incapacitated without pre-authorized sick leave, can anyone please clear these airliners packed with orphaned puppies to land?!”  And my repressed Walter Mitty leaps to unscramble the mess. Except in my dreams the mess gets muzzier.

I haven’t queried former air traffic controllers, but I’ll wager your paycheck that many’s the retired controller who slips into the land of Nod somewhere west of Laramie where I routinely find myself back in the TRACON, staring at a traffic display—what we used to call a radar scope—and wondering, “What am I doing here?” And, “What’s a TRACON?”

While TRACON sounds like a supervillain (“Hail, Lord TRACON, Controller of the Universe”), it means Terminal Radar Approach Control, an ATC facility. That alone doesn’t impart much cachet. But within the windowless lair you’ll find superheroes who keep Bombardiers from impaling passing Mooneys. With great power, however, comes gnawing memories, including my recurring nightmare of pilots stepping all over each other on the radio: “Request lower … deviating for weather … picking up moderate rime …” And I think, “What’s rime?” And, again: “What am I doing here?”

But panic doesn’t take hold—not yet—as I issue radar vectors, using only the four easy points of the compass—North, South, East … and the other one. I keep it simple, because I can’t for beans remember the localizer’s final approach course heading, the name of the FAF or the control tower’s frequency … or even the name of the tower. Am I back in Monterrey approach …? And why is that pilot still asking for lower while a pelican moonwalks across the scope in a top hat and paisley suspender?

To date I’ve not killed anyone in these somnambulant freakouts. Mostly, I fake it through the mist of forgotten procedures and hope for relief, which eventually arrives when I awake to learn that it was a dream. Harmless, but I feel embarrassed at my less than fully successful performance, even though it isn’t real. As an awake controller I rarely thought about the souls on board (SOBs) the aircraft. The Corleone credo, “It’s not personal, it’s just business,” was likely coined by an air traffic controller. And my business was to vector targets while doing my best to not screw up. In ATC 70 percent ain’t passing.

I can only recall two occasions when I worried about the human cargo onboard my radar targets. The first involved a Seneca, inside of which my friend, Wayne, was dodging thunderstorms that grew like killer mushrooms beside the localizer. Blending his Stormscope view and my take on the metastasizing radar returns, we conjured a slam-dunk intercept at the outer marker that wasn’t by the book, but the towering CUs morphing into TRWs hadn’t read the ATC manual. I only wanted my friend safely out of the clag.

The next occasion involved an acquaintance nicknamed Fearless shooting a VOR approach on a winter’s night into a non-towered airfield inside my airspace. Jets and turboprops had been reporting moderate icing, when here comes Fearless in his Cherokee, slogging through the procedure turn loading with so much ice I could barely understand his transmissions. Didn’t matter, because I lost radar contact and waited for Flight Service to call saying, “He’s on the ground.” Except he wasn’t.

The next radio call from Fearless was deathly tight and garbled: “… missed approach … more ice …” Again, the book was tossed, and I drew an imaginary final approach course line on my radar scope where none was depicted and vectored the target to intercept—no PT, no legal standing and no comment from the supe, now standing behind me. Fearless survived to fly many other IMC days, but I have no idea if he’d been as terrified as I was. Or if he ever dreams about it.

Not all dreams are stinkers. Like the one wherein the Commemorative Air Force’s pilot of everything I’ll never fly,  Doug Rozendaal, points to a P-51 and says, “Take ‘er ‘round the patch,” and before I can admit that I have no idea how to fly a Mustang, he growls, “Flies just like a Cub.” And because it’s my dream, it does.

The sky is a mirage. It doesn’t exist, but we pilots—we dreamers and aeromantics—just can’t seem to keep our tails out of what we know is pure fantasy. Our ability to take wings and engines and “wrap them in a blue-cloud cloth” goes far beyond physical transportation. It’s alchemy that lifts dreamers above “the too rough fingers of the world.”

Maybe Langston Hughes wasn’t addressing us, but we should embrace his advice and not sweat those nightmares of botched landings or busted checkrides. Instead, surrender to the wings of Morpheus as the privileged creatures we are, flying “away from the too rough fingers” of reality.

Meanwhile, here on Earth. Perhaps someone could explain why I keep dreaming that I’m back in Army basic training, in formation with a drill sergeant’s face screaming into mine as I realize I’m standing at attention in my underwear, while the rest of the company is in helmets and fatigues, and I have no idea where I left my M-16 … or why I’ve re-enlisted. And the merciless dream goblins laugh, “You never left.”

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  1. Due to the mind’s veil or security shield, dream interpretation, is necessarily symbolic and entirely personal. Only the dreamer can truly say for sure if, say, the underwear scene symbolizes a stern warning of the advent of adult diapers, you’ve moved on in consciousness from those days despite laughing guilt-goblins, or some other naked vulnerability of some sort…;-)

    Happy interpretive travels!

  2. Paul. This is spooky! I could have written every word. I was ATC for 38 years, was four years USAF, been retired from FAA for 18 years. These dreams are sooo frequent. I’ll be back in a tower I’ve never seen, runways I’ve never seen, don’t know where they are or their alignment. Don’t know the people or the frequencies, sooo confused. Sometimes back in a radar facility, maybe a center or tracon some times as big as a factory building. I don’t know the sectors or the airspace, don’t know the frequencies or the people. I’ll have an airplane and watch it just fly off and will lose it. Or will need to handoff to another sector but don’t have a clue as to the airspace or who or frequencies. The military. Yes! For some reason reenlisted. Way older than the others. Was supposed to go back in at my last rank but that didn’t happen and can’t find how to correct it. Always asking, why did I do this. And now uniform. I’m supposed to report in one. Don’t have one. Can’t find a base clothing store. And I could go on and on. I am so relieved when I wake up and find out it was only a dream…again. But so real at the time. Wow! Glad it’s not just me.

  3. “Am I back in Monterrey approach …? And why is that pilot still asking for lower while a pelican moonwalks across the scope in a top hat and paisley suspender?”

    Dr. Moran Cerf is a neuroscientist and business professor at the Kellogg School of Management and the neuroscience program at Northwestern university.

    “With the incredible strides neuroscientists are making rapidly towards decoding more and more brain functions we are beginning to uncover the underlying mechanisms that code our thinking. And with the unfolding of those we begin to improve our ability to decode not-only the realities of our awake-self, but also those of our dreaming brain. Accordingly, as we get closer and closer to understanding the essence of what dreams look like in our head, it is more likely that we will be able to understand the patterns and stories that craft them and govern them”…Dr Moran Cerf.

    Paul, do a little research on Dr. Moran Cerf…you might be surprised at what your dreams really mean. Besides, now you have contributed to my dreams. I can now “see” a pelican dressed in a top hat and paisley suspenders moonwalking across my screen. My screen, my dream…maybe, sort of…now, maybe both of ours. Thinking about all this, I am wondering if we can claim anything to be exclusively ours.

    Answers to the cosmos…on Avweb…what a hoot and who would’ve thunk it?

  4. Have the statute of limitations passed? One night, probably 1977, the lone controller in Tulsa’s Riverside Tower, not incapacitated by the fish, but still approaching incapacity due to a desperate need to “use the facilities,” pleaded for help. From high above, in my trusty 182, with CTO in pocket, I took control of the airport. I must say, my sequencing of the Baron that showed up just after the real controller abandoned his post was brilliant! (He was number two; follow the 182.)

  5. Chicago Center, retired 14 years now and I still dream that I go into work . Work however is not the same. The control room is completely different. I have no idea how to use the equipment and I can’t remember the frequencies of neighboring sectors. Even the locker room is different and I can’t find my locker, it keeps moving.

    I also dream that I am back in navy boot camp; the only 60+ year old in the company.

    • Donald P. Undamnbelievable. As I said in my post, exactly, exactly the same things, everything you said. Even Center stuff. I was ZLA many years ago. However, I was also AK at ORD Tracon from ’82 until ’90. Maybe we coordinated.

  6. hi paul,
    Lots of good memories. Usaf 1980-1990, atc aviano ab italy, sheppard afb texas, west berlin bartacc ge. faa 1990-2014. sts,mry, nct, fat (flm -supe). im at osh airventure every year for 50 yrs.
    varieze, sonex waiex, building zenith 750 cruzer.
    i prob worked with some folks you knew from mry.
    keep up writing , love the articles!
    michael r.