The Big Sky Theory

My Story of ATC for Decades



Back Home at Chicago ARTCC

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Things moved pretty quickly once I got to the center (further references to the center in Aurora will be to “Chicago” now that I’m shed of ORD). For one thing, since all the center buildings are very similar in size, shape, and layout, walking around one was much like walking around another. It was definitely familiar territory. The orientation (learning the map) upstairs was positively a breeze compared to Flight Data School (for one thing, they now had dot maps). Because they had me programmed to go to West High, I was told I didn’t need to know the East side info as thoroughly as the West. I have no recollection now, but I don’t believe I spent more than a week before going downstairs to train.

Talk about familiar—same PVDs (plan view display—radar scopes), same beacon selectors (although Chicago had the so-called Tasker modification, which I may explain later—there’s a lot of minutae involved in ATC), same frequency control boxes (labeled “Property of the Civil Aeronautics Administration”—the predecessor to the FAA—which came into being in 1958), same strip bays, same strip holders and strips, same shrimp boats—sort of. In Jacksonville we put the callsign and the altitude on the shrimp boat. In Chicago, the shrimp boats were smaller and we only wrote the callsign on them. Hmmm, I was going to have to make some adjustments.

I was surprised to see that there were no sector boundaries on the maps on the radar. I was also surprised to see a lot of “coordinators” (controllers or supervisors with a headset plugged into a console hanging overhead the aisles). I could probably count on two hands all the times I saw a coordinator plugged in in Jacksonville—in Chicago they staffed two per area roughly twelve hours a day. On each aisle there was an overhanging display showing the runway configuration at ORD. Much like at the TRACON, the runway configuration had lots of implications for the surrounding operations.

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It didn’t take me long to get my confidence back. I certified pretty quickly on BDFIOW, and DBQ, as well as one of the two common sectors JOT (but not GRB) shared with East High (plans were afoot to assign JOT to West and GRB to East, which is why I didn’t train at GRB). Two things which were unusual were the size of the area the facility covered, which was quite a bit smaller than Jacksonville, and the length of the sectors on the west side which were in excess of 200 miles long in the case of IOW.

A couple of notes: The map above is is a modern representation. Back in 1973 GRB (at the head of, uh, Green Bay) was in our area, similarly to AGS no longer being in ZJX as mentioned earlier. There have been several airspace changes of varying magnitude in the system—in 1968, and through roughly 1974, there were 21 centers in the Continental U.S. They were:

ZABAlbuquerque ZTLAtlanta ZBWBoston
ZAUChicago ZOBCleveland ZDVDenver
ZFWFort Worth ZGFGreat Falls ZHUHouston
ZIDIndianapolis ZJXJacksonville ZKCKansas City
ZLALos Angeles ZMEMemphis ZMAMiami
ZMPMinneapolis ZNYNew York ZOAOakland
ZLCSalt Lake CIty ZSESeattle ZDCWashington

The FAA operated five other center-like facilities: Anchorage, Honolulu, San Juan, Guam, and Canal Zone, but they (except Anchorage) were largely involved in oceanic control or were more like a huge approach control than a traditional center. For the purposes of this discussion, they aren’t included in the above tally. NB: the facility in the Canal Zone was turned over to the Panamanians around the same time the whole American presence was reverted, sometime around 1978.

There used to be several more. I have personal awareness of four—New Orleans, St. Louis, Detroit, and Pittsburgh. A more complete and broad reaching history of ATC in the U.S. will fill in the total story. At some point—probably around the time all of the new ARTCC buildings came on line in the early ’60s—several of those centers were consolidated into the remaining. Usually they were split—parts of New Orleans going to ZJX and ZHU, for example. I knew lots of guys from each of the closed centers I mentioned.

Sometime around 1976 Great Falls was closed, too, parts of it going to ZLC and ZDV, but I believe the bulk of it went to ZMP. ZMP already had a large chunk of airspace as an area called the OMA area, which once had been in ZKC’s area until the mid ’60s, had moved to ZAU until the early ’70s, and then moved to ZMP. Several of my coworkers in ZJX were former ZKC controllers who had made the move to ZAU with the OMA area and then subsequently transferred to ZJX. When I got to ZAU in ’73, the OMA area hadn’t been gone that long, and most of my coworkers in West High had worked that area, as well, and there were still several ZKC refugees who had remained after the move.

I wanted to fill you in on that history just so I could mention that the two other guys who were upstairs with me when I came out from ORD had transferred in from ZGF. I don’t remember if the closing was already in the wind or if they just wanted to get out of Montana. One went to West High with me and the other went to East High. I’m sure we were all assigned to High because of our experience in high altitude operations in our previous facilities—ZGF being an overflight facility although with less traffic than ZJX.

As in ZJX, there was a bit of hierarchy with the areas based on complexity. In ZJX, High Altitude had much more traffic than either of the lows, and was the place to be if you wanted to work high density traffic. In ZAU, the real high density areas were the terminals—East and West. High Altitude was a step below, although very challenging because of the all the sequencing done for the Terminals, in addition to the regular overflight traffic. There were three Wing areas which, much like Low in ZJX, handled the traffic for the less dense “rural” facilities in the area. Traditionally, new hires went to the Wings to learn ATC, and then the more talented and more ambitious transferred to High or the Terminals. And by the way, that doesn’t mean you couldn’t get your butt kicked in Low or the Wings—it just happened more freuquently and more regularly in High (in ZJX) or High and the Terminals (in ZAU).

The long and the short of it was I checked out in High in about six weeks. Given the increased complexity and traffic density of the facility, that jibes well with my certification experience at ZJX and utterly restored the confidence I had lost by washing out at ORD. In fact, it was something of a shock to the ZAU folks, as it was historically taking five years to certify as an FPL there.

Oh, and FPLs didn’t pull strips at ZAU. I’d like to say I never pulled another strip, but hiring in the FAA was historically cyclical, and much like the dearth of A-sides we’d experienced in 1972, the cycle repeated in the early ’90s. Although I never pulled a strip from 1973 through my sabbatical and my stints in staff jobs, from 1990 I pulled strips after every break until I retired.





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Last updated: 04 June 2016