The Big Sky Theory

My Story of ATC for Decades


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One other skill set we developed on the A-side, which largely rendered all the rest moot—pulling strips. I mentioned the computer that was being tested when I came downstairs. Sometime, probably in 1969, we we went ORD (Operational Readiness Demonstration) and began using it full time instead of the handwritten strips. As suggested earlier, that was the death knell of Flight Data, and all of the associated resources. Sometime before I went to D school I was reduced to pulling strips from a printer and placing them in the strip holders. I hated it. Flight Data was marginally challenging and fun—pulling strips was mindless work a monkey could do. I say this now for lack of a better place to point it out, but the circumstance will have ramifications later.

I hope specific dates aren’t important in the telling of this story. I don’t remember some of them, for one thing, save my EOD (entrance on duty) of 8 April 1968. That’s sort of like an Army serial number—you never forget it. As it was, D-School started sometime around December of 1969 (note: I’ve since uncovered some documents that clarify the dates—I may update this with specifics eventually, but for now, it seems my recollection is pretty accurate and good enough for this narrative). Theoretically it might have begun even sooner, as some of my Flight Data School classmates had already started a couple of months earlier, but I suspect I was in a purgatory for a while due to unremembered offences.

ZJX area A little background about the organization of the facility. All centers cover a large geograhical area. Jacksonville laid over parts of four states (and a lot of water). I couldn’t tell you how many square miles, but look at the map and you can see it’s quite a bit. The principal difference in this map (the current configuration) and the one we drew is that ORL and TPA were not in our area (the southern boundary went across the state just below DAB and OCF) and AGS was in it. There are minor changes in the overwater parts, too, but this is substantially it.
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You’ve heard about High Altitude—that was basically the whole of the facility at FL (flight level) 240 and above (24,000 feet) and over the water down to the surface. Low Altitude was divided East and West. Low East was AGS, CAE, FLO/CRE, CHS. SAV. Low West was PNS, CEW, TLH, ABY, GNV, and AMG. The SSI and DAB sectors were common and worked by both East and West controllers. NB: if there are any old ZJX controllers reading this, I was a Low East guy…briefly. I don’t remember the West side at all, particularly the sectorization. Once I left Flight Data and the trauma of Soupy Campbell’s Harold strip, I put it out of my mind. Write me and correct me, if you want.

When we worked the A-Side, we generally worked all over—I don’t recall that we specialized East or West. I could be wrong. In any event, we all worked High from time to time. D-School, which is primarily learning how to do non-radar ATC, was taught for either Low East or Low West—there was no D-School for High. When I got selected it was for Low East. That suited me fine. Although my heart belonged to High, between the two low areas, I think I thought better of people in Low East and I certainly seemed to feel more comfortable with the area. It was to be a propitious eventuality for me. Let me explain D-School.

ATC in the ’40s and ’50s was much the same as today insofar as the fundamental tools of separation and the achievement of it was concerned. We had flight progress strips, we had generally the same separation rules, but a significant change that came about sometime late in that period was how we interacted with airplanes. In the early days there were three ways airplanes talked to center controllers and vice versa and it wasn’t directly. Clearances and position reports were relayed—either through Flight Service Stations (Radio, as they’re addressed), company (the airlines), or ARINC (Aeronautical Radio, Inc.) All had differnt structures, but all were involved, principally in our function, with communicating with us and airplanes.

For example, if an airplane wanted an altitude change, we got the request through one of those entities, and we had to issue the clearance through them, who would then relay the clearance to the aircraft. Acknowledgements and reports of compliance were similarly relayed. The time lag was significant. So was the inconvenience. Naturally, there was no radar—all separation was based on time and altitude. The one thing to be said was that a controller who operated in that system had a thorough knowledge of it. In fact, even after we got radar and radios in the early ’60s, in Jacksonville they continued to run D-School based on the same protocol—relaying clearances through Radio/company/ARINC. The foregoing applies to Air Route Traffic Control Centers. Towers had direct communications with airplanes from nearly the beginning, once we got past Archie League’s flags. And radar (or more correctly, RaDaR), which really transformed ATC will be discussed later.

That communications protocol in training seemed a little silly by the time the center had been in Hilliard with radar and radios for seven years, but the Low West guys were still going through school, doing the “buzz, buzz, ARINC” thing (as my old Chicago friend, Joe Badami used to say). The instructors for my class, however, Buddy Friedlin and Glenn (Fab) Pierce, said, “uh, uh—we have radios downstairs and talk directly to the airplanes, and that’s how we’re going to do it here.”

Although I was prepared for “buzz, buzz, ARINC” it was still a welcome relief to not have to deal with the time delay and other inconveniences while learning the trade when it would be utterly wasted once we were downstairs. Moreover, Buddy and Fab were truly interested in our welfare. “Our”—I am embarrassed that I barely remember who was in my class. The only name that comes to mind is Charlie. I can sort of picture him and I remember a couple of stories concerning him, but the rest and everyone else is gone. I can’t even say how many were in the class—probably four. I also can’t say how long the class was. My best guess would be longer than two weeks and fewer than six. However it was, Buddy and Fab made sure we got through. It wasn’t a pass/fail, do-or-die thing with them. They trained to succeed long before it became an ironic oxymoron thrown around like other corporate platitudes.

Get through it we did with little trauma, at least for me—it was in school that I first became aware of the value of all my stick time. I had literally hundreds of hours talking to airplanes, and some of the others never had—not once. In any event, though, sometime in January, probably, we went downstairs to train. The dawn of a new decade was coincidentally the dawn of major change in my life.

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Last updated: 05 December 2009