Saturday, March 29, 2008

So you think you want to be a controller?

For all of you who are thinking that you want to be an air traffic controller (and I know you are!), consider the following, written by a veteran controller who is counting the months until her retirement:

Put down your copy of Pushing Tin

The truth is, the job sucks -
Even for those of us who LOVE it:

We are not appreciated by those that we protect;
We save and protect more lives on a daily basis than any other profession.
The pilots don't understand - or even listen sometimes;
Everything we say is recorded, and we are responsible to back it up in a court of law should the unthinkable happen.
We are responsible for knowing more rules than humanly possible, yet
No mistakes are allowed.
We do have a God complex.
We are in control: We control everything in our environment;
It effects our personal life in ways that a non-controller (you) cannot imagine:
Your spouse will not understand you or your job;
You can't bring the job home - but you will have crash dreams;
You will control traffic in your sleep;
You cannot imagine the stress;
You can never again tolerate a read-back error at a drive thru restaurant;
Indecision is unacceptable in any scenario - especially from those you love.
You will have a lack of tolerance in communication:
You expect people to say what they mean and mean what they say.
Life is black and white (yes, it is: there is no gray).
Driving will never be the same again - you will use anticipated separation.
Controllers come in 2 varieties: the home schooler/Bible thumpers or the drunks;
Most start out as the former and end up as the latter.
There is something "not right" about all of us;
You will either look 10 yrs older than your age or 10 yrs younger than your age.
You will be on blood pressure medication (not yet - but probably).
You never get normal sleep (this sucks).
You will work in the middle of the night and holidays (Christmas, Thanksgiving, Birthdays);
You will never have "normal" days off;
You will never have a regular social life;
You can't participate in your kids school activities;
Your friends won't understand that you can't leave work or get off work.
People will think that you are the idiot on the ramp with the lights.
You will be the last person a pilot talks to; you will hear the terror in his voice;
You will never forget it -
You will relive it again and again.
You won't make the money that we do (or used to make be
fore Bush).
In our own minds, We are unbelievably hard on each other (ridiculously hard);
Thick skin is a requirement (no crying allowed):
When you fail we will laugh at you (and laugh hard we will);
When you succeed we won't acknowledge it (it's your job - so what).
If we are laughing on the radio, chances are.....we ARE laughing at you!

All of the above is true, and yet I still love the job (most of the time); after all, where else could I get paid to look out the window all day long and tell people where to go?

For job application information, go to the FAA's website:

See also the National Air Traffic Controller's Association (NATCA) website:

Monday, March 24, 2008

Verse on Command

I've often marveled at, and been somewhat envious of, various people who have a great memory of literature. There are those who can quote chapter and verse from the Bible; others can recite epic poems or entire Shakespeare soliloquies. At the moment, all the people I have in mind are actually characters in some sort of fiction or other. Captain Picard from Star Trek: The Next Generation, for instance, regularly demonstrates a wide knowledge of literature, especially Shakespeare, by quoting lines from various works. Patrick Stewart, a noted Shakespearian actor who portrays Picard, is naturally quite able to deliver Shakespeare on demand, although as it happens the one example I can think of off the top of my head occurs in the movie Star Trek: First Contact, when Picard quotes from Moby Dick. Adam Dalgliesh, the detective lead in some dozen of P. D. James' mysteries, also quotes assorted verse from time to time. As he is a published poet as well as a Chief Inspector of Scotland Yard, I guess that's to be expected. Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe is yet another who can recall all manner of verse and such; I recall one story where he recites the Declaration of Independence (I think - or was it the Preamble to the Constitution?) from memory to give Archie Goodwin the sound of his voice to follow as they walk away from a confrontation because Archie's attention is focused on watching the receding bad guys (I think this comes from The Black Mountain, but since I'm at work, where we haven't a Rex Stout reference library, I'm guessing). Of course, each of these characters is fictional, which allows their respective creators to endow them with all sorts of memory and other abilities that are perhaps slightly supernormal. Maybe in my next life I can be a fictional character too; I've got quite a wish list of personal qualities and personality traits for incorporation in my fictional self.

I do occasionally have some line of something come to mind, but quite often I'm unable to recall where it came from. The only bit of verse that I can usually remember is not from Shakespeare or U.S. history; instead it's from A.A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh:

Cottleston Cottleston Cottleston Pie,
A fly can't bird, but a bird can fly.
Ask me a riddle and I reply
Cottleston Cottleston Cottleston Pie.

Cottleston Cottleston Cottleston Pie,
Why does a chicken? I don't know why.
Ask me a riddle and I reply
Cottleston Cottleston Cottleston Pie.

Cottleston Cottleston Cottleston Pie,
A fish can't whistle and neither can I.
Ask me a riddle and I reply
Cottleston Cottleston Cottleston Pie.

To see this as it was performed by Rowlf the dog on the Muppet Show, go here:

I have occasionally made an effort to commit some verse or poem to memory, but haven't managed to make one stay there for any appreciable length of time. It was pointed out to me recently that many of the (real) people I've encountered who have poems or soliloquies memorized do so because they were required to learn them in school; at one time this was a normal part of one's education. Maybe it still is in some private schools - as a product of the public school system in Houston, Texas, I wouldn't know. Conversely, I am still able to recall most of the music I committed to memory, and a good bit of it that I didn't intend to memorize as well. So, I suppose if I had studied acting instead, I might know and recall more stuff from the stage; outright poetry, on the other hand, would have to have come from English and Literature courses. Which I took, and usually did well in, but apparently didn't actually learn anything
that I can remember in. Besides music, my memory banks are loaded with all sorts of other data of dubious value, such as model differences in all sorts of general aviation and commercial aircraft, cars, trucks, and some other mechanical contrivances as well (ask me the difference between a Clarkette, a Clarkat, and a Clarktor - I'm ready for you!) Alas, none of my friends and acquaintances at the Long Beach Shakespeare Company ( ) or anywhere else, for that matter, seem at all interested in nor impressed with this ability. Speaking of the LBSC, I recently saw their current production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, which contains the one bit of Shakespeare that I can barely retain in my sieve of a memory: Puck's closing lines from Act 5, which also end the show:

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber'd here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
if you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to 'scape the serpent's tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.

To see this as performed (well, sort of) by the Animaniacs, go here:

Here's some other verse that I wish I could recite at will:

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that, the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

-- Robert Frost

Oh Captain! My Captain!

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather'd every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up--for you the flag is flung--for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribbon'd wreaths--for you the shores a-crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head!
It is some dream that on the deck,
You've fallen cold and dead.

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,
The ship is anchor'd safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
But I with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

-- Walt Whitman

Sail forth - steer for the deep waters only,
Reckless O soul, exploring, I with thee, and thou with me,
For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared to go,
And we will risk the ship, ourselves, and all.

-- Walt Whitman

There are more - I was going to include Coleridge's The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner, but that work is longer than the entirety of this entry. So too would be the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, and the Preamble to the Constitution. Oh, and add some Robert Burns to the list as well. So, as it's my mother's birthday, I'll instead include her favorite "wish I could remember" verse:

The Jaberwocky

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

"Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!"

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought-
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

And, as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffing through the tugey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

"And hast thou slain the Jaberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!"
He chortled in his joy.

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did grye and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe

-- Lewis Carroll

Happy birthday, mom!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Shower time!

It's Monday in my world, and so I was planning to take a shower in preparation for going to work at the nation's fourth busiest control tower (shameless plug). To set up the rest if this little story, I need to mention that my current living accommodations are a tad unorthodox; while most 'normal' people have an apartment, house, or condo, I live in a motor home. For those who have a hard time picturing what I'm actually talking about, here's a picture of CV's current home sweet home:

As you might imagine, space is somewhat restricted. For instance, while the bathroom has a tub, it's not even close to a real full-size bath tub - more like a 18" x 30" shower stall that can hold water. As this particular motor home is also 20 years old, there have been various mechanical and system issues to deal with. The plumbing, for instance, has on a couple of occasions decided to leak in assorted inaccessible areas. As such, I don't keep it connected to the water and sewer full-time, preferring to be on hand whenever there's a chance of something happening. Thus, there are times when the water tank has to be refilled or the waste tanks have to be emptied. Now that the stage is set, on with the story.

After I got in the shower, I noticed that the water wasn't draining out of the mini-tub. A quick check of the drain determined that it wasn't clogged, so the gray water tank was apparently full (gray water is from the sinks/shower; black water is the toilet waste, which has its own tank). Having ascertained this, I continued my shower, letting the 'tub' slowly start to fill. So far, so good. Now let me introduce the other player in this story:

Meet Maybelle, who's been with me since my days in New Orleans. Although she's been on a diet of sorts, she still weighs at least a stone and a bit (yes, I've been reading British authors lately). She also has a fascination with running water. You see where this is going.

I'm nearing the end of my shower, with the accumulated water standing about ankle-deep, when there's a sudden draft and I realize that the bathroom door wasn't latched. This realization was quickly followed by the head of a gray and white feline appearing in the gap of the shower curtain. Before I could prevent it, said feline jumps up on the edge of the mini-tub. While most cats normally have a pretty good sense of balance, the wet one-inch lip of the mini-tub was more than she had bargained for; momentum carried her on in. Following the impressive splash, her fascination with running water was soon overcome by discovering that she was now up to her belly in the stuff. Panic ensued, with the soaked cat flailing around the shower stall in her attempt to escape; I think she did four laps. I'll let you imagine the rest, except to say that I had to take another shower to rinse off after extricating her from the tub and mopping up what seemed like an ocean of water on the floor. And I'm glad I trimmed her claws just a week or two ago. And to think I prefer cats as household companions . . .

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Goodbye from Colombo

Yesterday the world lost one of its preeminent science fiction writers. Sir Arthur C. Clarke died at the age of 90 in Sri Lanka, where he had lived for the past 50 years. While he is now probably best known as the author and screenwriter of 2001: A Space Odyssey; Clarke wrote about 100 other books, stories, and articles. I've read perhaps a quarter of those; many are now very obscure and hard to find, even with the help of Amazon. Before becoming getting established as a writer, Clarke was a radar specialist in the RAF, working on early warning defense radar, known as Chain Home. He later was involved with GCA - Ground Controlled Approach - a system which allowed a controller on the ground to 'talk' an airplane to the ground (something I also did as a controller in Louisiana). Clarke is also known for his advancement of the idea of communication satellites in geosynchronous orbits, without which today's world-wide communications would not be possible. See these references:

One interesting bit or trivia that I remember hearing about Clarke, although I don't remember where I heard it, was that he didn't drive. Once having earned his license, he never drove again. He compared his story to that of Stanley Kubric, who was terrified of flying, but managed to earn a pilot's license.

Another interesting tidbit is that
Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra, the theme from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, was hardly known before its use in the soundtrack popularized it; even today, nearly 40 years later, hearing that piece immediately invokes thoughts of the film.

While in his output in recent years has been scant, he will still be sorely missed. For the final time, we've heard "This is Arthur Clarke, saying thank you and goodbye from Colombo."

Monday, March 10, 2008

Stuff ya don't wanna see

Okay - I don't make any claim of being a highly-skilled mechanic, but even I know this ain't right. I excavated this little piece of quality workmanship from behind the instrument panel of the Baron last week. Extricating it, hell - even seeing it, required lying with my left shoulder on the floor in front of the pilot's seat, my butt on the copilot's seat, and my legs stuck out the door onto the wing, while my head was jammed against the pilot's rudder pedals - a position guaranteed to induce red-out along with a stiff neck and backaches. Unfortunately, no helpful person came along to take a photo of me in this graceful pose, so you'll just have to picture it for yourself.

The thing that really bothers me is that whoever created this work of art had to assume the same working position to install it. If you're going to go to that much trouble to do a job in the first place, why not do it correctly? It wouldn't have taken any additional time; in fact it would have been quicker to have done it right. It may not be clear in the photo, but this ugly splice had a third wire emanating from it, and the whole mess had been soldered together before being disguised with electrical tape (another thing you never want to see in an airplane - especially behind the instrument panel). Oh - and that blue wire isn't even aircraft wire; I guess they had a little left over from their last job, which was probably installing a car stereo - in a Yugo.

Stuff like this may be symptomatic of a larger problem - no pride in your work. I personally take pride in the work I do, especially the work that nobody else gets to see. And yet this lack of pride seems to be common in this country these days. As a nation, we don't seem to be taking pride in our work - or our nation. Maybe it's because we've got nothing to be proud about. We don't actually make anything anymore - it's all manufactured in China or outsourced to India. Nor are we any longer the beacon of freedom and democracy that sets the standard for the rest of the world. Our currency is quickly fading as the benchmark in global trading. Is the sun setting on the United States as a world power, as it did on the Roman Empire before us?

I don't know, but stuff like this makes me wonder.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Nose Art

Today's entry isn't so much of a commentary as it is an annotated photo essay. In days of yore, particularly during WWII, it was common for aircrews to adorn the nose of their aircraft with pictures and/or names. Here are a couple of examples: nose art.jpg

Today's military is less permissive of such artistic displays, as many were perhaps less than politically correct. The basic concept, however, does still survive and can occasionally be seen on commercial aircraft, usually to commemorate a special event or sponsorship. I've been able to catch a few from the tower:

This B757 proclaims that Delta is the official airline of the Grammy awards.

This Virgin Atlantic B747 is dubbed "Cosmic Girl".
This example is more in keeping with some of the original nose art seen in WW2.

This brand-new B777 showed up at LAX yesterday on its first revenue flight.
The left side of the nose proclaims this to be "The Delta Spirit".

To wrap this up, a variation on the theme. This Alaska B737 sports a lei on the tail to commemorate the airline's new service to Hawaii.

That's it for now -

Friday, March 7, 2008

Too close for comfort

Okay, as promised, today's entry has no discussion of the presidential campaigns. Instead, I'll talk about near midairs - as in 'near mid-air collisions'. The government, and aviation particularly, has abbreviations and acronyms for everything; we know these as "NMAC's". The definition of an NMAC is when there is a collision hazard between aircraft with a proximity of less than 500 feet. As an air traffic controller, let me be clear that this is not normal operating practice. As a rule, we aim for at least 500 feet vertical clearance between aircraft in visual conditions; most instrument operations will have 1000 feet vertical separation. That's vertical; lateral separation is measured in miles, and three miles is the normal minimum. Various factors can push that up to five miles or more.

The impetus for this discussion is a near-midair that took place earlier today, involving a couple of regional jets (another acronym: we call these "RJ's") near Pittsburgh. The news reports that I've seen state that the aircraft came within 400 feet of one another after a controller-in-training turned one toward the other. See these articles:

At this writing, that is the sum total of my info
rmation about this incident; I haven't any inside scoop to share (sorry). I can, however, give you a picture of a pair of RJ's:

The aircraft involved in today's incident were very similar to these, except that the smaller of the two was USAir, not United as seen here.

How did this happen? Not being there and not having seen/heard the replay, I don't know. I won't waste your time trying to speculate, but will mention that training was in progress. On-the-job training (OJT) is a fact of life for an air traffic controller. When you start, it takes a couple of years' worth of training before you reach journeyman status, what we refer to as 'FPL' -Full Performance Level. Actually, although we still use it everyday, that's now an obsolete term, having been supplanted by 'CPC' - Certified Professional Controller. Any time a controller moves to a new facility, the training begins again. Not because the rules are different - they're not - but because each airport is different. Just like when you move from one city to another, you have to learn new roads and travel routes. When you're not in training, there's a good chance you'll be tasked with training someone else. I've personally had trainees nearly everywhere I've ever worked, and in fact have one currently. When training is taking place, the trainee and instructor are plugged in together at the position; the instructor can see and hear everything the trainee sees and hears. Actually, quite often the instructor, by virtue of experience, can see and hear things that the trainee doesn't see or hear - yet. The instructor also has the ability to override the trainee on the radio, thus correcting things before they get out of hand. So, why did the instructor allow this to happen? Again, not having been there, I can't say. I will comment that there are times the instructor has his attention on some other situation, or is involved in sorting out some other problem while the trainee keeps working.

What 'saved' these airplanes? As mentioned in one of the referenced articles, on-board equipment warned the pilots. This system, known as "TCAS", for Traffic Collision Avoidance System, has been mandated in all airliners for about the last decade, and has also spread to many of the freight and corporate operators. The system in each aircraft is able to 'see' and track nearby aircraft, and warn the pilots if another aircraft is likely to be a hazard. In addition, the system can communicate with systems in nearby aircraft to coordinate evasive maneuvers, if necessary. When the pilots receive a Resolution Advisory ('RA'), they are to follow the system's indications.
All of this happens exclusive of air traffic control radar or instructions; that's apparently what happened today.

I've been asked by various people if the air traffic system is really as stressed as they've recently heard in the news. Simply put, the answer is yes. Is it dangerous? Sadly, on occasion, again the answer is yes. It offends my professional pride to have to admit this, but it's true. Right now, there is a big turnover taking place in the controller workforce, as many of the controllers now on the job are either eligible for retirement or soon will be. After several years of denying that there was an impending problem, the FAA is finally hiring new controllers in number. Unfortunately, they all have to be trained, a process that can take a couple of years. And not all of them make it through the training: let's face it, not just anyone can make it as an air traffic controller, despite our best efforts.

All that said, this country still has the best air traffic system in the world. Period. Virtually every plane makes it safely to its destination every day. On some days, there's nothing to report anywhere. Most of the things that do happen aren't dangerous, they're just violations of the standards that controllers are held to. These standards are there to keep planes safe, and violations are taken seriously even if nobody else notices. Unfortunately, today's incident was the exception.

I could go on, but it's midnight and I wanna go home. More later.