My Best Day As A Controller


Jumper At The Buzzer

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18 December 1997. I was working BDF High. It's an inbound sector with some overflights. There's a super high above me, FL350 and up. I only had a few airplanes on, one of which was a B1 that I had just gotten from super high who was landing at SZL and I had to get him down a few flight levels for ZKC.

The sector next to me was getting hammered with a departure rush from ORD when I heard someone say that ZKC had shut the door on them. They started scrambling. About then an airplane coming to ORD from over IRK showed up on my frequency even though I hadn't gotten the handoff yet. Then another. Then another, a Delta flight, that I wasn't even expecting. About then, I heard that ZKC had lost everything; radar, computer, frequencies, landlines.

I had some exchanges with the Delta flight and found out where he was and where he was going. He wasn't even supposed to go through our area—certainly not my sector—so we didn't have a flight plan. After several exchanges, I got him identified, and got a partial flight plan from him. I started a track and then had to work on showing him to the guy at the next sector who was now taking serious gas* from all the traffic that was supposed to go into ZKC’s area and now had to be rerouted through ZMP’s airspace or held. It was also necessary to call ZMP and give them the partial flight plan, explain the situation and handoff the airplane. He never was within 150 miles of my sector.

Of course I wasn't working alone at this point; I now had a D-side and a handoff man (what we used to call a tracker in ZJX). Naturally in all of this I gave the B1 holding instructions and got my inbounds in line and down, and a zillion other things. All in all, I got hammered pretty good, but it was a lot different thanAzalea 27 years earlier.

For one thing, there was that 27 years. I was wise and smooth. Even though the youth was gone, I had seen it all, and this was just one more wrinkle—one last attempt by the Traffic Genie to eat me up. Well, I had beaten it before, and it wasn't going to get me now.

After all, I had worked inbound rushes with nearly 40 airplanes in them with shrimp boats and no altitude markings on them—oh, and with departures mixed in, too. I worked the 4 am rush (probably 25 airplanes) on the entire west side of ZAU without even using shrimp boats. We held airplanes in the ’70s for hours; eight or nine in a stack; work 'em down, fill 'em up again. So, this little thing, this was a good workout—it was even a great workout, but it was no Azalea.

The event that precipitated the whole exercise was a massive power outage at ZKC. It made the news. There is a picture somewhere of the flow control display of the U.S. with all the airplanes in the system on it. You can see the shape of ZKC’s airspace as a black hole; not an airplane in it. Look it up (I can no longer find it—although the event can be reviewedhere).

Later, the supervisor, a good friend of mine, told me that my handoff man, no good friend of mine, had reported to him that for an old guy, I did a hell of a job. Here's the best part; the next day was my last day before retirement. I went in at 0630, worked about a half dozen airplanes and was done. I've always said that retiring like that was like going out on top—like Gretzky or Jordan.

*a phrase meaning buried with traffic—it’s so common a description in our biz, I’ve had it here unexplained for months without even realizing how arcane it is. “Going down the tube(s)” is another, synonymous term.

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