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I always loved watching (and listening to) airplanes. It would not be unusual, even today, for me to stop near an airport, large or small, and just watch airplanes doing their thing. At many airports there is a watching area where people can park and watch airplanes land and take off. On Runway Nine Left at Ft. Lauderdale they even have the local control frequency piped to a speaker in the parking area so you can hear the controller and the airplanes.
When I was on a FAM trip (familiarization trip—sadly a distant memory for controllers since 9/11) I would always stay in the cockpit even if offered a chance to sit in back (first class), because I loved watching and listening. As a controller, I could hear what was going on and develop a bit of the picture of the airspace we were transiting. As arrogant and cocky as I was, I could also imagine things I would have done better or more expeditiously than the controller actually working the traffic (let’s keep that peccadillo our little secret, okay?). In any event, it also represented a long held urge to plug in and work the rush myself.
In 1995 my brother was diagnosed with cancer and I made seven trips to Hollywood that year in order to spend some time with him (and to help my mother deal with my father, who had Alzheimer’s—a role filled by my brother prior to his incapacitation). Early on we could get out together, but later, particularly after surgery, he was essentially bedridden.
I did get away for the odd field trip every now and again, however, and one day I was sitting on South Beach analyzing the current state of beach fashion and, since they were landing West at MIA, watching the early afternoon inbound rush of transatlantic heavies (B747s, B767s, Airbuses, L1011s, etc.) from Europe as they were being turned on to final just east of the beach.
For the first time ever, I didn’t feel compelled to hypothesize my superior handling of the rush, and it struck me that if I never keyed a mike again it wouldn’t bother me. I’d never had that feeling before. Although work might have occasionally represented a somewhat inconvenient interruption to some activity in which I was engaged, or if there was some personnel conflict going on at work which was unpleasant, or lord knows there might have been some labor unrest in which I was involved, when it came time to work airplanes, you couldn’t pry me away with C4. Given the option of work or watch, I always wanted to plug in and work the radar.
But here I was, after 27 years in the trenches, realizing that I’d seen it all and done it all, certainly more than most (I had been radar certified on about 40 positions—most controllers had six or seven), and there weren’t any ATC worlds for me to conquer any longer. The prospect of retirement was now okay with me. It took nearly three more years before I could get all my ducks lined up to actually pull the trigger, but at least I knew I wasn’t going to miss it. That was a big help. A sad epilogue is my brother didn’t get to see me do it. He passed away quietly that summer. I was by his side.
Last updated: 14 April 2009